La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1)(11)

by Philip Pullman

“Her daughter?” said Coram. “You mean the child she had by—”

“By Lord Asriel,” said Hallgrimsson. “Indeed. The very same. She wanted me to use the alethiometer to find out where the child was.”

“She doesn’t know?”

“Oh, no. It—I suppose I mean she—is under the supervision of the courts of law, but of course she could be anywhere. Apparently, it’s a matter of some secrecy. And now—remember you are just overhearing this, Mr. Van Texel—the mother has discovered that the child is the subject of a prophecy by the witches. She did not tell us that. We—ahem—overheard it from one of her servants. Mrs. Coulter is very eager to discover more about this, and especially to find out where the child is, so as to take her back into her…I was going to say into her care, but I think it would be more like custody.”

“I see,” said Coram. “And what did this prophecy say? Did you happen to overhear that?”

“No, alas. I believe it was simply that the child was of supreme importance in some way. That is all we heard. And her mother does not know what the prophecy foretells. Yes, a very remarkable woman. But should we now be expecting a call from the agents of the Consistorial Court, Mr. Van Texel?”

“I hope not. But these are trying times, Professor.”

Coram had asked enough; he had learned what he wanted to. After a few more minutes of conversation, he stood up.

“Well, gentlemen,” he said, “I’m greatly obliged to you. A splendid dinner, some of the finest wine I’ve ever tasted in my life, and a look at that remarkable instrument.”

“I’m very sorry I could do no more for you than roughly sketch how it works,” said Professor Hallgrimsson, getting to his feet with a little effort. “But at least you have seen the difficulties.”

“Indeed, sir. Has it stopped raining yet, I wonder?”

Coram went to the window and looked out at the street: empty to left and right, and very dark between the streetlamps, the roadway glistening wet.

“Can I lend you an umbrella?” said the professor.

“No need for that, thank you. It’s dry enough now. Good night, gentlemen, good night to you, and thank you again.”

And now came the second problem Coram had to deal with.

The rain had stopped, but the air was heavy with moisture and bitterly cold. A nimbus of mist surrounded every streetlight so that they looked like golden dandelion seed heads, and the drip of water from the eaves was unceasing as Coram and Sophonax walked slowly along the riverfront.

“Want to come up, Sophie?” said Coram, because dæmon or not, Sophonax was a cat, and the pavements were drenched; but she said, “Better not.”

“He still there?” Coram murmured.

“He’s keeping out of sight, but he’s there.”

Since they had left Novgorod the previous week, Coram had known they were being followed. It was time to put a stop to it.

“Same one, eh?”

“That dæmon can’t hide,” said Sophonax.

Coram was moving in a roundabout way towards the narrow little boardinghouse near the river where he’d rented a room, and now he slowed down by the water’s edge, where half a dozen barges were tied up at a stone embankment. It was half past midnight.

He paused there, hands on the wet iron railing, looking out across the black water while his dæmon wound herself round his legs, pretending to pester for attention but really watching every movement behind them.

To get to the boardinghouse, they’d have to cross a little iron footbridge that spanned the river, but Coram didn’t go that way. Instead, when Sophonax said, “Now,” he turned away from the river and walked swiftly across the road and into an alley between two stone-fronted buildings that might have been banks or government offices. He had noticed this alley before, when coming along the river towards the university—a quick glance, an almost automatic registering of possibility—and he’d seen that it was open at the other end. He wouldn’t get trapped here, but he might ambush whoever was following him. As soon as he was in the shadows, he ran on soft feet for the large rubbish bins halfway down, almost invisible in the darkness on the right-hand side.

There he crouched and reached inside the sleeve of his coat for the short, heavy stick of lignum vitae he carried along his left forearm. He knew how to use it in at least five lethal ways.

Sophonax waited till he had the stick ready before leaping up to his shoulder, and then, after delicately testing the top of the nearest dustbin in case it was loose, she climbed up there and lay flat, staring at the entrance to the alley with her cat eyes wide. Coram watched the other end, which opened into a narrow street of office buildings.

What happened next would depend on how skillfully the other man’s dæmon could fight. They had once overpowered a Tartar and his wolf dæmon when they were younger, and Sophonax was afraid of nothing, and swift and very strong; in a fight to the death, the great taboo against touching another person’s dæmon didn’t count for much. In fighting for their life, Sophonax had more than once had to scratch and bite with fury at the hideous touch of a stranger’s hand and then afterwards wash herself in a near frenzy to get rid of the taint.

But this dæmon…

Sophie whispered, “There.”

Coram turned, careful and slow, and saw in silhouette against the lighted embankment the small head and hulking shoulders of a hyena. She was looking directly at them. She was a brute such as Coram had never seen: malice in every line of her, jaws that could crack bones as if they were made of pastry. She and her man were clearly trained at the business of following, because Coram was trained at the business of spotting it, and admired their skill; but as Sophie remarked, it wasn’t easy for such a dæmon to remain inconspicuous. As for what they wanted, Coram had no idea; if they wanted a fight, they’d get one.

He tightened his grip on the fighting stick; Sophie readied herself to spring. The hyena dæmon came forward a little, emerging into a full silhouette, and the man stepped silently forward after her. Coram and Sophie both spotted the pistol in his hand the moment before he flattened himself against the wall of the alley and disappeared into shadow.

Silence, apart from the eternal drip of water from the roofs.

Coram wished that Sophie had hidden behind the bin with him rather than crouching on the lid. She was too exposed—

A sound like a man spitting a pip—it was a gas pistol—followed at once by a great clatter as the bullet hit the dustbin and sent it tumbling over Coram and rolling across the alley. In the same instant, Sophie leapt away and landed by Coram’s side. A gas pistol wasn’t accurate over a distance but was deadly enough at close range: they’d have to neutralize it. They kept perfectly still. Slow footsteps came towards them, and they could hear the snuffling, grunting sounds of that creature and the clicking of her claws on the pavement, and then Coram thought, Now! and Sophie sprang directly at where the hyena’s head would be, claws out, and the man fired the gas pistol again twice, and one bullet scorched its way across Coram’s scalp. But it gave him a fix on where the man was, and he lunged forward and slashed with his stick at the darkness, connecting with something—arm? hand? shoulder?—and knocking the gun away.

Sophie’s claws, all of them, were firmly fixed in the hyena’s scalp and throat. The dæmon was shaking her head wildly, trying to dislodge her, and smashing her against the wall and the ground again and again. Coram saw the man’s shadow reach down as if to pick up the gun, and he sprang forward to lash down with the stick but missed and slipped on the wet ground and fell at the man’s feet, rolling away at once and kicking out hard towards where the gun had fallen.

His foot connected with something that skittered away over the cobbles, and the man kicked him in the ribs, horribly hard, and then grappled closely with him, trying for a choke hold, and he was wiry and tough, but Coram still had the stick in his hand and stabbed up with it as hard as he could into the man’s midriff. A gasping cough and the grip weakened, and then Coram felt a shock as the hyena finally managed to slam Sophie loose, tearing out a corner of her fur between those brutal teeth, and immediately fastened her massive jaws around Sophie’s head.

Instantly Coram twisted upright. The man fell away, and Coram swung his arm with every gram of strength he had towards the hyena. He had no idea where he hit her and was only concerned that he didn’t fatally damage Sophie, but the blow that landed was a cruel one: he heard bones snapping and saw in the dimness Sophie trying to tear herself away from the hideous jaws. Merciless now, Coram balanced and took aim, and lashed again and again at the hyena’s now-broken leg. He didn’t let up because the hyena had only to crush her mouth shut and he and Sophie would die in a moment.

So as the hyena opened her great jaws to scream, Sophie twisted away and scratched at the man’s hand, tearing his skin and drawing blood, even at the cost of her own disgust; and the man, crying out as the dæmon’s pain made his own nerves throb with agony, pulled away and dragged the hyena with him. The dæmon snarled and snapped her jaws in a frenzy of pain and misery, and Coram would have followed them and attacked the man himself, now that they were wounded, except when he tried to stand up, he fainted and fell down again.