The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials 2) - Page 24

Lee had arrived that afternoon, borne to Nova Zembla by the wind the witches had called up, and once he’d stowed his equipment he’d made straight for the Samirsky Hotel, near the fish-packing station. This was a place where many Arctic drifters stopped to exchange news or look for employment or leave messages for one another, and Lee Scoresby had spent several days there in the past, waiting for a contract or a passenger or a fair wind, so there was nothing unusual in his conduct now.

And with the vast changes they sensed in the world around them, it was natural for people to gather and talk. With every day that passed came more news: the river Yenisei was free of ice, and at this time of year, too; part of the ocean had drained away, exposing strange regular formations of stone on the seabed; a squid a hundred feet long had snatched three fishermen out of their boat and torn them apart . . . .

And the fog continued to roll in from the north, dense and cold and occasionally drenched with the strangest imaginable light, in which great forms could be vaguely seen, and mysterious voices heard.

Altogether it was a bad time to work, which was why the bar of the Samirsky Hotel was full.

“Did you say Grumman?” said the man sitting just along the bar, an elderly man in seal hunter’s rig, whose lemming dæmon looked out solemnly from his pocket. “He was a Tartar all right. I was there when he joined that tribe. I saw him having his skull drilled. He had another name, too—a Tartar name; I’ll think of it in a minute.”

“Well, how about that,” said Lee Scoresby. “Let me buy you a drink, my friend. I’m looking for news of this man. What tribe was it he joined?”

“The Yenisei Pakhtars. At the foot of the Semyonov Range. Near a fork of the Yenisei and the—I forget what it’s called—a river that comes down from the hills. There’s a rock the size of a house at the landing stage.”

“Ah, sure,” said Lee. “I remember it now. I’ve flown over it. And Grumman had his skull drilled, you say? Why was that?”

“He was a shaman,” said the old seal hunter. “I think the tribe recognized him as a shaman before they adopted him. Some business, that drilling. It goes on for two nights and a day. They use a bow drill, like for lighting a fire.”

“Ah, that accounts for the way his team was obeying him,” said Sam Cansino. “They were the roughest bunch of scoundrels I ever saw, but they ran around doing his bidding like nervous children. I thought it was his cursing that did it. If they thought he was a shaman, it’d make even more sense. But you know, that man’s curiosity was as powerful as a wolf’s jaws; he would not let go. He made me tell him every scrap I knew about the land thereabouts, and the habits of wolverines and foxes. And he was in some pain from that damn trap of Yakovlev’s; leg laid open, and he was writing the results of that bloodmoss, taking his temperature, watching the scar form, making notes on every damn thing . . . . A strange man. There was a witch who wanted him for a lover, but he turned her down.”

“Is that so?” said Lee, thinking of the beauty of Serafina Pekkala.

“He shouldn’t have done that,” said the seal hunter. “A witch offers you her love, you should take it. If you don’t, it’s your own fault if bad things happen to you. It’s like having to make a choice: a blessing or a curse. The one thing you can’t do is choose neither.”

“He might have had a reason,” said Lee.

“If he had any sense, it will have been a good one.”

“He was headstrong,” said Sam Cansino.

“Maybe faithful to another woman,” Lee guessed. “I heard something else about him; I heard he knew the whereabouts of some magic object, I don’t know what it might be, that could protect anyone who held it. Did you ever hear that story?”

“Yes, I heard that,” said the seal hunter. “He didn’t have it himself, but he knew where it was. There was a man who tried to make him tell, but Grumman killed him.”

“His dæmon, now,” said Sam Cansino, “that was curious. She was an eagle, a black eagle with a white head and breast, of a kind I’d never set eyes on, and I didn’t know how she might be called.”

“She was an osprey,” said the barman, listening in. “You’re talking about Stan Grumman? His dæmon was an osprey. A fish eagle.”

“What happened to him?” said Lee Scoresby.

“Oh, he got mixed up in the Skraeling wars over to Beringland. Last I heard he’d been shot,” said the seal hunter. “Killed outright.”

“I heard they beheaded him,” said Lee Scoresby.

“No, you’re both wrong,” said the barman, “and I know, because I heard it from an Inuit who was with him. Seems that they were camped out on Sakhalin somewhere and there was an avalanche. Grumman was buried under a hundred tons of rock. This Inuit saw it happen.”

“What I can’t understand,” said Lee Scoresby, offering the bottle around, “is what the man was doing. Was he prospecting for rock oil, maybe? Or was he a military man? Or was it something philosophical? You said something about measurements, Sam. What would that be?”

“They were measuring the starlight. And the aurora. He had a passion for the aurora. I think his main interest was in ruins, though. Ancient things.”

“I know who could tell you more,” said the seal hunter. “Up the mountain they have an observatory belonging to the Imperial Muscovite Academy. They’d be able to tell you. I know he went up there more than once.”

“What d’you want to know for, anyway, Lee?” said Sam Cansino.

“He owes me some money,” said Lee Scoresby.

This explanation was so satisfying that it stopped their curiosity at once. The conversation turned to the topic on everyone’s lips: the catastrophic changes taking place around them, which no one could see.

“The fishermen,” said the seal hunter, “they say you can sail right up into that new world.”

“There’s a new world?” said Lee.

“As soon as this damn fog clears we’ll see right into it,” the seal hunter told them confidently. “When it first happened, I was out in my kayak and looking north, just by chance. I’ll never forget what I saw. Instead of the earth curving down over the horizon, it went straight on. I could see forever, and as far as I could see, there was land and shoreline, mountains, harbors, green trees, and fields of corn, forever into the sky. I tell you, friends, that was something worth toiling fifty years to see, a sight like that. I would have paddled up the sky into that calm sea without a backward glance; but then came the fog . . . . ”

“Ain’t never seen a fog like this,” grumbled Sam Cansino. “Reckon it’s set in for a month, maybe more. But you’re out of luck if you want money from Stanislaus Grumman, Lee; the man’s dead.”

“Ah! I got his Tartar name!” said the seal hunter. “I just remembered what they called him during the drilling. It sounded like Jopari.”

“Jopari? That’s no kind of name I’ve ever heard of,” said Lee. “Might be Nipponese, I suppose. Well, if I want my money, maybe I can chase up his heirs and assigns. Or maybe the Berlin Academy can square the debt. I’ll go ask at the observatory, see if they have an address I can apply to.”

The observatory was some distance to the north, and Lee Scoresby hired a dog sledge and driver. It wasn’t easy to find someone willing to risk the journey in the fog, but Lee was persuasive, or his money was; and eventually an old Tartar from the Ob region agreed to take him there, after a lengthy bout of haggling.

The driver didn’t rely on a compass, or he would have found it impossible. He navigated by other signs—his Arctic fox dæmon for one, who sat at the front of the sledge keenly scenting the way. Lee, who carried his compass everywhere, had realized already that the earth’s magnetic field was as disturbed as everything else.

The old driver said, as they stopped to brew coffee, “This happen before, this thing.”

“What, the sky opening? That happened before?”

“Many thousand generation. My people remember. All long time ago, many thousand generation.”

“What do they say about it?”

“Sky fall open, and spirits move between this world and that world. All the lands move. The ice melt, then freeze again. The spirits close up the hole after a while. Seal it up. But witches say the sky is thin there, behind the northern lights.”

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