The Subtle Knife Chapter Ten
Lee Scoresby disembarked at the port in the mouth of the Yenisei River, and found the place in chaos, with fishermen trying to sell their meager catches of unknown kinds of fish to the canning factories; with shipowners angry about the harbor charges the authorities had raised to cope with the floods; and with hunters and fur trappers drifting into town unable to work because of the rapidly thawing forest and the disordered behavior of the animals.
It was going to be hard to make his way into the interior along the road, that was certain; for in normal times the road was simply a cleared track of frozen earth, and now that even the permafrost was melting, the surface was a swamp of churned mud.
So Lee put his balloon and equipment into storage and with his dwindling gold hired a boat with a gas engine.
He bought several tanks of fuel and some stores, and set off up the swollen river.
He made slow progress at first. Not only was the current swift, but the waters were laden with all kinds of debris: tree trunks, brushwood, drowned animals, and once the bloated corpse of a man. He had to pilot carefully and keep the little engine beating hard to make any headway.
He was heading for the village of Grumman’s tribe. For guidance he had only his memory of having flown over the country some years before, but that memory was good, and he had little difficulty in finding the right course among the swift-running streams, even though some of the banks had vanished under the milky-brown floodwaters. The temperature had disturbed the insects, and a cloud of midges made every outline hazy. Lee smeared his face and hands with jimsonweed ointment and smoked a succession of pungent cigars, which kept the worst at bay.
As for Hester, she sat taciturn in the bow, her long ears flat against her skinny back and her eyes narrowed. He was used to her silence, and she to his. They spoke when they needed to.
On the morning of the third day, Lee steered the little craft up a creek that joined the main stream, flowing down from a line of low hills that should have been deep under snow but now were patched and streaked with brown. Soon the stream was flowing between low pines and spruce, and after a few miles they came to a large round rock, the height of a house, where Lee drew in to the bank and tied up.
“There was a landing stage here,” he said to Hester. “Remember the old seal hunter in Nova Zembla who told us about it? It must be six feet under now.”
“I hope they had sense enough to build the village high, then,” she said, hopping ashore.
No more than half an hour later he laid his pack down beside the wooden house of the village headman and turned to salute the little crowd that had gathered. He used the gesture universal in the north to signify friendship, and laid his rifle down at his feet.
An old Siberian Tartar, his eyes almost lost in the wrinkles around them, laid his bow down beside it. His wolverine daemon twitched her nose at Hester, who flicked an ear in response, and then the headman spoke.
Lee replied, and they moved through half a dozen languages before finding one in which they could talk.
“My respects to you and your tribe,” Lee said. “I have some smokeweed, which is not worthy, but I would be honored to present it to you.”
The headman nodded in appreciation, and one of his wives received the bundle Lee removed from his pack.
“I am seeking a man called Grumman,” Lee said. “I heard tell he was a kinsman of yours by adoption. He may have acquired another name, but the man is European.”
“Ah,” said the headman, “we have been waiting for you.”
The rest of the villagers, gathered in the thin steaming sunlight on the muddy ground in the middle of the houses, couldn’t understand the words, but they saw the headman’s pleasure. Pleasure, and relief, Lee felt Hester think.
The headman nodded several times.
“We have been expecting you,” he said again. “You have come to take Dr. Grumman to the other world.”
Lee’s eyebrows rose, but he merely said, “As you say, sir. Is he here?”
“Follow me,” said the headman.
The other villagers fell aside respectfully. Understanding Hester’s distaste for the filthy mud she had to lope through, Lee scooped her up in his arms and shouldered his pack, following the headman along a forest path to a hut ten long bowshots from the village, in a clearing in the larches.
The headman stopped outside the wood-framed, skin-covered hut. The place was decorated with boar tusks and the antlers of elk and reindeer, but they weren’t merely hunting trophies, for they had been hung with dried flowers and carefully plaited sprays of pine, as if for some ritualistic purpose.
“You must speak to him with respect,” the headman said quietly. “He is a shaman. And his heart is sick.”
Suddenly Lee felt a shiver go down his back, and Hester stiffened in his arms, for they saw that they had been watched all the time. From among the dried flowers and the pine sprays a bright yellow eye looked out. It was a daemon, and as Lee watched, she turned her head and delicately took a spray of pine in her powerful beak and drew it across the space like a curtain.
The headman called out in his own tongue, addressing the man by the name the old seal hunter had told him: Jopari. A moment later the door opened.
Standing in the doorway, gaunt, blazing-eyed, was a man dressed in skins and furs. His black hair was streaked with gray, his jaw jutted strongly, and his osprey daemon sat glaring on his fist.
The headman bowed three times and withdrew, leaving Lee alone with the shaman-academic he’d come to find.
“Dr. Grumman,” he said. “My name’s Lee Scoresby. I’m from the country of Texas, and I’m an aeronaut by profession. If you’d let me sit and talk a spell, I’ll tell you what brings me here. I am right, ain’t I? You are Dr. Stanislaus Grumman, of the Berlin Academy?”
“Yes,” said the shaman. “And you’re from Texas, you say. The winds have blown you a long way from your homeland, Mr. Scoresby.”
“Well, there are strange winds blowing through the world now, sir.”
“Indeed. The sun is warm, I think. You’ll find a bench inside my hut. If you help me bring it out, we can sit in this agreeable light and talk out here. I have some coffee, if you would care to share it.”
“Most kind, sir,” said Lee, and carried out the wooden bench himself while Grumman went to the stove and poured the scalding drink into two tin cups. His accent was not German, to Lee’s ears, but English, of England. The Director of the Observatory had been right.
When they were seated, Hester narrow-eyed and impassive beside Lee and the great osprey daemon glaring into the full sun, Lee began. He started with his meeting at Trollesund with John Faa, lord of the gyptians, and told how they recruited Iorek Byrnison the bear and journeyed to Bolvangar, and rescued Lyra and the other children; and then he spoke of what he’d learned both from Lyra and from Serafina Pekkala in the balloon as they flew toward Svalbard.
“You see, Dr. Grumman, it seemed to me, from the way the little girl described it, that Lord Asriel just brandished this severed head packed in ice at the scholars there and frightened them so much with it they didn’t look closely. That’s what made me suspect you might still be alive. And clearly, sir, you have a kind of specialist knowledge of this business. I’ve been hearing about you all along the Arctic seaboard, about how you had your skull pierced, about how your subject of study seems to vary between digging on the ocean bed and gazing at the northern lights, about how you suddenly appeared, like as it might be out of nowhere, about ten, twelve years ago, and that’s all mighty interesting. But something’s drawn me here, Dr. Grumman, beyond simple curiosity. I’m concerned about the child. I think she’s important, and so do the witches. If there’s anything you know about her and about what’s going on, I’d like you to tell me. As I said, something’s given me the conviction that you can, which is why I’m here.”
“But unless I’m mistaken, sir, I heard the village headman say that I had come to take you to another world. Did I get it wrong, or is that truly what he said? And one more question for you, sir: What was that name he called you by? Was that some kind of tribal name, some magician’s title?”
Grumman smiled briefly, and said, “The name he used is my own true name, John Parry. Yes, you have come to take me to the other world. And as for what brought you here, I think you’ll find it was this.”
And he opened his hand. In the palm lay something that Lee could see but not understand. He saw a ring of silver and turquoise, a Navajo design; he saw it clearly and he recognized it as his own mother’s. He knew its weight and the smoothness of the stone and the way the silversmith had folded the metal over more closely at the corner where the stone was chipped, and he knew how the chipped corner had worn smooth, because he had run his fingers over it many, many times, years and years ago in his boyhood in the sagelands of his native country.
He found himself standing. Hester was trembling, standing upright, ears pricked. The osprey had moved without Lee’s noticing between him and Grumman, defending her man, but Lee wasn’t going to attack. He felt undone; he felt like a child again, and his voice was tight and shaky as he said, “Where did you get that?”
“Take it,” said Grumman, or Parry. “Its work is done. It summoned you. Now I don’t need it.”
“But how – ” said Lee, lifting the beloved thing from Grumman’s palm. “I don’t understand how you can have – did you – how did you get this? I ain’t seen this thing for forty years.”
“I am a shaman. I can do many things you don’t understand. Sit down, Mr. Scoresby. Be calm. I’ll tell you what you need to know.”
Lee sat again, holding the ring, running his fingers over it again and again. “Well,” he said, “I’m shaken, sir. I think I need to hear what you can tell me.”
“Very well,” said Grumman, “I’ll begin. My name, as I told you, is Parry, and I was not born in this world. Lord Asriel is not the first by any means to travel between the worlds, though he’s the first to open the way so spectacularly. In my own world I was a soldier and then an explorer. Twelve years ago I was accompanying an expedition to a place in my world that corresponds with your Beringland. My companions had other intentions, but I was looking for something I’d heard about from old legends: a rent in the fabric of the world, a hole that had appeared between our universe and another. Well, some of my companions got lost. In searching for them, I and two others walked through this hole, this doorway, without even seeing it, and left our world altogether. At first we didn’t realize what had happened. We walked on till we found a town, and then there was no mistaking it: we were in a different world.”
“Well, try as we might, we could not find that first doorway again. We’d come through it in a blizzard. You are an old Arctic hand – you know what that means. So we had no choice but to stay in that new world. And we soon discovered what a dangerous place it was. It seemed that there was a strange kind of ghoul or apparition haunting it, something deadly and implacable. My two companions died soon afterward, victims of the Specters, as the things are called.”
“The result was that I found their world an abominable place, and I couldn’t wait to leave it. The way back to my own world was barred forever. But there were other doorways into other worlds, and a little searching found the way into this.”
“So here I came. And I discovered a marvel as soon as I did, Mr. Scoresby, for worlds differ greatly, and in this world I saw my daemon for the first time. Yes, I hadn’t known of Sayan Kotor here till I entered yours. People here cannot conceive of worlds where daemons are a silent voice in the mind and no more. Can you imagine my astonishment, in turn, at learning that part of my own nature was female, and bird-formed, and beautiful?”
“So with Sayan Kotor beside me, I wandered through the northern lands, and I learned a good deal from the peoples of the Arctic, like my good friends in the village down there. What they told me of this world filled some gaps in the knowledge I’d acquired in mine, and I began to see the answer to many mysteries.”
“I made my way to Berlin under the name of Grumman. I told no one about my origins; it was my secret. I presented a thesis to the Academy, and defended it in debate, which is their method. I was better informed than the Academicians, and I had no difficulty in gaining membership.”
“So with my new credentials I could begin to work in this world, where I found myself, for the most part, greatly contented. I missed some things about my own world, to be sure. Are you a married man, Mr. Scoresby? No? Well, I was; and I loved my wife dearly, as I loved my son, my only child, a little boy not yet one year old when I wandered out of my world. I missed them terribly. But I might search for a thousand years and never find the way back. We were sundered forever.”
“However, my work absorbed me. I sought other forms of knowledge; I was initiated into the skull cult; I became a shaman. And I have made some useful discoveries. I have found a way of making an ointment from bloodmoss, for example, that preserves all the virtues of the fresh plant.”
“I know a great deal about this world now, Mr. Scoresby. I know, for example, about Dust. I see from your expression that you have heard the term. It is frightening your theologians to death, but they are the ones who frighten me. I know what Lord Asriel is doing, and I know why, and that’s why I summoned you here. I am going to help him, you see, because the task he’s undertaken is the greatest in human history. The greatest in thirty-five thousand years of human history, Mr. Scoresby.”
“I can’t do very much myself. My heart is diseased beyond the powers of anyone in this world to cure it. I have one great effort left in me, perhaps. But I know something Lord Asriel doesn’t, something he needs to know if his effort is to succeed.”
“You see, I was intrigued by that haunted world where the Specters fed on human consciousness. I wanted to know what they were, how they had come into being. And as a shaman, I can discover things in the spirit where I cannot go in the body, and I spent much time in trance, exploring that world. I found that the philosophers there, centuries ago, had created a tool for their own undoing: an instrument they called the subtle knife. It had many powers – more than they’d guessed when they made it, far more than they know even now – and somehow, in using it, they had let the Specters into their world.”
“Well, I know about the subtle knife and what it can do. And I know where it is, and I know how to recognize the one who must use it, and I know what he must do in Lord Asriel’s cause. I hope he’s equal to the task. So I have summoned you here, and you are to fly me northward, into the world Asriel has opened, where I expect to find the bearer of the subtle knife.”
“That is a dangerous world, mind. Those Specters are worse than anything in your world or mine. We shall have to be careful and courageous. I shall not return, and if you want to see your country again, you’ll need all your courage, all your craft, all your luck.”
“That’s your task, Mr. Scoresby. That is why you sought me out.”
And the shaman fell silent. His face was pallid, with a faint sheen of sweat.
“This is the craziest damn idea I ever heard in my life,” said Lee. He stood up in his agitation and walked a pace or two this way, a pace or two that, while Hester watched unblinking from the bench. Grumman’s eyes were half-closed; his daemon sat on his knee, watching Lee warily.
“Do you want money?” Grumman said after a few moments. “I can get you some gold. That’s not hard to do.”
“Damn, I didn’t come here for gold,” said Lee hotly. “I came here… I came here to see if you were alive, like I thought you were. Well, my curiosity’s kinda satisfied on that point.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
“And there’s another angle to this thing, too,” Lee added, and told Grumman of the witch council at Lake Enara, and the resolution the witches had sworn to. “You see,” he finished, “that little girl Lyra… well, she’s the reason I set out to help the witches in the first place. You say you brought me here with that Navajo ring. Maybe that’s so and maybe it ain’t. What I know is, I came here because I thought I’d be helping Lyra. I ain’t never seen a child like that. If I had a daughter of my own, I hope she’d be half as strong and brave and good. Now, I’d heard that you knew of some object, I didn’t know what it might be, that confers a protection on anyone who holds it. And from what you say, I think it must be this subtle knife.”
“So this is my price for taking you into the other world, Dr. Grumman: not gold, but that subtle knife. And I don’t want it for myself; I want it for Lyra. You have to swear you’ll get her under the protection of that object, and then I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”
The shaman listened closely, and said, “Very well, Mr. Scoresby; I swear. Do you trust my oath?”
“What will you swear by?”
“Name anything you like.”
Lee thought and then said, “Swear by whatever it was made you turn down the love of the witch. I guess that’s the most important thing you know.”
Grumman’s eyes widened, and he said, “You guess well, Mr. Scoresby. I’ll gladly swear by that. I give you my word that I’ll make certain the child Lyra Belacqua is under the protection of the subtle knife. But I warn you: the bearer of that knife has his own task to do, and it may be that his doing it will put her into even greater danger.”
Lee nodded soberly. “Maybe so,” he said, “but whatever little chance of safety there is, I want her to have it.”
“You have my word. And now I must go into the new world, and you must take me.”
“And the wind? You ain’t been too sick to observe the weather, I guess?”
“Leave the wind to me.”
Lee nodded. He sat on the bench again and ran his fingers over and over the turquoise ring while Grumman gathered the few goods he needed into a deerskin bag, and then the two of them went back down the forest track to the village.
The headman spoke at some length. More and more of the villagers came out to touch Grumman’s hand, to mutter a few words, and to receive what looked like a blessing in return. Lee, meanwhile, was looking at the weather. The sky was clear to the south, and a fresh-scented breeze was just lifting the twigs and stirring the pine tops. To the north the fog still hung over the heavy river, but it was the first time for days that there seemed to be a promise of clearing it.
At the rock where the landing stage had been he lifted Grumman’s pack into the boat, and filled the little engine, which fired at once. He cast off, and with the shaman in the bow, the boat sped down with the current, darting under the trees and skimming out into the main river so fast that Lee was afraid for Hester, crouching just inside the gunwale. But she was a seasoned traveler, he should have known that; why was he so damn jumpy?
They reached the port at the river’s mouth to find every hotel, every lodging house, every private room commandeered by soldiers. Not just any soldiers, either: these were troops of the Imperial Guard of Muscovy, the most ferociously trained and lavishly equipped army in the world, and one sworn to uphold the power of the Magisterium.
Lee had intended to rest a night before setting off, because Grumman looked in need of it, but there was no chance of finding a room.
“What’s going on?” he said to the boatman when he returned the hired boat.
“We don’t know. The regiment arrived yesterday and commandeered every billet, every scrap of food, and every ship in the town. They’d have had this boat, too, if you hadn’t taken it.”
“D’you know where they’re going?”
“North,” said the boatman. “There’s a war going to be fought, by all accounts, the greatest war ever known.”
“North, into that new world?”
“That’s right. And there’s more troops coming; this is just the advance guard. There won’t be a loaf of bread or a gallon of spirit left in a week’s time. You did me a favor taking this boat – the price has already doubled…”
There was no sense in resting up now, even if they could find a place. Full of anxiety about his balloon, Lee went at once to the warehouse where he’d left it, with Grumman beside him. The man was keeping pace. He looked sick, but he was tough.
The warehouse keeper, busy counting out some spare engine parts to a requisitioning sergeant of the Guard, looked up briefly from his clipboard.
“Balloon – too bad – requisitioned yesterday,” he said. “You can see how it is. I’ve got no choice.”
Hester flicked her ears, and Lee understood what she meant.
“Have you delivered the balloon yet?” he said.
“They’re going to collect it this afternoon.”
“No, they’re not,” said Lee, “because I have an authority that trumps the Guard.”
And he showed the warehouseman the ring he’d taken from the finger of the dead Skraeling on Nova Zembla. The sergeant, beside him at the counter, stopped what he was doing and saluted at the sight of the Church’s token, but for all his discipline he couldn’t prevent a flicker of puzzlement passing over his face.
“So we’ll have the balloon right now,” said Lee, “and you can set some men to fill it. And I mean at once. And that includes food, and water, and ballast.”
The warehouseman looked at the sergeant, who shrugged, and then hurried away to see to the balloon. Lee and Grumman withdrew to the wharf, where the gas tanks were, to supervise the filling and talk quietly.
“Where did you get that ring?” said Grumman.
“Off a dead man’s finger. Kinda risky using it, but I couldn’t see another way of getting my balloon back. You reckon that sergeant suspected anything?”
“Of course he did. But he’s a disciplined man. He won’t question the Church. If he reports it at all, we’ll be away by the time they can do anything about it. Well, I promised you a wind, Mr. Scoresby; I hope you like it.”
The sky was blue overhead now, and the sunlight was bright. To the north the fog banks still hung like a mountain range over the sea, but the breeze was pushing them back and back, and Lee was impatient for the air again.
As the balloon filled and began to swell up beyond the edge of the warehouse roof, Lee checked the basket and stowed all his equipment with particular care; for in the other world, who knew what turbulence they’d meet? His instruments, too, he fixed to the framework with close attention, even the compass, whose needle was swinging around the dial quite uselessly. Finally he lashed a score of sandbags around the basket for ballast.
When the gasbag was full and leaning northward in the buffeting breeze, and the whole apparatus straining against the stout ropes anchoring it down, Lee paid the warehouseman with the last of his gold and helped Grumman into the basket. Then he turned to the men at the ropes to give the order to let go.
But before they could do so, there was an interruption. From the alley at the side of the warehouse came the noise of pounding boots, moving at the double, and a shout of command: “Halt!”
The men at the ropes paused, some looking that way, some looking to Lee, and he called sharply, “Let go! Cast off!”
Two of the men obeyed, and the balloon lurched up, but the other two had their attention on the soldiers, who were moving quickly around the corner of the building. Those two men still held their ropes fast around the bollards, and the balloon lurched sickeningly sideways. Lee grabbed at the suspension ring; Grumman was holding it too, and his daemon had her claws tight around it.
Lee shouted, “Let go, you damn fools! She’s going up!”
The buoyancy of the gasbag was too great, and the men, haul as they might, couldn’t hold it back. One let go, and his rope lashed itself loose from the bollard; but the other man, feeling the rope lift, instinctively clung on instead of letting go. Lee had seen this happen once before, and dreaded it. The poor man’s daemon, a heavyset husky, howled with fear and pain from the ground as the balloon surged up toward the sky, and five endless seconds later it was over; the man’s strength failed; he fell, half-dead, and crashed into the water.
But the soldiers had their rifles up already. A volley of bullets whistled past the basket, one striking a spark from the suspension ring and making Lee’s hands sting with the impact, but none of them did any damage. By the time they fired their second shot, the balloon was almost out of range, hurtling up into the blue and speeding out over the sea. Lee felt his heart lift with it. He’d said once to Serafina Pekkala that he didn’t care for flying, that it was only a job; but he hadn’t meant it. Soaring upward, with a fair wind behind and a new world in front – what could be better in this life?
He let go of the suspension ring and saw that Hester was crouching in her usual corner, eyes half-closed. From far below and a long way back came another futile volley of rifle fire. The town was receding fast, and the broad sweep of the river’s mouth was glittering in the sunlight below them.
“Well, Dr. Grumman,” he said, “I don’t know about you, but I feel better in the air. I wish that poor man had let go of the rope, though. It’s so damned easy to do, and if you don’t let go at once there’s no hope for you.”
“Thank you, Mr. Scoresby,” said the shaman. “You managed that very well. Now we settle down and fly. I would be grateful for those furs; the air is still cold.”