The Golden Compass Chapter Six
The Throwing Nets
She walked quickly away from the river, because the embankment was wide and well lit. There was a tangle of narrow streets between there and the Royal Arctic Institute, which was the only place Lyra was sure of being able to find, and into that dark maze she hurried now.
If only she knew London as well as she knew Oxford! Then she would have known which streets to avoid; or where she could scrounge some food; or, best of all, which doors to knock on and find shelter.
In that cold night, the dark alleys all around were alive with movement and secret life, and she knew none of it.
Pantalaimon became a wildcat and scanned the dark all around with his night-piercing eyes. Every so often he’d stop, bristling, and she would turn aside from the entrance she’d been about to go down. The night was full of noises: bursts of drunken laughter, two raucous voices raised in song, the clatter and whine of some badly oiled machine in a basement. Lyra walked delicately through it all, her senses magnified and mingled with Pantalaimon’s, keeping to the shadows and the narrow alleys.
From time to time she had to cross a wider, well-lit street, where the tramcars hummed and sparked under their anbaric wires. There were rules for crossing London streets, but she took no notice, and when anyone shouted, she fled.
It was a fine thing to be free again. She knew that Pantalaimon, padding on wildcat paws beside her, felt the same joy as she did to be in the open air, even if it was murky London air laden with fumes and soot and clangorous with noise. Sometime soon they’d have to think over the meaning of what they’d heard in Mrs. Coulter’s flat, but not yet. And sometime eventually they’d have to find a place to sleep.
At a crossroads near the corner of a big department store whose windows shone brilliantly over the wet pavement, there was a coffee stall: a little hut on wheels with a counter under the wooden flap that swung up like an awning. Yellow light glowed inside, and the fragrance of coffee drifted out. The white-coated owner was leaning on the counter talking to the two or three customers.
It was tempting. Lyra had been walking for an hour now, and it was cold and damp. With Pantalaimon a sparrow, she went up to the counter and reached up to gain the owner’s attention.
“Cup of coffee and a ham sandwich, please,” she said.
“You’re out late, my dear,” said a gentleman in a top hat and white silk muffler.
“Yeah,” she said, turning away from him to scan the busy intersection. A theater nearby was just emptying, and crowds milled around the lighted foyer, calling for cabs, wrapping coats around their shoulders. In the other direction was the entrance of a Chthonic Railway station, with more crowds pouring up and down the steps.
“Here you are, love,” said the coffee stall man. “Two shillings.”
“Let me pay for this,” said the man in the top hat.
Lyra thought, why not? I can run faster than him, and I might need all my money later. The top-hatted man dropped a coin on the counter and smiled down at her. His daemon was a lemur. It clung to his lapel, staring round-eyed at Lyra.
She bit into her sandwich and kept her eyes on the busy street. She had no idea where she was, because she had never seen a map of London, and she didn’t even know how big it was or how far she’d have to walk to find the country.
“What’s your name?” said the man.
“That’s a pretty name. Let me put a drop of this into your coffee…warm you up…”
He was unscrewing the top of a silver flask.
“I don’t like that,” said Lyra. “I just like coffee.”
“I bet you’ve never had brandy like this before.”
“I have. I was sick all over the place. I had a whole bottle, or nearly.”
“Just as you like,” said the man, tilting the flask into his own cup. “Where are you going, all alone like this?”
“Going to meet my father.”
“And who’s he?”
“He’s a murderer.”
“I told you, he’s a murderer. It’s his profession. He’s doing a job tonight. I got his clean clothes in here, ’cause he’s usually all covered in blood when he’s finished a job.”
“Ah! You’re joking.”
The lemur uttered a soft mewing sound and clambered slowly up behind the man’s head, to peer out at her. She drank her coffee stolidly and ate the last of her sandwich.
“Goodnight,” she said. “I can see my father coming now. He looks a bit angry.”
The top-hat man glanced around, and Lyra set off toward the theater crowd. Much as she would have liked to see the Chthonic Railway (Mrs. Coulter had said it was not really intended for people of their class), she was wary of being trapped underground; better to be out in the open, where she could run, if she had to.
On and on she walked, and the streets became darker and emptier. It was drizzling, but even if there’d been no clouds the city sky was too tainted with light to show the stars. Pantalaimon thought they were going north, but who could tell?
Endless streets of little identical brick houses, with gardens only big enough for a dustbin; great gaunt factories behind wire fences, with one anbaric light glowing bleakly high up on a wall and a night watchman snoozing by his brazier; occasionally a dismal oratory, only distinguished from a warehouse by the crucifix outside. Once she tried the door of one of these places, only to hear a groan from the bench a foot away in the darkness. She realized that the porch was full of sleeping figures, and fled.
“Where we going to sleep, Pan?” she said as they trudged down a street of closed and shuttered shops.
“A doorway somewhere.”
“Don’t want to be seen though. They’re all so open.”
“There’s a canal down there….”
He was looking down a side road to the left. Sure enough, a patch of dark glimmer showed open water, and when they cautiously went to look, they found a canal basin where a dozen or so barges were tied up at the wharves, some high in the water, some low and laden under the gallows-like cranes. A dim light shone in one window of a wooden hut, and a thread of smoke rose from the metal chimney; otherwise the only lights were high up on the wall of the warehouse or the gantry of a crane, leaving the ground in gloom. The wharves were piled with barrels of coal spirit, with stacks of great round logs, with rolls of cauchuc-covered cable.
Lyra tiptoed up to the hut and peeped in at the window. An old man was laboriously reading a picture’Story paper and smoking a pipe, with his spaniel daemon curled up asleep on the table. As she looked, the man got up and brought a blackened kettle from the iron stove and poured some hot water into a cracked mug before settling back with his paper.
“Should we ask him to let us in, Pan?” she whispered, but he was distracted; he was a bat, an owl, a wildcat again; she looked all round, catching his panic, and then saw them at the same time as he did: two men running at her, one from each side, the nearer holding a throwing net.
Pantalaimon uttered a harsh scream and launched himself as a leopard at the closer man’s daemon, a savage-looking fox, bowling her backward and tangling with the man’s legs. The man cursed and dodged aside, and Lyra darted past him toward the open spaces of the wharf. What she mustn’t do was get boxed in a corner.
Pantalaimon, an eagle now, swooped at her and cried, “Left! Left!”
She swerved that way and saw a gap between the coal-spirit barrels and the end of a corrugated iron shed, and darted for it like a bullet.
But those throwing nets!
She heard a hiss in the air, and past her cheek something lashed and sharply stung, and loathsome tarred strings whipped across her face, her arms, her hands, and tangled and held her, and she fell, snarling and tearing and struggling in vain.
But the fox daemon tore at the cat Pantalaimon, and Lyra felt the pain in her own flesh, and sobbed a great cry as he fell. One man was swiftly lashing cords around her, around her limbs, her throat, body, head, bundling her over and over on the wet ground. She was helpless, exactly like a fly being trussed by a spider. Poor hurt Pan was dragging himself toward her, with the fox daemon worrying his back, and he had no strength left to change, even; and the other man was lying in a puddle, with an arrow through his neck –
The whole world grew still as the man tying the net saw it too.
Pantalaimon sat up and blinked, and then there was a soft thud, and the net man fell choking and gasping right across Lyra, who cried out in horror: that was blood gushing out of him!
Running feet, and someone hauled the man away and bent over him; then other hands lifted Lyra, a knife snicked and pulled and the net strings fell away one by one, and she tore them off, spitting, and hurled herself down to cuddle Pantalaimon.
Kneeling, she twisted to look up at the newcomers. Three dark men, one armed with a bow, the others with knives; and as she turned, the bowman caught his breath.
“That en’t Lyra?”
A familiar voice, but she couldn’t place it till he stepped forward and the nearest light fell on his face and the hawk daemon on his shoulder. Then she had it. A gyptian! A real Oxford gyptian!
“Tony Costa,” he said. “Remember? You used to play with my little brother Billy off the boats in Jericho, afore the Gobblers got him.”
“Oh, God, Pan, we’re safe!” she sobbed, but then a thought rushed into her mind: it was the Costas’ boat she’d hijacked that day. Suppose he remembered?
“Better come along with us,” he said. “You alone?”
“Yeah. I was running away….”
“All right, don’t talk now. Just keep quiet. Jaxer, move them bodies into the shadow. Kerim, look around.”
Lyra stood up shakily, holding the wildcat Pantalaimon to her breast. He was twisting to look at something, and she followed his gaze, understanding and suddenly curious too: what had happened to the dead men’s daemons? They were fading, that was the answer; fading and drifting away like atoms of smoke, for all that they tried to cling to their men. Pantalaimon hid his eyes, and Lyra hurried blindly after Tony Costa.
“What are you doing here?” she said.
“Quiet, gal. There’s enough trouble awake without stirring more. We’ll talk on the boat.”
He led her over a little wooden bridge into the heart of the canal basin. The other two men were padding silently after them. Tony turned along the waterfront and out onto a wooden jetty, from which he stepped on board a narrowboat and swung open the door to the cabin.
“Get in,” he said. “Quick now.”
Lyra did so, patting her bag (which she had never let go of, even in the net) to make sure the alethiometer was still there. In the long narrow cabin, by the light of a lantern on a hook, she saw a stout powerful woman with gray hair, sitting at a table with a paper. Lyra recognized her as Billy’s mother.
“Who’s this?” the woman said. “That’s never Lyra?”
“That’s right. Ma, we got to move. We killed two men out in the basin. We thought they was Gobblers, but I reckon they were Turk traders. They’d caught Lyra. Never mind talk – we’ll do that on the move.”
“Come here, child,” said Ma Costa.
Lyra obeyed, half happy, half apprehensive, for Ma Costa had hands like bludgeons, and now she was sure: it was their boat she had captured with Roger and the other collegers. But the boat mother set her hands on either side of Lyra’s face, and her daemon, a hawk, bent gently to lick Pantalaimon’s wildcat head. Then Ma Costa folded her great arms around Lyra and pressed her to her breast.
“I dunno what you’re a doing here, but you look wore out. You can have Billy’s crib, soon’s I’ve got a hot drink in you. Set you down there, child.”
It looked as if her piracy was forgiven, or at least forgotten. Lyra slid onto the cushioned bench behind a well-scrubbed pine table top as the low rumble of the gas engine shook the boat.
“Where we going?” Lyra asked.
Ma Costa was setting a saucepan of milk on the iron stove and riddling the grate to stir the fire up.
“Away from here. No talking now. We’ll talk in the morning.”
And she said no more, handing Lyra a cup of milk when it was ready, swinging herself up on deck when the boat began to move, exchanging occasional whispers with the men. Lyra sipped the milk and lifted a corner of the blind to watch the dark wharves move past. A minute or two later she was sound asleep.
She awoke in a narrow bed, with that comforting engine rumble deep below. She sat up, banged her head, cursed, felt around, and got up more carefully. A thin gray light showed her three other bunks, each empty and neatly made, one below hers and the other two across the tiny cabin. She swung over the side to find herself in her underclothes, and saw the dress and the wolfskin coat folded at the end of her bunk together with her shopping bag. The alethiometer was still there.
She dressed quickly and went through the door at the end to find herself in the cabin with the stove, where it was warm.
There was no one there. Through the windows she saw a gray swirl of fog on each side, with occasional dark shapes that might have been buildings or trees.
Before she could go out on deck, the outer door opened and Ma Costa came down, swathed in an old tweed coat on which the damp had settled like a thousand tiny pearls.
“Sleep well?” she said, reaching for a frying pan. “Now sit down out the way and I’ll make ye some breakfast. Don’t stand about; there en’t room.”
“Where are we?” said Lyra.
“On the Grand Junction Canal. You keep out of sight, child. I don’t want to see you topside. There’s trouble.”
She sliced a couple of rashers of bacon into the frying pan, and cracked an egg to go with them.
“What sort of trouble?”
“Nothing we can’t cope with, if you stay out the way.”
And she wouldn’t say any more till Lyra had eaten. The boat slowed at one point, and something banged against the side, and she heard men’s voices raised in anger; but then someone’s joke made them laugh, and the voices drew away and the boat moved on.
Presently Tony Costa swung down into the cabin. Like his mother, he was pearled with damp, and he shook his woollen hat over the stove to make the drops jump and spit.
“What we going to tell her, Ma?”
“Ask first, tell after.”
He poured some coffee into a tin cup and sat down. He was a powerful, dark-faced man, and now that she could see him in daylight, Lyra saw a sad grimness in his expression.
“Right,” he said. “Now you tell us what you was doing in London, Lyra. We had you down as being took by the Gobblers.”
“I was living with this lady, right…”
Lyra clumsily collected her story and shook it into order as if she were settling a pack of cards ready for dealing. She told them everything, except about the alethiometer.
“And then last night at this cocktail party I found out what they were really doing. Mrs. Coulter was one of the Gobblers herself, and she was going to use me to help her catch more kids. And what they do is – “
Ma Costa left the cabin and went out to the cockpit. Tony waited till the door was shut, and cut in:
“We know what they do. Least, we know part of it. We know they don’t come back. Them kids is taken up north, far out the way, and they do experiments on ’em. At first we reckoned they tried out different diseases and medicines, but there’d be no reason to start that all of a sudden two or three years back. Then we thought about the Tartars, maybe there’s some secret deal they’re making up Siberia way; because the Tartars want to move north just as much as the rest, for the coal spirit and the fire mines, and there’s been rumors of war for even longer than the Gobblers been going. And we reckoned the Gobblers were buying off the Tartar chiefs by giving ’em kids, cause the Tartars eat ’em, don’t they? They bake children and eat “em.”
“They never!” said Lyra.
“They do. There’s plenty of other things to be told, and all. You ever heard of the Nalkainens?”
Lyra said, “No. Not even with Mrs. Coulter. What are they?”
“That’s a kind of ghost they have up there in those forests. Same size as a child, and they got no heads. They feel their way about at night and if you’re a sleeping out in the forest they get ahold of you and won’t nothing make ’em let go. Nalkainens, that’s a northern word. And the Windsuckers, they’re dangerous too. They drift about in the air. You come across clumps of ’em floated together sometimes, or caught snagged on a bramble. As soon as they touch you, all the strength goes out of you. You can’t see ’em except as a kind of shimmer in the air. And the Breathless Ones…”
“Who are they?”
“Warriors half-killed. Being alive is one thing, and being dead’s another, but being half-killed is worse than either. They just can’t die, and living is altogether beyond ’em. They wander about forever. They’re called the Breathless Ones because of what’s been done to ’em.”
“And what’s that?” said Lyra, wide-eyed.
“The North Tartars snap open their ribs and pull out their lungs. There’s an art to it. They do it without killing ’em, but their lungs can’t work anymore without their daemons pumping ’em by hand, so the result is they’re halfway between breath and no breath, life and death, half-killed, you see. And their daemons got to pump and pump all day and night, or else perish with ’em. You come across a whole platoon of Breathless Ones in the forest sometimes, I’ve heard. And then there’s the panserbj0rne – you heard of them? That means armored bears. They’re great white bears, and – “
“Yes! I have heard of them! One of the men last night, he said that my uncle, Lord Asriel, he’s being imprisoned in a fortress guarded by the armored bears.”
“Is he, now? And what was he doing up there?”
“Exploring. But the way the man was talking I don’t think my uncle’s on the same side as the Gobblers. I think they were glad he was in prison.”
“Well, he won’t get out if the armored bears are guarding him. They’re like mercenaries, you know what I mean by that? They sell their strength to whoever pays. They got hands like men, and they learned the trick of working iron way back, meteoric iron mostly, and they make great sheets and plates of it to cover theirselves with. They been raiding the Skraelings for centuries. They’re vicious killers, absolutely pitiless. But they keep their word. If you make a bargain with a panserbj0m, you can rely on it.”
Lyra considered these horrors with awe.
“Ma don’t like to hear about the North,” Tony said after a few moments, “because of what might’ve happened to Billy. We know they took him up north, see.”
“How d’you know that?”
“We caught one of the Gobblers, and made him talk. That’s how we know a little about what they’re doing. Them two last night weren’t Gobblers; they were too clumsy. If they’d been Gobblers we’d’ve took ’em alive. See, the gyptian people, we been hit worse than most by these Gobblers, and we’re a coming together to decide what to do about it. That’s what we was doing in the basin last night, taking on stores, ’cause we’re going to a big muster up in the fens, what we call a roping. And what I reckon is we’re a going to send out a rescue party, when we heard what all the other gyptians know, when we put our knowledge together. That’s what I’d do, if I was John Faa.”
“Who’s John Faa?”
“The king of the gyptians.”
“And you’re really going to rescue the kids? What about Roger?”
“The Jordan College kitchen boy. He was took same as Billy the day before I come away with Mrs. Coulter. I bet if I was took, he’d come and rescue me. If you’re going to rescue Billy, I want to come too and rescue Roger.”
And Uncle Asriel, she thought; but she didn’t mention that.