“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.
The bears took Lyra up a gully in the cliffs, where the fog lay even more thickly than on the shore. The cries of the cliff-ghasts and the crash of the waves grew fainter as they climbed, and presently the only sound was the ceaseless crying of seabirds. They clambered in silence over rocks and snowdrifts, and although Lyra peered wide-eyed into the enfolding grayness, and strained her ears for the sound of her friends, she might have been the only human on Svalbard; and lorek might have been dead.
The bear sergeant said nothing to her until they were on level ground. There they stopped. From the sound of the waves, Lyra judged them to have reached the top of the cliffs, and she dared not run away in case she fell over the edge.
“Look up,” said the bear, as a waft of breeze moved aside the heavy curtain of the fog.
There was little daylight in any case, but Lyra did look, and found herself standing in front of a vast building of stone. It was as tall at least as the highest part of Jordan College, but much more massive, and carved all over with representations of warfare, showing bears victorious and Skraelings surrendering, showing Tartars chained and slaving in the fire mines, showing zeppelins flying from all parts of the world bearing gifts and tributes to the king of the bears, lofur Raknison.
At least, that was what the bear sergeant told her the carvings showed. She had to take his word for it, because every projection and ledge on the deeply sculpted facade was occu-pied by gannets and skuas, which cawed and shrieked and wheeled constantly around overhead, and whose droppings had coated every part of the building with thick smears of dirty white.
The bears seemed not to see the mess, however, and they led the way in through the huge arch, over the icy ground that was filthy with the spatter of the birds. There was a courtyard, and high steps, and gateways, and at every point bears in armor challenged the incomers and were given a password. Their armor was polished and gleaming, and they all wore plumes in their helmets. Lyra couldn't help comparing every bear she saw with lorek Byrnison, and always to his advantage; he was more powerful, more graceful, and his armor was real armor, rust-colored, bloodstained, dented with combat, not elegant, enameled, and decorative like most of what she saw around her now.
As they went further in, the temperature rose, and so did something else. The smell in lofur's palace was repulsive: rancid seal fat, dung, blood, refuse of every sort. Lyra pushed back her hood to be cooler, but she couldn't help wrinkling her nose. She hoped bears couldn't read human expressions. There were iron brackets every few yards, holding blubber lamps, and in their flaring shadows it wasn't always easy to see where she was treading, either.
Finally they stopped outside a heavy door of iron. A guard bear pulled back a massive bolt, and the sergeant suddenly swung his paw at Lyra, knocking her head over heels through the doorway. Before she could scramble up, she heard the door being bolted behind her.