“Do you think they understood what she said about the child?” he asked.
“Not fully, I think. But they know she is important. As for that woman, I’m afraid of her, Dr. Lanselius. I shall kill her, I think, but still I’m afraid of her.”
“Yes,” he said. “So am I.”
And Serafina listened as he told her of the rumors that had swept the town. Amid the fog of rumor, a few facts had begun to emerge clearly.
“They say that the Magisterium is assembling the greatest army ever known, and this is an advance party. And there are unpleasant rumors about some of the soldiers, Serafina Pekkala. I’ve heard about Bolvangar, and what they were doing there—cutting children’s dæmons away, the most evil work I’ve ever heard of. Well, it seems there is a regiment of warriors who have been treated in the same way. Do you know the word zombi? They fear nothing, because they’re mindless. There are some in this town now. The authorities keep them hidden, but word gets out, and the townspeople are terrified of them.”
“What of the other witch clans?” said Serafina Pekkala. “What news do you have of them?”
“Most have gone back to their homelands. All the witches are waiting, Serafina Pekkala, with fear in their hearts, for what will happen next.”
“And what do you hear of the Church?”
“They’re in complete confusion. You see, they don’t know what Lord Asriel intends to do.”
“Nor do I,” she said, “and I can’t imagine what it might be. What do you think he’s intending, Dr. Lanselius?”
He gently rubbed the head of his serpent dæmon with his thumb.
“He is a scholar,” he said after a moment, “but scholarship is not his ruling passion. Nor is statesmanship. I met him once, and I thought he had an ardent and powerful nature, but not a despotic one. I don’t think he wants to rule . . . . I don’t know, Serafina Pekkala. I suppose his servant might be able to tell you. He is a man called Thorold, and he was imprisoned with Lord Asriel in the house on Svalbard. It might be worth a visit there to see if he can tell you anything; but, of course, he might have gone into the other world with his master.”
“Thank you. That’s a good idea . . . . I’ll do it. And I’ll go at once.”
She said farewell to the consul and flew up through the gathering dark to join Kaisa in the clouds.
Serafina’s journey to the north was made harder by the confusion in the world around her. All the Arctic peoples had been thrown into panic, and so had the animals, not only by the fog and the magnetic variations but by unseasonal crackings of ice and stirrings in the soil. It was as if the earth itself, the permafrost, were slowly awakening from a long dream of being frozen.
In all this turmoil, where sudden shafts of uncanny brilliance lanced down through rents in towers of fog and then vanished as quickly, where herds of muskox were seized by the urge to gallop south and then wheeled immediately to the west or the north again, where tight-knit skeins of geese disintegrated into a honking chaos as the magnetic fields they flew by wavered and snapped this way and that, Serafina Pekkala sat on her cloud-pine and flew north, to the house on the headland in the wastes of Svalbard.
There she found Lord Asriel’s servant, Thorold, fighting off a group of cliff-ghasts.
She saw the movement before she came close enough to see what was happening. There was a swirl of lunging leathery wings, and a malevolent yowk-yowk-yowk resounding in the snowy courtyard. A single figure swathed in furs fired a rifle into the midst of them with a gaunt dog dæmon snarling and snapping beside him whenever one of the filthy things flew low enough.
She didn’t know the man, but a cliff-ghast was an enemy always. She swung around above and loosed a dozen arrows into the melee. With shrieks and gibberings, the gang—too loosely organized to be called a troop—circled, saw their new opponent, and fled in confusion. A minute later the skies were bare again, and their dismayed yowk-yowk-yowk echoed distantly off the mountains before dwindling into silence.
Serafina flew down to the courtyard and alighted on the trampled, blood-sprinkled snow. The man pushed back his hood, still holding his rifle warily, because a witch was an enemy sometimes, and she saw an elderly man, long-jawed and grizzled and steady-eyed.
“I am a friend of Lyra’s,” she said. “I hope we can talk. Look: I lay my bow down.”
“Where is the child?” he said.
“In another world. I’m concerned for her safety. And I need to know what Lord Asriel is doing.”
He lowered the rifle and said, “Step inside, then. Look: I lay my rifle down.”
The formalities exchanged, they went indoors. Kaisa glided through the skies above, keeping watch, while Thorold brewed some coffee and Serafina told him of her involvement with Lyra.
“She was always a willful child,” he said when they were seated at the oaken table in the glow of a naphtha lamp. “I’d see her every year or so when his lordship visited his college. I was fond of her, mind—you couldn’t help it. But what her place was in the wider scheme of things, I don’t know.”
“What was Lord Asriel planning to do?”
“You don’t think he told me, do you, Serafina Pekkala? I’m his manservant, that’s all. I clean his clothes and cook his meals and keep his house tidy. I may have learned a thing or two in the years I been with his lordship, but only by picking ’em up accidental. He wouldn’t confide in me any more than in his shaving mug.”
“Then tell me the thing or two you’ve learned by accident,” she insisted.
Thorold was an elderly man, but he was healthy and vigorous, and he felt flattered by the attention of this young witch and her beauty, as any man would. He was shrewd, though, too, and he knew the attention was not really on him but on what he knew; and he was honest, so he did not draw out his telling for much longer than he needed.
“I can’t tell you precisely what he’s doing,” he said, “because all the philosophical details are beyond my grasp. But I can tell you what drives his lordship, though he doesn’t know I know. I’ve seen this in a hundred little signs. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the witch people have different gods from ours, en’t that right?”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“But you know about our God? The God of the Church, the one they call the Authority?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Well, Lord Asriel has never found hisself at ease with the doctrines of the Church, so to speak. I’ve seen a spasm of disgust cross his face when they talk of the sacraments, and atonement, and redemption, and suchlike. It’s death among our people, Serafina Pekkala, to challenge the Church, but Lord Asriel’s been nursing a rebellion in his heart for as long as I’ve served him, that’s one thing I do know.”
“A rebellion against the Church?”
“Partly, aye. There was a time when he thought of making it an issue of force, but he turned away from that.”
“Why? Was the Church too strong?”
“No,” said the old servant, “that wouldn’t stop my master. Now this might sound strange to you, Serafina Pekkala, but I know the man better than any wife could know him, better than a mother. He’s been my master and my study for nigh on forty years. I can’t follow him to the height of his thought any more than I can fly, but I can see where he’s a-heading even if I can’t go after him. No, it’s my belief he turned away from a rebellion against the Church not because the Church was too strong, but because it was too weak to be worth the fighting.”
“So . . . what is he doing?”
“I think he’s a-waging a higher war than that. I think he’s aiming a rebellion against the highest power of all. He’s gone a-searching for the dwelling place of the Authority Himself, and he’s a-going to destroy Him. That’s what I think. It shakes my heart to voice it, ma’am. I hardly dare think of it. But I can’t put together any other story that makes sense of what he’s doing.”
Serafina sat quiet for a few moments, absorbing what Thorold had said.
Before she could speak, he went on:
“ ’Course, anyone setting out to do a grand thing like that would be the target of the Church’s anger. Goes without saying. It’d be the most gigantic blasphemy, that’s what they’d say. They’d have him before the Consistorial Court and sentenced to death before you could blink. I’ve never spoke of it before and I shan’t again; I’d be afraid to speak it aloud to you if you weren’t a witch and beyond the power of the Church; but that makes sense, and nothing else does. He’s a-going to find the Authority and kill Him.”