“Well, yes,” he said. “But have you got anything to show who you are?”

“Oh, sure,” she said, and swung the rucksack off her back to get at her purse. Among the items she had taken from the drawer in the laboratory was an expired library card of Oliver Payne’s. Fifteen minutes’ work at her kitchen table and the photograph from her own passport had produced something she hoped would pass for genuine. The policeman took the laminated card and looked at it closely.

“ ‘Dr. Olive Payne,’ ” he read. “Do you happen to know a Dr. Mary Malone?”

“Oh, yes. She’s a colleague.”

“Do you know where she is now?”

“At home in bed, if she’s got any sense. Why?”

“Well, I understand her position in your organization’s been terminated, and she wouldn’t be allowed through here. In fact, we’ve got orders to detain her if she tries. And seeing a woman, I naturally thought you might be her, if you see what I mean. Excuse me, Dr. Payne.”

“Ah, I see,” said Mary Malone.

The policeman looked at the card once more.

“Still, this seems all right,” he said, and handed it back. Nervous, wanting to talk, he went on. “Do you know what’s in there under that tent?”

“Well, not firsthand,” she said. “That’s why I’m here now.”

“I suppose it is. All right then, Dr. Payne.”

He stood back and let her unlace the flap of the tent. She hoped he wouldn’t see the shaking of her hands. Clutching the rucksack to her breast, she stepped through. Deceive the guardian—well, she’d done that; but she had no idea what she would find inside the tent. She was prepared for some sort of archaeological dig; for a dead body; for a meteorite. But nothing in her life or her dreams had prepared her for that square yard or so in midair, or for the silent sleeping city by the sea that she found when she stepped through it.

THIRTEEN

ÆSAHÆTTR

As the moon rose, the witches began their spell to heal Will’s wound.

They woke him and asked him to lay the knife on the ground where it caught a glitter of starlight. Lyra sat nearby stirring some herbs in a pot of boiling water over a fire, and while her companions clapped and stamped and cried in rhythm, Serafina crouched over the knife and sang in a high, fierce tone:

“Little knife! They tore your iron

out of Mother Earth’s entrails,

built a fire and boiled the ore,

made it weep and bleed and flood,

hammered it and tempered it,

plunging it in icy water,

heating it inside the forge

till your blade was blood-red, scorching!

Then they made you wound the water

once again, and yet again,

till the steam was boiling fog

and the water cried for mercy.

And when you sliced a single shade

into thirty thousand shadows,

then they knew that you were ready,

then they called you subtle one.

“But little knife, what have you done?

Unlocked blood-gates, left them wide!

Little knife, your mother calls you,

from the entrails of the earth,

from her deepest mines and caverns,

from her secret iron womb.

Listen!”

And Serafina stamped again and clapped her hands with the other witches, and they shook their throats to make a wild ululation that tore at the air like claws. Will, seated in the middle of them, felt a chill at the core of his spine.

Then Serafina Pekkala turned to Will himself, and took his wounded hand in both of hers. When she sang this time, he nearly flinched, so fierce was her high, clear voice, so glittering her eyes; but he sat without moving, and let the spell go on.

“Blood! Obey me! Turn around,

be a lake and not a river.

When you reach the open air,

stop! And build a clotted wall,

build it firm to hold the flood back.

Blood, your sky is the skull-dome,

your sun is the open eye,

your wind the breath inside the lungs,

blood, your world is bounded. Stay there!”

Will thought he could feel all the atoms of his body responding to her command, and he joined in, urging his leaking blood to listen and obey.

She put his hand down and turned to the little iron pot over the fire. A bitter steam was rising from it, and Will heard the liquid bubbling fiercely.

Serafina sang:

“Oak bark, spider silk,

ground moss, saltweed—

grip close, bind tight,

hold fast, close up,

bar the door, lock the gate,

stiffen the blood-wall,

dry the gore-flood.”

Then the witch took her own knife and split an alder sapling along its whole length. The wounded whiteness gleamed open in the moon. She daubed some of the steaming liquid into the split, then closed up the wood, easing it together from the root to the tip. And the sapling was whole again.

Will heard Lyra gasp, and turned to see another witch holding a squirming, struggling hare in her tough hands. The animal was panting, wild-eyed, kicking furiously, but the witch’s hands were merciless. In one she held its forelegs and with the other she grasped its hind legs and pulled the frenzied hare out straight, its heaving belly upward.

Serafina’s knife swept across it. Will felt himself grow dizzy, and Lyra was restraining Pantalaimon, hare-formed himself in sympathy, who was bucking and snapping in her arms. The real hare fell still, eyes bulging, breast heaving, entrails glistening.

But Serafina took some more of the decoction and trickled it into the gaping wound, and then closed up the wound with her fingers, smoothing the wet fur over it until there was no wound at all.

The witch holding the animal relaxed her grip and let it gently to the ground, where it shook itself, turned to lick its flank, flicked its ears, and nibbled a blade of grass as if it were completely alone. Suddenly it seemed to become aware of the circle of witches around it, and like an arrow it shot away, whole again, bounding swiftly off into the dark.

Lyra, soothing Pantalaimon, glanced at Will and saw that he knew what it meant: the medicine was ready. He held out his hand, and as Serafina daubed the steaming mixture on the bleeding stumps of his fingers he looked away and breathed in sharply several times, but he didn’t flinch.

Once his open flesh was thoroughly soaked, the witch pressed some of the sodden herbs onto the wounds and tied them tight around with a strip of silk.

And that was it; the spell was done.

Will slept deeply through the rest of the night. It was cold, but the witches piled leaves over him, and Lyra slept huddled close behind his back. In the morning Serafina dressed his wound again, and he tried to see from her expression whether it was healing, but her face was calm and impassive.

Once they’d eaten, Serafina told the children that the witches had agreed that since they’d come into this world to find Lyra and be her guardians, they’d help Lyra do what she now knew her task to be: namely, to guide Will to his father.

So they all set off; and it was quiet going for the most part. Lyra consulted the alethiometer to begin with, but warily, and learned that they should travel in the direction of the distant mountains they could see across the great bay. Never having been this high above the city, they weren’t aware of how the coastline curved, and the mountains had been below the horizon; but now when the trees thinned, or when a slope fell away below them, they could look out to the empty blue sea and to the high blue mountains beyond, which were their destination. It seemed a long way to go.

They spoke little. Lyra was busy looking at all the life in the forest, from woodpeckers to squirrels to little green moss snakes with diamonds down their backs, and Will needed all his energy simply to keep going. Lyra and Pantalaimon discussed him endlessly.

“We could look at the alethiometer,” Pantalaimon said at one point when they’d dawdled on the path to see how close they could get to a browsing fawn before it saw them. “We never promised not to. And we could find out all kinds of things for him. We’d be doing it for him, not for us.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Lyra said. “It would be us we’d be doing it for, ’cause he’d never ask. You’re just greedy and nosy, Pan.”

“That makes a change. It’s normally you who’s greedy and nosy, and me who has to warn you not to do things. Like in the retiring room at Jordan. I never wanted to go in there.”

“If we hadn’t, Pan, d’you think all this would have happened?”

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