Chapter 1: Northern Lights
The crusty snow crunched beneath her feet. Lyra dug her boots in and dismounted the dog sled. The sun had just set, and the men who had reached the peak first had already begun to set up camp. The hanging anabaric lights glared against the icy snow. She slung her day pack against the Captain's tent which had already been set up and pulled out a smaller pouch which she tied around her waist. It was her first real expedition and she wasn't about to waste a moment of it. Abandoning the work around her, she continued on the path away from the lights and into the darkness. She walked swiftly; her eyes scanned the sky while her feet moved firmly over the uneven ground. Finally, as the glare of the lights receded into the distance, she spotted what she had been looking for.
The Northern Lights danced across the sky, pale shades of purple and blue masked with a golden sheen. Lyra fumbled in the pouch around her waist and retracted a brass instrument resembling a collapsed telescope with its lens blackened out. She placed it to her eye and gazed up at the flickering lights.
A pine martin emerged from the folds of her hood and perched on her shoulder. She moved the instrument and the creature leaned forward to gaze too.
"You can still see it, Pan," she whispered to her companion. "You can still see the other world behind the lights."
Pantalaimon felt the tug of despair and longing in Lyra's stomach and moved over to nuzzle her cheek. "You shouldn't torture yourself like this. Let's go back to the camp where we're needed."
But Lyra was not listening. The brass instrument was at her eye again as she gazed up at the skyline of the other world. It wasn't until the distant shouts broke her reverie that she started her trek back to the campsite.
Lyra entered the Captain's tent silently. The Captain stood in the middle of the room leaning over a table discussing a large map tacked to the table. She moved over to wait by the warmth of the camp stove, removing her oilskin cap so her golden hair cascaded down her shoulders. Pan darted out to be nearer to the warmth of the stove.
"Can you hear what they're saying, Pan?" Lyra whispered.
He strained his ears, trying to hear over the clatter of the camp outside. "They're discussing the last known location of this band of Tartars, I think. That's probably why they wanted you back here, you know."
Lyra shifted uncomfortably. She knew she had been sent here to practice reading the alethiometer, but she still wasn't sure she was ready to use it on her own. The meanings which had once flowed so easily together where now disjointed.
"Lyra, come here."
Lyra heard her name being called. The Captain had finished his meeting with the lower officers. He beckoned her to the table and showed her the map.
"There," he said, pointing his stubby finger at a nearby mountain range, "is where the Tartar tribe was last seen. I've sent scouts there but the area is barren. They must have vacated months ago. Consult your alethiometer. See if you can discover where they have gone. In the meantime, a squad of me and my men will go question the nearest town. It's three leagues off. I hope this will provide you with sufficient time."
Setting a determined look on her face, Lyra gave a fierce nod, which he returned curtly before turning and exiting. As the tent flap closed and the bust of cold air subsided, Lyra sank into the nearest chair.
"Oh, Pan, I'm not sure I'm ready for this…"
Pan climbed onto her lap and pulled the alethiometer from the velvet lining in the pouch around her waist. He nudged the cool metal into her hand.
"Dame Hannah thought you were ready, so you most likely are. You ought to get started now. The Captain will be back in a few hours."
She sighed, and set the alethiometer down and retrieved an old, leather bound book from her day pack, which had been brought inside the tent. Centering herself, she began to turn the dials of the alethiometer. As the needle began to swing, she felt herself lulled into the rhythm. Slowly, she began to climb down the ladder of meanings. She made meticulous notes on her pad of paper, pausing to look up a symbol here, a specific meaning there.
It was slippery, as if she would never be able to get a firm grasp on any of the meanings. It was if ever few steps she felt her foot slip. Each time, she regained her balance, and began again at the primary meaning, working her way down and making notes until she felt sure there was no more meaning underneath.
After what felt like hours, she left her trance to gaze over her notes, staring at them until they made sense. Her shoulders ached and her head felt heavy. Scanning, her notes, her eyes narrowed. Pan sensed her tension. Suddenly, comprehension dawned on her and she clamped her hands down on the notes just as the flap of the tent opened and the Captain entered.
"Our venture was fruitless. Hopefully your pursuits have not been. What have you learned."
"There is a Tartar settlement due East, about a three days journey from here." Her voice was steady, but her face was colorless and her hands trembled slightly.
"Excellent. I'll have my men map out a course. Your tent should be ready be now. I suggest you go sleep."
Lyra nodded meekly, feeling faint. She slipped the alethiometer into the pouch at her waist and trekked out to her tent at the edge of the camp. It was small and cramped, but as she was the only woman on the expedition it mattered little. The notes were still clutched in her hand. She sank down onto the edge of her cot. Pan jumped onto her lap.
"What is it? What did you see? You look as though you saw a ghost."
"Pan, the alethiometer was speaking to me, like it used to. I don't know how… I just know… but it was one of those things that the alethiometer only wanted me to know."
She was trembling all over now, and the paper shook in her hands. Pan clung to her- calming her until she could speak again.
"What did it say?"
She looked down at the notes puzzled. "That's just it, Pan. I don't really understand what it was telling me... I think it was saying 'the tree is a gift', but I'm not sure. It doesn't make sense. I think I misinterpreted the last symbol."
They sat in tense silence. Pan looked up at her timidly.
"Lyra, isn't this what you wanted? To get your abilities back?"
"Yes, Pan, but if I can read the alethiometer again, then maybe I can ask it... maybe it knows..."
The words caught in her throat. She was too afraid to voice what she desired most, for fear it would never happen.
She could ask about Will.
She could finally know for certain if there was a way to see him again.
Pan turned away from her, unable to bear the pain and longing in her eyes. For so long she had only been able to ask simple questions. Perhaps finally she would have a chance at more- before it was too late.
"You shouldn't get your hopes up."
His voice was flat, emotionless. He had never been able to admit how badly he wanted the same thing too.
Lyra pushed him off her lap and got up off the cot. She sat at the table sulking.
"I wasn't getting my hopes up. I was just saying it's possible."
For a few moments neither spoke. Each was busy trying not to wish for the impossible. Finally, Pan pointed out they both needed sleep, especially for the journey tomorrow.
So, until sleep claimed them, they lay on the cot, aware the other was awake, but not sure what to say.