The Subtle Knife Chapter Eleven
In the great white villa in the park Will slept uneasily, plagued with dreams that were filled with anxiety and with sweetness in equal measure, so that he struggled to wake up and yet longed for sleep again. When his eyes were fully open, he felt so drowsy that he could scarcely move, and then he sat up to find his bandage loose and his bed crimson.
He struggled out of bed and made his way through the heavy, dust-filled sunlight and silence of the great house down to the kitchen.
He and Lyra had slept in servants’ rooms under the attic, not feeling welcomed by the stately four-poster beds in the grand rooms farther down, and it was a long unsteady walk.
“Will – ” she said at once, her voice full of concern, and she turned from the stove to help him to a chair.
He felt dizzy. He supposed he’d lost a lot of blood; well, there was no need to suppose, with the evidence all over him. And the wounds were still bleeding.
“I was just making some coffee,” she said. “Do you want that first, or shall I do another bandage? I can do whichever you want. And there’s eggs in the cold cabinet, but I can’t find any baked beans.”
“This isn’t a baked beans kind of house. Bandage first. Is there any hot water in the tap? I want to wash. I hate being covered in this…”
She ran some hot water, and he stripped to his underpants.
He was too faint and dizzy to feel embarrassed, but Lyra became embarrassed for him and went out. He washed as best he could and then dried himself on the tea towels that hung on a line by the stove.
When she came back, she’d found some clothes for him, just a shirt and canvas trousers and a belt. He put them on, and she tore a fresh tea towel into strips and bandaged him tightly again. She was badly worried about his hand; not only were the wounds bleeding freely still, but the rest of the hand was swollen and red. But he said nothing about it, and neither did she.
Then she made the coffee and toasted some stale bread, and they took it into the grand room at the front of the house, overlooking the city. When he’d eaten and drunk, he felt a little better.
“You better ask the alethiometer what to do next,” he said. “Have you asked it anything yet?”
“No,” she said. “I’m only going to do what you ask, from now on. I thought of doing it last night, but I never did. And I won’t, either, unless you ask me to.”
“Well, you better do it now,” he said. “There’s as much danger here as there is in my world, now. There’s Angelica’s brother for a start. And if – “
He stopped, because she began to say something, but she stopped as soon as he did. Then she collected herself and went on. “Will, there was something that happened yesterday that I didn’t tell you. I should’ve, but there was just so many other things going on. I’m sorry…”
And she told him everything she’d seen through the window of the tower while Giacomo Paradisi was dressing Will’s wound: Tullio being beset by the Specters, Angelica seeing her at the window and her look of hatred, and Paolo’s threat.
“And d’you remember,” she went on, “when she first spoke to us? Her little brother said something about what they were all doing. He said, ‘He’s gonna get – ‘ and she wouldn’t let him finish; she smacked him, remember? I bet he was going to say Tullio was after the knife, and that’s why all the kids came here. ‘Cause if they had the knife, they could do anything, they could even grow up without being afraid of Specters.”
“What did it look like, when he was attacked?” Will said. To her surprise he was sitting forward, his eyes demanding and urgent.
“He…” She tried to remember exactly. “He started counting the stones in the wall. He sort of felt all over them… But he couldn’t keep it up. In the end he sort of lost interest and stopped. Then he was just still,” she finished, and seeing Will’s expression she said, “Why?”
“Because… I think maybe they come from my world after all, the Specters. If they make people behave like that, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they came from my world. And when the Guild men opened their first window, if it was into my world, the Specters could have gone through then.”
“But you don’t have Specters in your world! You never heard of them, did you?”
“Maybe they’re not called Specters. Maybe we call them something else.”
Lyra wasn’t sure what he meant, but she didn’t want to press him. His cheeks were red and his eyes were hot.
“Anyway,” she went on, turning away, “the important thing is that Angelica saw me in the window. And now that she knows we’ve got the knife, she’ll tell all of ’em. She’ll think it’s our fault that her brother was attacked by Specters. I’m sorry, Will. I should’ve told you earlier. But there was just so many other things.”
“Well,” he said, “I don’t suppose it would have made any difference. He was torturing the old man, and once he knew how to use the knife he’d have killed both of us if he could. We had to fight him.”
“I just feel bad about it, Will. I mean, he was their brother. And I bet if we were them, we’d have wanted the knife too.”
“Yes,” he said, “but we can’t go back and change what happened. We had to get the knife to get the alethiometer back, and if we could have got it without fighting, we would.”
“Yeah, we would,” she said.
Like Iorek Byrnison, Will was a fighter truly enough, so she was prepared to agree with him when he said it would be better not to fight; she knew it wasn’t cowardice that spoke, but strategy. He was calmer now, and his cheeks were pale again. He was looking into the middle distance and thinking.
Then he said, “It’s probably more important now to think about Sir Charles and what he’ll do, or Mrs. Coulter. Maybe if she’s got this special bodyguard they were talking about, these soldiers who’d had their daemons cut away, maybe Sir Charles is right and they’ll be able to ignore the Specters. You know what I think? I think what they eat, the Specters, is people’s daemons.”
“But children have daemons too. And they don’t attack children. It can’t be that.”
“Then it must be the difference between children’s daemons and grownups’,” Will said. “There is a difference, isn’t there? You told me once that grownups’ daemons don’t change shape. It must be something to do with that. And if these soldiers of hers haven’t got daemons at all, maybe the Specters won’t attack them either, like Sir Charles said…”
“Yeah!” she said. “Could be. And she wouldn’t be afraid of Specters anyway. She en’t afraid of anything. And she’s so clever, Will, honest, and she’s so ruthless and cruel, she could boss them, I bet she could. She could command them like she does people and they’d have to obey her, I bet. Lord Boreal is strong and clever, but she’ll have him doing what she wants in no time. Oh, Will, I’m getting scared again, thinking what she might do… I’m going to ask the alethiometer, like you said. Thank goodness we got that back, anyway.”
She unfolded the velvet bundle and ran her hands lovingly over the heavy gold.
“I’m going to ask about your father,” she said, “and how we can find him. See, I put the hands to point at – “
“No. Ask about my mother first. I want to know if she’s all right.”
Lyra nodded, and turned the hands before laying the alethiometer in her lap and tucking her hair behind her ears to look down and concentrate. Will watched the light needle swing purposefully around the dial, darting and stopping and darting on as swiftly as a swallow feeding, and he watched Lyra’s eyes, so blue and fierce and full of clear understanding.
Then she blinked and looked up.
“She’s safe still,” she said. “This friend that’s looking after her, she’s ever so kind. No one knows where your mother is, and the friend won’t give her away.”
Will hadn’t realized how worried he’d been. At this good news he felt himself relax, and as a little tension left his body, he felt the pain of his wound more sharply.
“Thank you,” he said. “All right, now ask about my father – “
But before she could even begin, they heard a shout from outside.
They looked out at once. At the lower edge of the park in front of the first houses of the city there was a belt of trees, and something was stirring there. Pantalaimon became a lynx at once and padded to the open door, gazing fiercely down.
“It’s the children,” he said.
Both Will and Lyra stood up. The children were coming out of the trees, one by one, maybe forty or fifty of them. Many of them were carrying sticks. At their head was the boy in the striped T-shirt, and it wasn’t a stick that he was carrying: it was a pistol.
“There’s Angelica,” Lyra whispered, pointing.
Angelica was beside the leading boy, tugging at his arm, urging him on. Just behind them her little brother, Paolo, was shrieking with excitement, and the other children, too, were yelling and waving their fists in the air. Two of them were lugging heavy rifles. Will had seen children in this mood before, but never so many of them, and the ones in his town didn’t carry guns.
They were shouting, and Will managed to make out Angelica’s voice high over them all: “You killed my brother and you stole the knife! You murderers! You made the Specters get him! You killed him, and we’ll kill you! You ain’ gonna get away! We gonna kill you same as you killed him!”
“Will, you could cut a window!” Lyra said urgently, clutching his good arm. “We could get away, easy – “
“Yeah, and where would we be? In Oxford, a few yards from Sir Charles’s house, in broad daylight. Probably in the main street in front of a bus. I can’t just cut through anywhere and expect to be safe – I’ve got to look first and see where we are, and that’d take too long. There’s a forest or woods or something behind this house. If we can get up there in the trees, we’ll be safer.”
Lyra looked out the window, furious. “They must’ve seen us last night,” she said. “I bet they was too cowardly to attack us on their own, so they rounded up all them others… I should have killed her yesterday! She’s as bad as her brother. I’d like to – “
“Stop talking and come on,” said Will.
He checked that the knife was strapped to his belt, and Lyra put on her little rucksack with the alethiometer and the letters from Will’s father. They ran through the echoing hall, along the corridor and into the kitchen, through the scullery, and into a cobbled court beyond it. A gate in the wall led out into a kitchen garden, where beds of vegetables and herbs lay baking under the morning sun.
The edge of the woods was a few hundred yards away, up a slope of grass that was horribly exposed. On a knoll to the left, closer than the trees, stood a little building, a circular temple-like structure with columns all the way around and an upper story open like a balcony from which to view the city.
“Let’s run,” said Will, though he felt less like running than like lying down and closing his eyes.
With Pantalaimon flying above to keep watch, they set off across the grass. But it was tussocky and ankle-high, and Will couldn’t run more than a few steps before he felt too dizzy to carry on. He slowed to a walk.
Lyra looked back. The children hadn’t seen them yet; they were still at the front of the house. Maybe they’d take a while to look through all the rooms…
But Pantalaimon chirruped in alarm. There was a boy standing at an open window on the second floor of the villa, pointing at them. They heard a shout.
“Come on, Will,” Lyra said.
She tugged at his good arm, helping him, lifting him. He tried to respond, but he didn’t have the strength. He could only walk.
“All right,” he said, “we can’t get to the trees. Too far away. So we’ll go to that temple place. If we shut the door, maybe we can hold them out for long enough to cut through after all.”
Pantalaimon darted ahead, and Lyra gasped and called to him breathlessly, making him pause. Will could almost see the bond between them, the daemon tugging and the girl responding. He stumbled through the thick grass with Lyra running ahead to see, and then back to help, and then ahead again, until they reached the stone pavement around the temple.
The door under the little portico was unlocked, and they ran inside to find themselves in a bare circular room with several statues of goddesses in niches around the wall. In the very center a spiral staircase of wrought iron led up through an opening to the floor above. There was no key to lock the door, so they clambered up the staircase and onto the floorboards of an upper level that was really a viewing place, where people could come to take the air and look out over the city; for there were no windows or walls, simply a series of open arches all the way around supporting the roof. In each archway a windowsill at waist height was broad enough to lean on, and below them the tiled roof ran down in a gentle slope all around to the gutter.
As they looked out, they could see the forest behind, tantalizingly close; and the villa below them, and beyond that the open park, and then the red-brown roofs of the city, with the tower rising to the left. There were carrion crows wheeling in the air above the gray battlements, and Will felt a jolt of sickness as he realized what had drawn them there.
But there was no time to take in the view; first they had to deal with the children, who were racing up toward the temple, screaming with rage and excitement. The leading boy slowed down and held up his pistol and fired two or three wild shots toward the temple. Then they came on again, yelling: “Thieves!”
“We gonna kill you!”
“You got our knife!”
“You don’ come from here!”
“You gonna die!”
Will took no notice. He had the knife out already, and swiftly cut a small window to see where they were – only to recoil at once. Lyra looked too, and fell back in disappointment. They were fifty feet or so in the air, high above a main road busy with traffic.
“Of course,” Will said bitterly, “we came up a slope… Well, we’re stuck. We’ll have to hold them off, that’s all.”
Another few seconds and the first children were crowding in through the door. The sound of their yelling echoed in the temple and reinforced their wildness; and then came a gunshot, enormously loud, and another, and the screaming took another tone, and then the stairs began to shake as the first ones climbed up.
Lyra was crouching paralyzed against the wall, but Will still had the knife in his hand. He scrambled over to the opening in the floor and reached down and sliced through the iron of the top step as if it were paper. With nothing to hold it up, the staircase began to bend under the weight of the children crowding on it, and then it swung down and fell with a huge crash. More screams, more confusion; and again the gun went off, but this time by accident, it seemed. Someone had been hit, and the scream was of pain this time, and Will looked down to see a tangle of writhing bodies covered in plaster and dust and blood.
They weren’t individual children: they were a single mass, like a tide. They surged below him and leaped up in fury, snatching, threatening, screaming, spitting, but they couldn’t reach.
Then someone called, and they looked to the door, and those who could move surged toward it, leaving several pinned beneath the iron stairs or dazed and struggling to get up from the rubble-strewn floor.
Will soon realized why they’d run out. There was a scrabbling sound from the roof outside the arches, and he ran to the windowsill to see the first pair of hands grasping the edge of the pantiles and pulling up. Someone was pushing from behind, and then came another head and another pair of hands, as they clambered over the shoulders and backs of those below and swarmed up onto the roof like ants.
But the pantiled ridges were hard to walk on, and the first ones scrambled up on hands and knees, their wild eyes never leaving Will’s face. Lyra had joined him, and Pantalaimon was snarling as a leopard, paws on the sill, making the first children hesitate. But still they came on, more and more of them.
Someone was shouting “Kill! Kill! Kill!” and then others joined in, louder and louder, and those on the roof began to stamp and thump the tiles in rhythm, but they didn’t quite dare come closer, faced by the snarling daemon. Then a tile broke, and the boy standing on it slipped and fell, but the one beside him picked up the broken piece and hurled it at Lyra.
She ducked, and it shattered on the column beside her, showering her with broken pieces. Will had noticed the rail around the edge of the opening in the floor, and cut two sword-length pieces of it, and he handed one to Lyra now; and she swung it around as hard as she could and into the side of the first boy’s head. He fell at once, but then came another, and it was Angelica, red-haired, white-faced, crazy-eyed. She scrambled up onto the sill, but Lyra jabbed the length of rail at her fiercely, and she fell back again.
Will was doing the same. The knife was in its sheath at his waist, and he struck and swung and jabbed with the iron rail, and while several children fell back, others kept replacing them, and more and more were clambering up onto the roof from below.
Then the boy in the striped T-shirt appeared, but he’d lost the pistol, or perhaps it was empty. However, his eyes and Will’s locked together, and each of them knew what was going to happen: they were going to fight, and it was going to be brutal and deadly.
“Come on,” said Will, passionate for the battle. “Come on, then…”
Another second, and they would have fought.
But then the strangest thing appeared: a great white snow goose swooping low, his wings spread wide, calling and calling so loudly that even the children on the roof heard through their savagery and turned to see.
“Kaisa!” cried Lyra joyfully, for it was Serafina Pekkala’s daemon.
The snow goose called again, a piercing whoop that filled the sky, and then wheeled and turned an inch away from the boy in the striped T-shirt. The boy fell back in fear and slid down and over the edge, and then others began to cry in alarm too, because there was something else in the sky. As Lyra saw the little black shapes sweeping out of the blue, she cheered and shouted with glee.
“Serafina Pekkala! Here! Help us! Here we are! In the temple – “
And with a hiss and rush of air, a dozen arrows, and then another dozen swiftly after, and then another dozen – loosed so quickly that they were all in the air at once – shot at the temple roof above the gallery and landed with a thunder of hammer blows. Astonished and bewildered, the children on the roof felt all the aggression leave them in a moment, and horrible fear rushed in to take its place. What were these black-garbed women rushing at them in the air? How could it happen? Were they ghasts? Were they a new kind of Specter?
And whimpering and crying, they jumped off the roof, some of them falling clumsily and dragging themselves away limping and others rolling down the slope and dashing for safety, but a mob no longer – just a lot of frightened, shame-faced children. A minute after the snow goose had appeared, the last of the children left the temple, and the only sound was the rush of air in the branches of the circling witches above.
Will looked up in wonder, too amazed to speak, but Lyra was leaping and calling with delight, “Serafina Pekkala! How did you find us? Thank you, thank you! They was going to kill us! Come down and land.”
But Serafina and the others shook their heads and flew up again, to circle high above. The snow goose daemon wheeled and flew down toward the roof, beating his great wings inward to help him slow down, and landed with a clatter on the pantiles below the sill.
“Greetings, Lyra,” he said. “Serafina Pekkala can’t come to the ground, nor can the others. The place is full of Specters – a hundred or more surrounding the building, and more drifting up over the grass. Can’t you see them?”
“No! We can’t see ’em at all!”
“Already we’ve lost one witch. We can’t risk any more. Can you get down from this building?”
“If we jump off the roof like they done. But how did you find us? And where – “
“Enough now. There’s more trouble coming, and bigger. Get down as best you can and then make for the trees.”
They climbed over the sill and moved sideways down through the broken tiles to the gutter. It wasn’t high, and below it was grass, with a gentle slope away from the building. First Lyra jumped and then Will followed, rolling over and trying to protect his hand, which was bleeding freely again and hurting badly. His sling had come loose and trailed behind him, and as he tried to roll it up, the snow goose landed on the grass at his side.
“Lyra, who is this?” Kaisa said.
“It’s Will. He’s coming with us – “
“Why are the Specters avoiding you?” The goose daemon was speaking directly to Will.
By this time Will was hardly surprised by anything, and he said, “I don’t know. We can’t see them. No, wait!” And he stood up, struck by a thought. “Where are they now?” he said. “Where’s the nearest one?”
“Ten paces away, down the slope,” said the daemon. “They don’t want to come any closer, that’s obvious.”
Will took out the knife and looked in that direction, and he heard the daemon hiss with surprise.
But Will couldn’t do what he intended, because at the same moment a witch landed her branch on the grass beside him. He was taken aback not so much by her flying as by her astounding gracefulness, the fierce, cold, lovely clarity of her gaze, and by the pale bare limbs, so youthful, and yet so far from being young.
“Your name is Will?” she said.
“Yes, but – “
“Why are the Specters afraid of you?”
“Because of the knife. Where’s the nearest one? Tell me! I want to kill it!”
But Lyra came running before the witch could answer.
“Serafina Pekkala!” she cried, and she threw her arms around the witch and hugged her so tightly that the witch laughed out loud, and kissed the top of her head. “Oh, Serafina, where did you come from like that? We were – those kids – they were kids, and they were going to kill us – did you see them? We thought we were going to die and – oh, I’m so glad you came! I thought I’d never see you again!”
Serafina Pekkala looked over Lyra’s head to where the Specters were obviously clustering a little way off, and then looked at Will.
“Now listen,” she said. “There’s a cave in these woods not far away. Head up the slope and then along the ridge to the left. The Specters won’t follow – they don’t see us while we’re in the air, and they’re afraid of you. We’ll meet you there. It’s a half-hour’s walk.”
And she leaped into the air again. Will shaded his eyes to watch her and the other ragged, elegant figures wheel in the air and dart up over the trees.
“Oh, Will, we’ll be safe now! It’ll be all right now that Serafina Pekkala’s here!” said Lyra. “I never thought I’d see her again. She came just at the right time, didn’t she? Just like before, at Bolvangar…”
Chattering happily, as if she’d already forgotten the fight, she led the way up the slope toward the forest. Will followed in silence. His hand was throbbing badly, and with each throb a little more blood was leaving him. He held it up across his chest and tried not to think about it.
It took not half an hour but an hour and three quarters, because Will had to stop and rest several times. When they reached the cave, they found a fire, a rabbit roasting, and Serafina Pekkala stirring something in a small iron pot.
“Let me see your wound,” was the first thing she said to Will, and he dumbly held out his hand.
Pantalaimon, cat-formed, watched curiously, but Will looked away. He didn’t like the sight of his mutilated fingers.
The witches spoke softly to each other, and then Serafina Pekkala said, “What weapon made this wound?”
Will reached for the knife and handed it to her silently. Her companions looked at it with wonder and suspicion, for they had never seen such a blade before, with such an edge on it.
“This will need more than herbs to heal. It will need a spell,” said Serafina Pekkala. “Very well, we’ll prepare one. It will be ready when the moon rises. In the meantime, you shall sleep.”
She gave him a little horn cup containing a hot potion whose bitterness was moderated by honey, and presently he lay back and fell deeply asleep. The witch covered him with leaves and turned to Lyra, who was still gnawing the rabbit.
“Now, Lyra,” she said. “Tell me who this boy is, and what you know about this world, and about this knife of his.”
So Lyra took a deep breath and began.