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Malcolm Polstead, the eleven-year-old at the centre of the story, sees a great deal of the secret life of Oxford from the perspective of the rivers and the canal in his canoe La Belle Sauvage. Here he witnesses something he'd never expected to see, and discovers something that will change his life.

– Philip Pullman
 

Malcolm let the canoe drift to a halt and then silently slipped in among the stiff stems and watched as a great crested grebe scrambled up on to the towpath, waddled ungracefully across, and then dropped down into the little backwater on the other side. Keeping as quiet as he could and moving very slowly, Malcolm wedged the canoe even deeper into the reeds, and watched the bird shake its head and paddle across the water to join its mate.

Malcolm had heard that there were great crested grebes here, but he’d only half believed it. Now he had proof. He’d definitely come back a little later in the year and see if they were breeding.

The reeds were taller than he was as he sat in the canoe, and if he kept very still he thought he probably couldn’t be seen. He heard voices behind him, a man’s and a woman’s, and sat like a statue as they walked past, absorbed in each other. He’d passed them further back: two lovers strolling hand in hand, their dæmons, two small birds, flying ahead a little way, pausing to whisper together, and flying on again.

Malcolm’s dæmon Asta was a kingfisher just then, perching on the gunwale of the canoe. When the lovers had passed she flew up to his shoulder and whispered, ‘The man just along there – watch . . .’

Malcolm hadn’t seen him. A few yards ahead on the towpath, just visible through the reed-stems, a man in a raincoat and grey trilby hat was standing under an oak tree. He looked as if he were sheltering from the rain, except that it wasn’t raining. His coat and hat were almost exactly the colour of the late afternoon: he was as hard to see as the grebes, harder, in fact, thought Malcolm, because he didn’t have a crest of feathers.

‘What’s he doing?’ whispered Malcolm.

Asta became a fly and flew as far as she could from Malcolm, stopping when it began to hurt, and settled at the very top of a bulrush so she could watch the man clearly. He was trying to remain inconspicuous, but being so awkward and unhappy about it that he might as well have been waving a flag.

Asta saw his dæmon – a cat – moving among the lowest branches of the oak tree while he stood below and looked up and down the towpath. Then the cat made a quiet noise, the man looked up, she jumped down to his shoulder – but in doing so she dropped something out of her mouth.

The man uttered a little grunt of dismay, and his dæmon scrambled to the ground. They began to cast around, looking under the tree, at the edge of the water, among the scrubby grass.

‘What did she drop?’ Malcolm whispered. ‘Like a nut. About the size of a nut.’

‘Did you see where it went?’

‘I think so. I think it bounced off the bottom of the tree and went under the bush there. Look, they’re pretending not to look for it . . .’

They were too. Someone else was coming along the path, a man and his dog-dæmon, and while the man in the raincoat waited for them to pass he pretended to be looking at his watch, shaking his wrist, listening to it, shaking his wrist again, taking the watch off, winding it . . . As soon as the other man had gone past, the grey-coat man fastened the watch on his wrist again and went back to looking for the object his dæmon had dropped. He was anxious, it was easy to see that, and his dæmon had apology in every line of her body. Between the two of them they looked the picture of distress.

‘We could go and help,’ said Asta.

Malcolm was torn. He could still see the grebes, and he very much wanted to watch them, but the man seemed as if he needed help, and he was sure Asta’s eyes would find the thing, whatever it was. It would only take a minute or so.

But before he had the chance to do anything, the man bent and scooped up his cat-dæmon and made off quite quickly down the towpath as if he’d decided to go and get help. At once Malcolm backed the canoe out of the reeds and sped forward to the spot under the oak tree, where the man had been standing. A moment later he’d jumped out holding the painter, and Asta in the shape of a mouse shot across the path and under the bush. A rustling of leaves, a silence, more rustling, more silence, while Malcolm watched the man reach the little iron footbridge to the piazza and climb the steps. Then a squeak of excitement told Malcolm that Asta had found it, and squirrel-formed she came racing back, up his arm and on to his shoulder, and dropped something into his hand.

‘It must be this,’ she said. ‘It must be.’

At first sight it was an acorn, but it was oddly heavy, and when he looked more closely he saw that it was carved out of a piece of tight-grained wood. Two pieces, in fact: one for the cup, whose surface was carved into an exact replica of the rough overlapping scales of a real one and stained very lightly with green; and one for the nut, which was polished and waxed a perfect glossy light brown. It was beautiful, and Asta was right: it had to be the thing the man had lost.

‘Let’s catch him before he gets across the bridge,’ he said, and put his foot down into the canoe, but Asta said, ‘Wait. Look.’

She’d become an owl, which she always did when she wanted to see something clearly. Her flat face was looking down the canal, and as Malcolm followed her gaze he saw the man reach the middle of the footbridge, and hesitate, because another man had stepped up from the other side, a stocky man dressed in black with a light-stepping vixen- dæmon, and Malcolm and Asta could see that the second man was going to stop the raincoat man, and the raincoat man was afraid.

They saw him turn and take a hasty step or two and then stop again, because a third man had appeared on the bridge behind him. He was thinner than the first man, and he too was dressed in black. His dæmon was a large bird of some kind on his shoulder. Both of the men looked full of confidence, as if they had plenty of time to do whatever they wanted. They said something to the raincoat man and each took one of his arms. He struggled for a futile moment or two, and then seemed to sag downwards, but they held him up and walked him across the bridge, into the little piazza below the church tower, and away out of sight. His cat-dæmon hurried after them, abject and desperate.

‘Put it in your insidest pocket,’ Asta whispered.

Malcolm put the acorn into the inside breast pocket of his jacket and then sat down very carefully. He was trembling.

‘They were arresting him,’ he whispered. ‘They weren’t police.’

‘No. But they weren’t robbers. They were sort of calm about it, as if they were allowed to do anything they wanted.’

‘Just go home,’ said Asta. ‘In case they saw us.’

‘They weren’t even bothering to look,’ said Malcolm, but he agreed with her: they should go home.

They spoke quietly together while he paddled quickly back towards Duke’s Cut.

‘I bet he’s a spy,’ she said. ‘Could be. And those men—’ ‘CCD.’

‘Ssh!’

The CCD was the Consistorial Court of Discipline, an agency of the Church concerned with heresy and unbelief. Malcolm didn’t know much about it, but he knew the sense of sickening terror the CCD could produce, through hearing some customers once discuss what might have happened to a man they knew, a journalist: he had asked too many questions about the CCD in a series of articles, and had suddenly vanished. The editor of his paper had been arrested and jailed for sedition, but the journalist himself had never been seen again.

‘We mustn’t say anything about this to the sisters,’ said Asta. ‘Specially not to them,’ Malcolm agreed.

It was hard to understand, but the Consistorial Court of Discipline was on the same side as the gentle sisters of Godstow Priory, sort of. They were both parts of the Church. The only time Malcolm had seen Sister Benedicta distressed was when he’d asked her about it one day.

‘These are mysteries we mustn’t enquire into, Malcolm,’ she’d said. ‘They’re too deep for us. But the Holy Church knows the will of God and what must be done. We must continue to love one another and not ask too many questions.’

The first part was easy enough for Malcolm, who was fond of most things he knew, but the second part was harder. However, he didn’t ask any more about the CCD.

It was nearly dark when they reached home. Malcolm dragged La Belle Sauvage out of the water and under the lean-to shelter at the side of the inn, then hurried inside, his arms aching, and raced up to his bedroom.

Dropping his coat on the floor and kicking his shoes under the bed, he switched on the bedside light while Asta struggled to pull the acorn out of the insidest pocket. When he had it in his hand he turned it over and over, examining it closely.

‘Look at the way this is carved!’ he said, marvelling. ‘Try opening it.’

He was doing that as she spoke, gently twisting the acorn in its cup without any success. It didn’t unscrew, so he tried harder, and then tried to pull it, but that didn’t work either.

‘Try twisting the other way,’ said Asta.

‘That would just do it up tighter,’ he said, but he tried, and it worked. The thread was the opposite way.

‘I never seen that before,’ said Malcolm. ‘Strange.’

So neatly and finely made were the threads that he had to turn it a dozen times before the two parts fell open. There was a piece of paper inside, folded up as small as it could go: that very thin kind of paper that Bibles were printed on.

Malcolm and Asta looked at each other. ‘This is someone else’s secret,’ he said. ‘We ought not to look.’

He opened it all the same, very carefully so as not to tear the delicate paper, but it wasn’t delicate at all: it was tough.

‘Anyone might have found it,’ said Asta. ‘He’s lucky it was us.’

‘Luckyish,’ said Malcolm.

‘Anyway, he’s lucky he hadn’t got it when he was arrested.’

Written on the paper in black ink with a very fine pen were the words:

We would like you to turn your attention next to another matter. You will be aware that the existence of a Rusakov field implies the existence of a related particle, but so far such a particle has eluded us. When we try measuring one way, our substance evades it and seems to prefer another, but when we try a different way, we have no more success. A suggestion from Tokojima, although rejected out of hand by most official bodies, seems to us to hold some promise, and we would like you to enquire through the alethiometer about any connection you can discover between the Rusakov field and the phenomenon unofficially called Dust. We do not have to remind you of the danger should this research attract the attention of the other side, but please be aware that they are themselves beginning a major programme of inquiry into this subject. Tread carefully.

‘What does it mean?’ said Asta.

‘Something to do with a field. Like a magnetic field, I spose. They sound like experimental philosophers.’

‘What d’you think they mean by “the other side”?’

‘The CCD. Bound to be, since it was them chasing the man.’

‘And what’s an aleth – an althe—’

‘Malcolm!’ came his mother’s voice from downstairs. ‘Coming,’ he called back, and folded the paper back along the same creases before putting it carefully back in the acorn and screwing it shut. He put it inside one of the clean socks in his chest of drawers, and ran down to start the evening’s work.

 

From La Belle Sauvage, published by David Fickling Books in association with Penguin Books. Copyright © Philip Pullman, 2017

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