“Is that possible?” said Serafina.
“Lord Asriel’s life has been filled with things that were impossible. I wouldn’t like to say there was anything he couldn’t do. But on the face of it, Serafina Pekkala, yes, he’s stark mad. If angels couldn’t do it, how can a man dare to think about it?”
“Angels? What are angels?”
“Beings of pure spirit, the Church says. The Church teaches that some of the angels rebelled before the world was created, and got flung out of heaven and into hell. They failed, you see, that’s the point. They couldn’t do it. And they had the power of angels. Lord Asriel is just a man, with human power, no more than that. But his ambition is limitless. He dares to do what men and women don’t even dare to think. And look what he’s done already: he’s torn open the sky, he’s opened the way to another world. Who else has ever done that? Who else could think of it? So with one part of me, Serafina Pekkala, I say he’s mad, wicked, deranged. Yet with another part I think, he’s Lord Asriel, he’s not like other men. Maybe . . . if it was ever going to be possible, it’d be done by him and by no one else.”
“And what will you do, Thorold?”
“I’ll stay here and wait. I’ll guard this house till he comes back and tells me different, or till I die. And now I might ask you the same question, ma’am.”
“I’m going to make sure the child is safe,” she said. “It might be that I have to pass this way again, Thorold. I’m glad to know that you will still be here.”
“I won’t budge,” he told her.
She refused Thorold’s offer of food, and said good-bye.
A minute or so later she joined her goose dæmon again, and the dæmon kept silence with her as they soared and wheeled above the foggy mountains. She was deeply troubled, and there was no need to explain: every strand of moss, every icy puddle, every midge in her homeland thrilled against her nerves and called her back. She felt fear for them, but fear of herself, too, for she was having to change. These were human affairs she was inquiring into, this was a human matter; Lord Asriel’s god was not hers. Was she becoming human? Was she losing her witchhood?
If she were, she could not do it alone.
“Home now,” she said. “We must talk to our sisters, Kaisa. These events are too big for us alone.”
And they sped through the roiling banks of fog toward Lake Enara and home.
In the forested caves beside the lake they found the others of their clan, and Lee Scoresby, too. The aeronaut had struggled to keep his balloon aloft after the crash at Svalbard, and the witches had guided him to their homeland, where he had begun to repair the damage to his basket and the gasbag.
“Ma’am, I’m very glad to see you,” he said. “Any news of the little girl?”
“None, Mr. Scoresby. Will you join our council tonight and help us discuss what to do?”
The Texan blinked with surprise, for no man had ever been known to join a witch council.
“I’d be greatly honored,” he said. “I may have a suggestion or two of my own.”
All through that day the witches came, like flakes of black snow on the wings of a storm, filling the skies with the darting flutter of their silk and the swish of air through the needles of their cloud-pine branches. Men who hunted in the dripping forests or fished among melting ice floes heard the skywide whisper through the fog, and if the sky was clear, they would look up to see the witches flying, like scraps of darkness drifting on a secret tide.
By evening the pines around the lake were lit from below by a hundred fires, and the greatest fire of all was built in front of the gathering cave. There, once they had eaten, the witches assembled. Serafina Pekkala sat in the center, the crown of little scarlet flowers nestling among her fair hair. On her left sat Lee Scoresby, and on her right, a visitor: the queen of the Latvian witches, whose name was Ruta Skadi.
She had arrived only an hour before, to Serafina’s surprise. Serafina had thought Mrs. Coulter beautiful, for a short-life; but Ruta Skadi was as lovely as Mrs. Coulter, with an extra dimension of the mysterious, the uncanny. She had trafficked with spirits, and it showed. She was vivid and passionate, with large black eyes; it was said that Lord Asriel himself had been her lover. She wore heavy gold earrings and a crown on her black curly hair ringed with the fangs of snow tigers. Serafina’s dæmon, Kaisa, had learned from Ruta Skadi’s dæmon that she had killed the tigers herself in order to punish the Tartar tribe who worshiped them, because the tribesmen had failed to do her honor when she had visited their territory. Without their tiger gods, the tribe declined into fear and melancholy and begged her to allow them to worship her instead, only to be rejected with contempt; for what good would their worship do her? she asked. It had done nothing for the tigers. Such was Ruta Skadi: beautiful, proud, and pitiless.
Serafina was not sure why she had come, but made the queen welcome, and etiquette demanded that Ruta Skadi should sit on Serafina’s right. When they were all assembled, Serafina began to speak.
“Sisters! You know why we have come together: we must decide what to do about these new events. The universe is broken wide, and Lord Asriel has opened the way from this world to another. Should we concern ourselves with it, or live our lives as we have done until now, looking after our own affairs? Then there is the matter of the child Lyra Belacqua, now called Lyra Silvertongue by King Iorek Byrnison. She chose the right cloud-pine spray at the house of Dr. Lanselius: she is the child we have always expected, and now she has vanished.
“We have two guests, who will tell us their thoughts. First we shall hear Queen Ruta Skadi.”
Ruta Skadi stood. Her white arms gleamed in the firelight; her eyes glittered so brightly that even the farthest witch could see the play of expression on her vivid face.
“Sisters,” she began, “let me tell you what is happening, and who it is that we must fight. For there is a war coming. I don’t know who will join with us, but I know whom we must fight. It is the Magisterium, the Church. For all its history—and that’s not long by our lives, but it’s many, many of theirs—it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can’t control them, it cuts them out. Some of you have seen what they did at Bolvangar. And that was horrible, but it is not the only such place, not the only such practice. Sisters, you know only the north; I have traveled in the south lands. There are churches there, believe me, that cut their children too, as the people of Bolvangar did—not in the same way, but just as horribly. They cut their sexual organs, yes, both boys and girls; they cut them with knives so that they shan’t feel. That is what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling. So if a war comes, and the Church is on one side of it, we must be on the other, no matter what strange allies we find ourselves bound to.
“What I propose is that our clans join together and go north to explore this new world, and see what we can discover there. If the child is not to be found in our world, it’s because she will have gone after Lord Asriel already. And Lord Asriel is the key to this, believe me. He was my lover once, and I would willingly join forces with him, because he hates the Church and all it does.
“That is what I have to say.”
Ruta Skadi spoke passionately, and Serafina admired her power and her beauty. When the Latvian queen sat down, Serafina turned to Lee Scoresby.
“Mr. Scoresby is a friend of the child’s, and thus a friend of ours,” she said. “Would you tell us your thoughts, sir?”
The Texan got to his feet, whiplash-lean and courteous. He looked as if he were not conscious of the strangeness of the occasion, but he was. His hare dæmon, Hester, crouched beside him, her ears flat along her back, her golden eyes half closed.
“Ma’am,” he said, “I have to thank you all first for the kindness you’ve shown to me, and the help you extended to an aeronaut battered by winds that came from another world. I won’t trespass long on your patience.
“When I was traveling north to Bolvangar with the gyptians, the child Lyra told me about something that happened in the college she used to live in, back in Oxford. Lord Asriel had shown the other scholars the severed head of a man called Stanislaus Grumman, and that kinda persuaded them to give him some money to come north and find out what had happened.