“I can’t bear the thought of oblivion, Asriel,” she continued. “Sooner anything than that. I used to think pain would be worse—to be tortured forever—I thought that must be worse . . . But as long as you were conscious, it would be better, wouldn’t it? Better than feeling nothing, just going into the dark, everything going out forever and ever?”
His part was simply to listen. His eyes were locked on hers, and he was paying profound attention; there was no need to respond. She said:
“The other day, when you spoke about her so bitterly, and about me . . . I thought you hated her. I could understand your hating me. I’ve never hated you, but I could understand . . . I could see why you might hate me. But I couldn’t see why you hated Lyra.”
He turned his head away slowly, and then looked back.
“I remember you said something strange, on Svalbard, on the mountaintop, just before you left our world,” she went on. “You said: Come with me, and we’ll destroy Dust forever. You remember saying that? But you didn’t mean it. You meant the very opposite, didn’t you? I see now. Why didn’t you tell me what you were really doing? Why didn’t you tell me you were really trying to preserve Dust? You could have told me the truth.”
“I wanted you to come and join me,” he said, his voice hoarse and quiet, “and I thought you would prefer a lie.”
“Yes,” she whispered, “that’s what I thought.”
She couldn’t sit still, but she didn’t really have the strength to stand up. For a moment she felt faint, her head swam, sounds receded, the room darkened, but almost at once her senses came back even more pitilessly than before, and nothing in the situation had changed.
“Asriel . . .” she murmured.
The golden monkey put a tentative hand out to touch the paw of the snow leopard. The man watched without a word, and Stelmaria didn’t move; her eyes were fixed on Mrs. Coulter.
“Oh, Asriel, what will happen to us?” Mrs. Coulter said again. “Is this the end of everything?”
He said nothing.
Moving like someone in a dream, she got to her feet, picked up the rucksack that lay in the corner of the room, and reached inside it for her pistol; and what she would have done next, no one knew, because at that moment there came the sound of footsteps running up the stairs.
Both man and woman, and both dæmons, turned to look at the orderly who came in and said breathlessly:
“Excuse me, my lord—the two dæmons—they’ve been seen, not far from the eastern gate—in the form of cats—the sentry tried to talk to them, bring them inside, but they wouldn’t come near. It was only a minute or so ago . . .”
Lord Asriel sat up, transfigured. All the fatigue had been wiped off his face in a moment. He sprang to his feet and seized his greatcoat.
Ignoring Mrs. Coulter, he flung the coat around his shoulders and said to the orderly:
“Tell Madame Oxentiel at once. Put this order out: the dæmons are not to be threatened, or frightened, or coerced in any way. Anyone seeing them should first . . .”
Mrs. Coulter heard no more of what he was saying, because he was already halfway down the stairs. When his running footsteps had faded, too, the only sounds were the gentle hiss of the naphtha lamp and the moan of the wild wind outside.
Her eyes found the eyes of her dæmon. The golden monkey’s expression was as subtle and complex as it had ever been in all their thirty-five years of life.
“Very well,” she said. “I can’t see any other way. I think . . . I think we’ll . . .”
He knew at once what she meant. He leapt to her breast, and they embraced. Then she found her fur-lined coat, and they very quietly left the chamber and made their way down the dark stairs.
THE BATTLE ON THE PLAIN
Each Man is in his Spectre’s power
Untill the arrival of that hour
When his Humanity awake …
• WILLIAM BLAKE •
It was desperately hard for Lyra and Will to leave that sweet world where they had slept the night before, but if they were ever going to find their dæmons, they knew they had to go into the dark once more. And now, after hours of weary crawling through the dim tunnel, Lyra bent over the alethiometer for the twentieth time, making little un- conscious sounds of distress—whimpers and catches of breath that would have been sobs if they were any stronger. Will, too, felt the pain where his dæmon had been, a scalded place of acute tenderness that every breath tore at with cold hooks.
How wearily Lyra turned the wheels; on what leaden feet her thoughts moved. The ladders of meaning that led from every one of the alethiometer’s thirty-six symbols, down which she used to move so lightly and confidently, felt loose and shaky. And holding the connections between them in her mind . . . It had once been like running, or singing, or telling a story: something natural. Now she had to do it laboriously, and her grip was failing, and she mustn’t fail because otherwise everything would fail . . .
“It’s not far,” she said at last. “And there’s all kinds of danger—there’s a battle, there’s . . . But we’re nearly in the right place now. Just at the end of this tunnel there’s a big smooth rock running with water. You cut through there.”
The ghosts who were going to fight pressed forward eagerly, and she felt Lee Scoresby close at her side.
He said, “Lyra, gal, it won’t be long now. When you see that old bear, you tell him Lee went out fighting. And when the battle’s over, there’ll be all the time in the world to drift along the wind and find the atoms that used to be Hester, and my mother in the sagelands, and my sweethearts—all my sweethearts . . . Lyra, child, you rest when this is done, you hear? Life is good, and death is over . . .”
His voice faded. She wanted to put her arms around him, but of course that was impossible. So she just looked at his pale form instead, and the ghost saw the passion and brilliance in her eyes, and took strength from it.
And on Lyra’s shoulder, and on Will’s, rode the two Gallivespians. Their short lives were nearly over; each of them felt a stiffness in their limbs, a coldness around the heart. They would both return soon to the world of the dead, this time as ghosts, but they caught each other’s eye, and vowed that they would stay with Will and Lyra for as long as they could, and not say a word about their dying.
Up and up the children clambered. They didn’t speak. They heard each other’s harsh breathing, they heard their footfalls, they heard the little stones their steps dislodged. Ahead of them all the way, the harpy scrambled heavily, her wings dragging, her claws scratching, silent and grim.
Then came a new sound: a regular drip-drip, echoing in the tunnel. And then a faster dripping, a trickle, a running of water.
“Here!” said Lyra, reaching forward to touch a sheet of rock that blocked the way, smooth and wet and cold. “Here it is.”
She turned to the harpy.
“I been thinking,” she said, “how you saved me, and how you promised to guide all the other ghosts that’ll come through the world of the dead to that land we slept in last night. And I thought, if you en’t got a name, that can’t be right, not for the future. So I thought I’d give you a name, like King Iorek Byrnison gave me my name Silvertongue. I’m going to call you Gracious Wings. So that’s your name now, and that’s what you’ll be for evermore: Gracious Wings.”
“One day,” said the harpy, “I will see you again, Lyra Silvertongue.”
“And if I know you’re here, I shan’t be afraid,” Lyra said. “Good-bye, Gracious Wings, till I die.”
She embraced the harpy, hugging her tightly and kissing her on both cheeks.
Then the Chevalier Tialys said: “This is the world of Lord Asriel’s Republic?”
“Yes,” she said, “that’s what the alethiometer says. It’s close to his fortress.”
“Then let me speak to the ghosts.”
She held him high, and he called, “Listen, because the Lady Salmakia and I are the only ones among us who have seen this world before. There is a fortress on a mountaintop: that is what Lord Asriel is defending. Who the enemy is I do not know. Lyra and Will have only one task now, which is to search for their dæmons. Our task is to help them. Let’s be of good courage and fight well.”