“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 dæmon 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 dæmon, 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.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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