“Please,” said another of the clerics nervously. “Please, Mrs. Coulter, the witch hasn’t spoken yet; we shall learn more from her. Cardinal Sturrock himself says that she’s only hinted at it.”
“And suppose the witch doesn’t reveal it?” Mrs. Coulter said. “What then? We guess, do we? We shiver and quail and guess?”
Fra Pavel said, “No, because that is the question I am now preparing to put to the alethiometer. We shall find the answer, whether from the witch or from the books of readings.”
“And how long will that take?”
He raised his eyebrows wearily and said, “A considerable time. It is an immensely complex question.”
“But the witch would tell us at once,” said Mrs. Coulter.
And she rose to her feet. As if in awe of her, most of the men did too. Only the Cardinal and Fra Pavel remained seated. Serafina Pekkala stood back, fiercely holding herself unseen. The golden monkey was gnashing his teeth, and all his shimmering fur was standing on end.
Mrs. Coulter swung him up to her shoulder.
“So let us go and ask her,” she said.
She turned and swept out into the corridor. The men hastened to follow her, jostling and shoving past Serafina Pekkala, who had only time to stand quickly aside, her mind in a turmoil. The last to go was the Cardinal.
Serafina took a few seconds to compose herself, because her agitation was beginning to make her visible. Then she followed the clerics down the corridor and into a smaller room, bare and white and hot, where they were all clustered around the dreadful figure in the center: a witch bound tightly to a steel chair, with agony on her gray face and her legs twisted and broken.
Mrs. Coulter stood over her. Serafina took up a position by the door, knowing that she could not stay unseen for long; this was too hard.
“Tell us about the child, witch,” said Mrs. Coulter.
“You will suffer.”
“I have suffered enough.”
“Oh, there is more suffering to come. We have a thousand years of experience in this Church of ours. We can draw out your suffering endlessly. Tell us about the child,” Mrs. Coulter said, and reached down to break one of the witch’s fingers. It snapped easily.
The witch cried out, and for a clear second Serafina Pekkala became visible to everyone, and one or two of the clerics looked at her, puzzled and fearful; but then she controlled herself again, and they turned back to the torture.
Mrs. Coulter was saying, “If you don’t answer I’ll break another finger, and then another. What do you know about the child? Tell me.”
“All right! Please, please, no more!”
There came another sickening crack, and this time a flood of sobbing broke from the witch. Serafina Pekkala could hardly hold herself back. Then came these words, in a shriek:
“No, no! I’ll tell you! I beg you, no more! The child who was to come . . . The witches knew who she was before you did . . . . We found out her name . . . . ”
“We know her name. What name do you mean?”
“Her true name! The name of her destiny!”
“What is this name? Tell me!” said Mrs. Coulter.
“No . . . no . . . ”
“And how? Found out how?”
“There was a test . . . . If she was able to pick out one spray of cloud-pine from many others, she would be the child who would come, and it happened at our consul’s house at Trollesund, when the child came with the gyptian men . . . . The child with the bear . . . ”
Her voice gave out.
Mrs. Coulter gave a little exclamation of impatience, and there came a loud slap, and a groan.
“But what was your prophecy about this child?” Mrs. Coulter went on, and her voice was all bronze now, and ringing with passion. “And what is this name that will make her destiny clear?”
Serafina Pekkala moved closer, even among the tight throng of men around the witch, and none of them felt her presence at their very elbows. She must end this witch’s suffering, and soon, but the strain of holding herself unseen was enormous. She trembled as she took the knife from her waist.
The witch was sobbing. “She is the one who came before, and you have hated and feared her ever since! Well, now she has come again, and you failed to find her . . . . She was there on Svalbard—she was with Lord Asriel, and you lost her. She escaped, and she will be—”
But before she could finish, there came an interruption.
Through the open doorway there flew a tern, mad with terror, and it beat its wings brokenly as it crashed to the floor and struggled up and darted to the breast of the tortured witch, pressing itself against her, nuzzling, chirruping, crying, and the witch called in anguish, “Yambe-Akka! Come to me, come to me!”
No one but Serafina Pekkala understood. Yambe-Akka was the goddess who came to a witch when she was about to die.
And Serafina was ready. She became visible at once and stepped forward smiling happily, because Yambe-Akka was merry and lighthearted and her visits were gifts of joy. The witch saw her and turned up her tear-stained face, and Serafina bent to kiss it and slid her knife gently into the witch’s heart. The tern dæmon looked up with dim eyes and vanished.
And now Serafina Pekkala would have to fight her way out.
The men were still shocked, disbelieving, but Mrs. Coulter recovered her wits almost at once.
“Seize her! Don’t let her go!” she cried, but Serafina was already at the door, with an arrow nocked in her bowstring. She swung up the bow and loosed the arrow in less than a second, and the Cardinal fell choking and kicking to the floor.
Out, along the corridor to the stairs, turn, nock, loose, and another man fell; and already a loud jarring bell was filling the ship with its clangor.
Up the stairs and out onto the deck. Two sailors barred her way, and she said, “Down there! The prisoner has got loose! Get help!”
That was enough to puzzle them, and they stood undecided, which gave her time to dodge past and seize her cloud-pine from where she had hidden it behind the ventilator.
“Shoot her!” came a cry in Mrs. Coulter’s voice from behind, and at once three rifles fired, and the bullets struck metal and whined off into the fog as Serafina leaped on the branch and urged it up like one of her own arrows. A few seconds later she was in the air, in the thick of the fog, safe, and then a great goose shape glided out of the wraiths of gray to her side.
“Where to?” he said.
“Away, Kaisa, away,” she said. “I want to get the stench of these people out of my nose.”
In truth, she didn’t know where to go or what to do next. But there was one thing she knew for certain: there was an arrow in her quiver that would find its mark in Mrs. Coulter’s throat.
They turned south, away from that troubling other-world gleam in the fog, and as they flew a question began to form more clearly in Serafina’s mind. What was Lord Asriel doing? Because all the events that had overturned the world had their origin in his mysterious activities.
The problem was that the usual sources of her knowledge were natural ones. She could track any animal, catch any fish, find the rarest berries; and she could read the signs in the pine marten’s entrails, or decipher the wisdom in the scales of a perch, or interpret the warnings in the crocus pollen; but these were children of nature, and they told her natural truths.
For knowledge about Lord Asriel, she had to go elsewhere. In the port of Trollesund, their consul Dr. Lanselius maintained his contact with the world of men and women, and Serafina Pekkala sped there through the fog to see what he could tell her. Before she went to his house she circled over the harbor, where wisps and tendrils of mist drifted ghostlike on the icy water, and watched as the pilot guided in a large vessel with an African registration. There were several other ships riding at anchor outside the harbor. She had never seen so many.
As the short day faded, she flew down and landed in the back garden of the consul’s house. She tapped on the window, and Dr. Lanselius himself opened the door, a finger to his lips.
“Serafina Pekkala, greetings,” he said. “Come in quickly, and welcome. But you had better not stay long.” He offered her a chair at the fireside, having glanced through the curtains out of a window that fronted the street. “You’ll have some wine?”
She sipped the golden Tokay and told him of what she had seen and heard aboard the ship.