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 templelike 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 dæmon 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 pantiled 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:
“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.