"I rescued him one time from the Tartars, when he was cut off and they were starving him out - that was in the Tunguska campaign; I flew in and took him off. Sounds easy, but hell, I had to calculate the weight of that old boy by guesswork. And then I had to bank on finding ground-gas under the ice-fort he'd made. But I could see what kind of ground it was from the air, and I reckoned we'd be safe in digging. See, to go down I have to let gas out of the balloon, and I can't get airbourne again without more. Anyway, we made it, armour and all." - Northern Lights / The Golden Compass
The cold of snow was nothing like the cold of the wind; not as sharp, not as clean. Snow cold was like a dull-bladed wound, getting in and wearing you down in your mind at the same time as your body.
"You are cold?" Iorek asked when Lee paused again to bury his face in Hester's warmth. Lee couldn't help laughing at that, the formal courtesy of the question seemed so awkward when his teeth were near chattering right out of his mouth and his eyelashes were clotted with ice.
"Yes. Your fort's walls are sturdy against the wind but this digging is taking us down into frost as cold as any in the world." Lee's mouth twisted in a smirk. "Heavy going for a prairie boy like myself."
"Well shall rest for the night, then. The gas will still be there tomorrow."
Lee, too tired and too cold to protest, walked from their small mine to the basket of his balloon. Iorek's fort was small even by human standards, and absolutely tiny to a bear. A last refuge, a corner he'd been backed into by pride and unlucky chance. The basket and its deflated balloon, the hole they were digging down to the hoped-for gas vein, and the looming bulk of Iorek himself took up nearly all of the space. How the cold managed to fit into the crush was something Lee was rather curious to know.
Even with the furs and canvas around him and Hester curled against his neck, Lee felt that he would freeze for sure. The fort's open design had been lucky for lowering the balloon down but it meant there was no insulation to speak of, and it had been a long time since the thin sunlight had broken through the clouds to alleviate the chill in the air. Lee hadn't seen the sun for weeks.
His arms and legs were shaking with shivering so much that sleep was impossible, so after a time Lee gave up trying and sat against the wall of the basket. It had landed upright, which hardly ever happened, and the effect was almost that of creating a small room within the larger fort. Iorek was sitting out on the snow, showing no more sign of resting than Lee was.
"Iorek, come here and tell me about yourself," demanded Lee. "We might as well pass the time with a yarn."
"You would be interested in that?"
"I asked, didn't I?" Lee was still learning the rhythm of Iorek's speech, how to detect inflection in the flat voice. "Come here into the basket... yeah, we'll be right for take off I think, you fit at least. So, you ever been married?"
"No. Bears are solitary. We do not have long companionships."
"Any children, then?"
"My daughter lost her life many years ago."
"I'm sorry to hear that, old fella."
"There is no reason to be." Iorek shook his head. "Bears do not fear or shrink from death. She lived a proud and good life, and bore three cubs as strong and fearless as herself."
"You're a grandfather, in that case."
"You forget, Lee Scoresby, I am not even a panserborn, much less a grandfather, any longer."
"I'm sorry." Lee bowed his head, wishing he had a cigar to chew on and distract himself with.
"The fault is not yours to be sorry for. Are you a father?"
"Me? Nah. Would have liked to be, but choices don't always come up twice."
"Married?" Iorek asked then, and Lee noted that the bear's word patterns were matching his own more closely as the conversation went on. True bear-speech must be utterly inhuman to the ear, when there was no mimickry in the mix.
The question made Lee chuckle. "No, had too many wild oats to sow." He shifted, Hester curling under his hand on his lap, one lanky leg stretched out. Iorek didn't look cramped in the small basket, utterly at ease with his size and shape. "Do bears love at all, or is that one of those things only us poor human suckers have to deal with?"
Iorek considered his answer for a while in silence. "We love, yes. Respect, closeness, loyalty, these are important things to a bear. But until we began to talk with humans we had no word for forever, and saw no reason to sustain love over long periods of time. Time passes, the young are born, the weak die. Loves begin, and end. If a pair remain lovers and beloved to each other for all their shared lifetime, then there are tokens and customs to mark this, but not what you would call marriage."
"So bears don't have wedding rings?" Lee joked. It was good to joke, after so long in battle. Hester shifted under his hand and he scritched behind her ears, letting the relaxation she was feeling wash over his mind.
"Decoration is not a thing true bears care for." If Iorek had been human, there may have been bitterness in those words. "As I said, our customs are not like your marriages."
"What are they, then?"
"My daughter had one lover in her life. She gave him her heart."
"Ah. Humans use that phrase, too."
"But when you say it, you mean it as a metaphor. Bears have no use for guile in language, for comparison or poetry. We speak of things as they are. My daughter gave her heart."
Lee gulped. Hester shivered.
"You mean -"
"If a bear is slain in combat, the victor has the right to eat the heart of the defeated. We take the power, the life, the honour of our foe into ourselves. Their worth is ours to pillage. But that worth can also be given, if the circumstances of a bear's death allow it. My daughter died when she became trapped by the ice under water and could not surface to breathe, and so her heart was her lover's to take. That is the highest mark of love that bears know, to give strength and life and power willingly at the end of life."
Lee tried to think of a way to answer that would be respectful of the secrets Iorek was telling him, but there didn't seem to be words that wouldn't sound flippant. Iorek seemed to accept his silence as answer enough.
"Bears are solitary," Iorek spoke again after a long pause during which Lee felt a little warmth creeping into him. The basket was holding the heat of Iorek's bulk in and making the air easier to breathe. "But sometimes it is difficult not to long for another's fur to touch."
Bears may have had no need for poetry, but Lee felt that truer words had rarely been spoken by the most insightful of writers. He liked his life, beholden to nobody but the wind, soaring above the world, but it could be one of tugging longing. Never so bad as being apart from one's daemon, but something like the same sensation. A feeling of something important missing, and your heart aching for its return.
Hester, disturbed at the turn that Lee's thoughts were taking, shifted irritably on his lap. An idea came to them both at once, and Lee's breath caught. Hester moved down along his outstretched leg and then bounded shyly closer to Iorek. Lee and the bear had known each other for years, but Hester had never spoken directly to Iorek. She did so for the first time now.
"There is our fur to touch, if you want it." Her eyes, which usually glittered with the same sardonic humour as Lee's, were now aimed down at the woven floor of the basket. Iorek drew a breath in sharply, and Lee feared that some great offence had been unwittingly made. But then Iorek extended a paw, capable of terrible power and immense delicacy, and touched the fur on Hester's back.
The sensation caught Lee by surprise, a tickle and a tug low in his belly, and he had to hold his breath to keep from gasping. Iorek's unreadable black eyes were still staring down at Hester as he repeated the gesture, and then he looked up at Lee.
Lee was still doing his best to remain calm, but the second touch had been twice the first and it was all he could do to keep his hands from tracing over his skin and seeking replication of that wonderful, alien feeling of another being touching his daemon. His eyes were glittering, breath a little harsher than he meant it to be.
"Do you wish me to stop?" Iorek asked, voice as soft as Lee had ever heard it. Hester whimpered. Lee searched in vain for his usual wit, for some flippant retort. One of Iorek's claws scratched a line down from between Hester's ears towards her tail, light as a breath. Lee felt his spine arch and his hands clench.
"No." His voice was a gasp. "No, don't stop."
That night, Lee discovered that a bear's touch felt just as strange on his own skin as it did on the fur of his daemon. He learnt that the tough hide of a bear could feel more than seemed likely, could feel the ghost of a breath against ice-pale fur. Learnt what it was to hear the beat of his own heart in his ears, the rush of fevered veins, and know that it belonged not just to himself and Hester.
The things Iorek discovered that night are not things that would make sense to a human. But he learnt them in Lee's form, in the restless shift of a hip, in Hester's feather-light movement as fast as dreams. They learnt together, taught together.
And then, in the warmth of the balloon basket, they slept.