Read The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials #1)(15) online free by Philip Pullman
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The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials #1)(15)
Author: Philip Pullman

“But I wonder about your choice of companions. Are you a lonely child?” “No,” she said.

“Do you…do you miss the society of other children?” “No.”

“I don't mean Roger the kitchen boy. I mean children such as yourself. Nobly born children. Would you like to have some companions of that sort?” “No.”

“But other girls, perhaps…” “No.”

“You see, none of us would want you to miss all the usual childhood pleasures and pastimes. I sometimes think it must be a lonely life for you here among a company of elderly Scholars, Lyra. Do you feel that?” “No.”

He tapped his thumbs together over his interlaced fingers, unable to think of anything else to ask this stubborn child.

“If there is anything troubling you,” he said finally, “you know you can come and tell me about it. I hope you feel you can always do that.” “Yes,” she said.

“Do you say your prayers?”

“Yes.”

“Good girl. Well, run along.”

With a barely concealed sigh of relief, she turned and left. Having failed to find Gobblers below ground, Lyra took to the streets again. She was at home there.

Then, almost when she'd lost interest in them, the Gobblers appeared in Oxford.

The first Lyra heard of it was when a young boy went missing from a gyptian family she knew.

It was about the time of the horse fair, and the canal basin was crowded with narrowboats and butty boats, with traders and travelers, and the wharves along the waterfront in Jericho were bright with gleaming harness and loud with the clop of hooves and the clamor of bargaining. Lyra always enjoyed the horse fair; as well as the chance of stealing a ride on a less-than-well-attended horse, there were endless opportunities for provoking warfare.

And this year she had a grand plan. Inspired by the capture of the narrowboat the year before, she intended this time to make a proper voyage before being turned out. If she and her cronies from the College kitchens could get as far as Abingdon, they could play havoc with the weir….

But this year there was to be no war. Something else happened. Lyra was sauntering along the edge of the Port Meadow boatyard in the morning sun, without Roger for once (he had been detailed to wash the buttery floor) but with Hugh Lovat and Simon Parslow, passing a stolen cigarette from one to another and blowing out the smoke ostentatiously, when she heard a cry in a voice she recognized.

“Well, what have you done with him, you half-arsed pillock?”

It was a mighty voice, a woman's voice, but a woman with lungs of brass and leather. Lyra looked around for her at once, because this was Ma Costa, who had clouted Lyra dizzy on two occasions but given her hot gingerbread on three, and whose family was noted for the grandeur and sumptu-ousness of their boat. They were princes among gyptians, and Lyra admired Ma Costa greatly, but she intended to be wary of her for some time yet, for theirs was the boat she had hijacked.

One of Lyra's brat companions picked up a stone automatically when he heard the commotion, but Lyra said, “Put it down. She's in a temper. She could snap your backbone like a twig.”

In fact, Ma Costa looked more anxious than angry. The man she was addressing, a horse trader, was shrugging and spreading his hands.

“Well, I dunno,” he was saying. “He was here one minute and gone the next. I never saw where he went….”

“He was helping you! He was holding your bloody horses for you!”

“Well, he should've stayed there, shouldn't he? Runs off in the middle of a job—”

He got no further, because Ma Costa suddenly dealt him a mighty blow on the side of the head, and followed it up with such a volley of curses and slaps that he yelled and turned to flee. The other horse traders nearby jeered, and a flighty colt reared up in alarm.

“What's going on?” said Lyra to a gyptian child who'd been watching open-mouthed. “What's she angry about?”

“It's her kid,” said the child. “It's Billy. She probly reckons the Gobblers got him. They might've done, too. I ain't seen him meself since—”

“The Gobblers? Has they come to Oxford, then?”

The gyptian boy turned away to call to his friends, who were all watching Ma Costa.

“She don't know what's going on! She don't know the Gobblers is here!”

Half a dozen brats turned with expressions of derision, and Lyra threw her cigarette down, recognizing the cue for a fight. Everyone's daemon instantly became warlike: each child was accompanied by fangs, or claws, or bristling fur, and Pantalaimon, contemptuous of the limited imaginations of these gyptian daemons, became a dragon the size of a deer hound.

But before they could all join battle, Ma Costa herself waded in, smacking two of the gyptians aside and confronting Lyra like a prizefighter.

“You seen him?” she demanded of Lyra. “You seen Billy?”

“No,” Lyra said. “We just got here. I en't seen Billy for months.”

Ma Costa's daemon was wheeling in the bright air above her head, a hawk, fierce yellow eyes snapping this way and that, unblinking. Lyra was frightened. No one worried about a child gone missing for a few hours, certainly not a gyptian: in the tight-knit gyptian boat world, all children were precious and extravagantly loved, and a mother knew that if a child was out of sight, it wouldn't be far from someone else's who would protect it instinctively.

But here was Ma Costa, a queen among the gyptians, in a terror for a missing child. What was going on?

Ma Costa looked half-blindly over the little group of children and turned away to stumble through the crowd on the wharf, bellowing for her child. At once the children turned back to one another, their feud abandoned in the face of her grief.

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