But he was moving. He was feeling Will’s right hand carefully with his free one. Will’s hair stood on end.
Then the man said, “Give me your other hand.”
“Be careful,” said Will.
The man’s free hand felt down Will’s left arm, and his fingertips moved gently over the wrist and on to the swollen palm and with the utmost delicacy on to the stumps of Will’s two lost fingers.
His other hand let go at once, and he sat up.
“You’ve got the knife,” he said. “You’re the knife bearer.”
His voice was resonant, harsh, but breathless. Will sensed that he was badly hurt. Had he wounded this dark opponent?
Will was still lying on the stones, utterly spent. All he could see was the man’s shape, crouching above him, but he couldn’t see his face. The man was reaching sideways for something, and after a few moments a marvelous soothing coolness spread into his hand from the stumps of his fingers as the man massaged a salve into his skin.
“What are you doing?” Will said.
“Curing your wound. Keep still.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m the only man who knows what the knife is for. Hold your hand up like that. Don’t move.”
The wind was beating more wildly than ever, and a drop or two of rain splashed onto Will’s face. He was trembling violently, but he propped up his left hand with his right while the man spread more ointment over the stumps and wound a strip of linen tightly around the hand.
And as soon as the dressing was secure, the man slumped sideways and lay down himself. Will, still bemused by the blessed cool numbness in his hand, tried to sit up and look at him. But it was darker than ever. He felt forward with his right hand and found himself touching the man’s chest, where the heart was beating like a bird against the bars of a cage.
“Yes,” the man said hoarsely. “Try and cure that, go on.”
“Are you ill?”
“I’ll be better soon. You have the knife, yes?”
“And you know how to use it?”
“Yes, yes. But are you from this world? How do you know about it?”
“Listen,” said the man, sitting up with a struggle. “Don’t interrupt. If you’re the bearer of the knife, you have a task that’s greater than you can imagine. A child . . . How could they let it happen? Well, so it must be . . . . There is a war coming, boy. The greatest war there ever was. Something like it happened before, and this time the right side must win. We’ve had nothing but lies and propaganda and cruelty and deceit for all the thousands of years of human history. It’s time we started again, but properly this time . . . . ”
He stopped to take in several rattling breaths.
“The knife,” he went on after a minute. “They never knew what they were making, those old philosophers. They invented a device that could split open the very smallest particles of matter, and they used it to steal candy. They had no idea that they’d made the one weapon in all the universes that could defeat the tyrant. The Authority. God. The rebel angels fell because they didn’t have anything like the knife; but now . . . ”
“I didn’t want it! I don’t want it now!” Will cried. “If you want it, you can have it! I hate it, and I hate what it does—”
“Too late. You haven’t any choice: you’re the bearer. It’s picked you out. And, what’s more, they know you’ve got it; and if you don’t use it against them, they’ll tear it from your hands and use it against the rest of us, forever and ever.”
“But why should I fight them? I’ve been fighting too much; I can’t go on fighting. I want to—”
“Have you won your fights?”
Will was silent. Then he said, “Yes, I suppose.”
“You fought for the knife?”
“Then you’re a warrior. That’s what you are. Argue with anything else, but don’t argue with your own nature.”
Will knew that the man was speaking the truth. But it wasn’t a welcome truth. It was heavy and painful. The man seemed to know that, because he let Will bow his head before he spoke again.
“There are two great powers,” the man said, “and they’ve been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.
“And now those two powers are lining up for battle. And each of them wants that knife of yours more than anything else. You have to choose, boy. We’ve been guided here, both of us—you with the knife, and me to tell you about it.”
“No! You’re wrong!” cried Will. “I wasn’t looking for anything like that! That’s not what I was looking for at all!”
“You might not think so, but that’s what you’ve found,” said the man in the darkness.
“But what must I do?”
And then Stanislaus Grumman, Jopari, John Parry hesitated.
He was painfully aware of the oath he’d sworn to Lee Scoresby, and he hesitated before he broke it; but break it he did.
“You must go to Lord Asriel,” he said, “and tell him that Stanislaus Grumman sent you, and that you have the one weapon he needs above all others. Like it or not, boy, you have a job to do. Ignore everything else, no matter how important it seems, and go and do this. Someone will appear to guide you; the night is full of angels. Your wound will heal now—Wait. Before you go, I want to look at you properly.”
He felt for the pack he’d been carrying and took something out, unfolding layers of oilskin and then striking a match to light a little tin lantern. In its light, through the rain-dashed windy air, the two looked at each other.
Will saw blazing blue eyes in a haggard face with several days’ growth of beard on the stubborn jaw, gray-haired, drawn with pain, a thin body hunched in a heavy cloak trimmed with feathers.
The shaman saw a boy even younger than he’d thought, his slim body shivering in a torn linen shirt and his expression exhausted and savage and wary, but alight with a wild curiosity, his eyes wide under the straight black brows, so like his mother’s . . . .
And there came just the first flicker of something else to both of them.
But in that same moment, as the lantern light flared over John Parry’s face, something shot down from the turbid sky, and he fell back dead before he could say a word, an arrow in his failing heart. The osprey dæmon vanished in a moment.
Will could only sit stupefied.
A flicker crossed the corner of his vision, and his right hand darted up at once, and he found he was clutching a robin, a dæmon, red-breasted, panicking.
“No! No!” cried the witch Juta Kamainen, and fell down after him, clutching at her own heart, crashing clumsily into the rocky ground and struggling up again.
But Will was there before she could find her feet, and the subtle knife was at her throat.
“Why did you do that?” he shouted. “Why did you kill him?”
“Because I loved him and he scorned me! I am a witch! I don’t forgive!”
And because she was a witch she wouldn’t have been afraid of a boy, normally. But she was afraid of Will. This young wounded figure held more force and danger than she’d ever met in a human before, and she quailed. She fell backward, and he followed and gripped her hair with his left hand, feeling no pain, feeling only an immense and shattering despair.
“You don’t know who he was,” he cried. “He was my father!”
She shook her head and whispered, “No. No! That can’t be true. Impossible!”
“You think things have to be possible? Things have to be true! He was my father, and neither of us knew it till the second you killed him! Witch, I wait all my life and come all this way and I find him at last, and you kill him . . . . ”
And he shook her head like a rag and threw her back against the ground, half-stunning her. Her astonishment was almost greater than her fear of him, which was real enough, and she pulled herself up, dazed, and seized his shirt in supplication. He knocked her hand away.