Authors: Robert J. Wiersema
“Oh God,” she said, under her breath.
He shook his head. “Your son’s vital signs are pretty close to normal. He’s running a little hot, but everybody is these days.”
After the younger medic returned from the ambulance, they lifted Matt effortlessly onto the stretcher, securing him with straps across his chest and legs. His head lolled slightly to one side, his eyes still darting back and forth.
“University Hospital,” the first medic reminded them. “One of you should ride with us.”
Matthew was white against the green sheets, his eyes wide, staring unblinkingly toward the ceiling.
AVID’S EYES GLEAMED
as I set the package on the coffee table in front of him. I had wrapped it in the comics pages from last Sunday’s paper, the way my mother used to wrap all my birthday presents.
“I wonder what this could be,” he said, bouncing the package in his hand, teasing me.
“Only one way to find out.”
Jacqui was clearing the far end of the table, stacking the cake plates, crushing the torn wrapping paper into a Thrifty Foods bag.
“It feels like a book,” he said, running his fingers around the edges of the package.
“From your father?” Jacqui asked. “How odd.”
David giggled as he tore at the paper. He looked up at me when he saw the leather cover and a corner of a faded, silver-embossed seal, and I smiled. He pulled the rest of the paper off with a flourish, no longer able to bear the excitement.
Then his face fell.
“Oh,” he said, turning the book over in his hands.
“To the Four Directions,”
he read, furrowing his brow. “By Lazarus Took.”
I forced myself to keep smiling. Jacqui shook her head and plucked the comics in which I’d wrapped the book to tuck them away.
“He’s a good writer,” I said, leaning toward him. “I haven’t read this one, but I used to read his books when I was your age.”
He looked down at the book, then back at me.
“You’ll like it,” I said, hopefully. “There’s a quest, and—”
“Is it as good as
Lord of the Rings?”
He ran his fingers over the silver seal on the cover.
I probably should have expected this reaction. I probably should have bought him a copy of
The Lord of the Rings
, like he wanted.
“What do you say to your dad?” Jacqui prompted.
“Thanks, Dad,” he said weakly, coming over for an obligatory hug.
“You’re welcome,” I whispered into his hair.
“And this one’s from me,” Jaqui said, placing the last box on the table.
Separate gifts for David. Something else I’d never expected.
Under the bright paper was the box from David’s latest pair of sneakers. She had taped the edges of the lid down, and David grinned as he tore at them. There was nothing forced about his reaction as he worked the box open.
“A new glove,” he practically shouted. “Thanks, Mom!” He almost knocked her over with his hug.
“You’re welcome,” she said breathlessly, ruffling his hair. “I got some oil as well. It’ll need to be broken in.”
He looked at the glove, studying every stitch and seam. “Rob Sterling says that if you put a ball in it and put it under your mattress it helps.”
“Sounds like that would make it pretty hard to sleep,” I said, as lightly as I could.
They both ignored me.
“You can do that,” Jacqui said. “We’ll look up some other ideas on the computer.”
“Cool,” David said, before spontaneously throwing his arms around her again. “I love you, Mom.”
“I love you too, Davy,” she said, looking at me over his shoulder.
“Can we go out and have a catch?” he asked her, bouncing on the couch.
“Sure we can,” Jacqui said without hesitation. “Just a quick one, though. You don’t want to be late for your game.” He was already wearing his jersey.
David bounced to his feet and started toward the front door. He stopped partway and looked back at me.
“Do you want to come too, Dad?”
Both of them waited for my response.
“Not right now,” I said, feeling a little raw from his disappointment. “I’m gonna finish cleaning up in here. Maybe later, though.”
He didn’t look surprised, or particularly disappointed. Clearly he’d expected that answer.
Minutes later, listening to the sound of leather on leather through the front windows, I crumpled the last of the wrapping paper into the plastic bag and took it and the stack of plates into the kitchen. When I came back, I picked up the book, riffled through the pages.
Seeing it through Davy’s eyes, it really didn’t look like much: just a novel, no movie or videogame connection, nothing he could talk about at school. And it was used, at that: someone had written their name on the inside of the front cover.
Not much of a present for an eleventh birthday.
I turned the book over in my hands.
It was a thick hardcover, bound in brown leather, with a ding in the upper right corner, where it looked like someone had dropped it. The round symbol on the front cover was faded silver, with a band of strange lettering, almost Arabic-looking, circling a star in its middle. Within the star was another circle, which looked like it had been red at one time, but the colour had faded, leaving just a rusty mark against the brown leather.
The symbol also appeared, in miniature, on the spine of the book, separating the title from the author’s name.
To the Four Directions
I had found the book at Prospero’s on my way for my weekly lunch with Dale the week before. I had had to look twice at the spine when I first saw it: I had never seen a Lazarus Took hardcover before. The four books I had read had all been paperbacks: this was something new. Well, not new—the copyright page read: Alexander Press, 1951.
Turning to the first chapter, I couldn’t help myself: with the first sentence it was like I was eleven years old again, reading in the apple tree or the hayloft at my grandparents’ place in Henderson.
TO THE FOUR DIRECTIONS
“I’ll get a beating if I am late to the stables,” Tamas complained. But that didn’t stop him from following Matthias through the winding alley in the dark.
“You worry too much, Tamas,” Matthias said. “You have time for a little food. The stable-master will be asleep for hours yet. Besides,” he said, hopping over the short wall into the back garden of The Mermaid. “I would be more worried about my mother.” Matthias flashed his best friend a sly grin.
“Oh, I am,” Tamas muttered, heaving himself over the wall. He almost fell on a stack of discarded bottles.
“Shush. We don’t want to wake—”
The water hit Matthias in the face as the back door swung open, soaking him from head to foot.
“What—?” he sputtered.
“Oh, I am sorry,” Mareigh, said, smiling sweetly. “I thought you must be a thief. No respectable person would be stealing through the yard at this hour of the night.” She passed the bucket to Arian.
Matthias tried not to stare at the serving girl.
“And you, Tamas, what are you looking at?” Mareigh demanded, glaring past her sopping son, hands on her hips. “Does your mother know where you are?”
“She knows I am with Matthias.”
“Sad thing for a mother to give up on her son like that.” She stepped back from the door. “Well, come on,” she said. “You’re better off inside. Someone has come looking for you.”
Matthias glanced at Arian, but she was already busying herself at the stove. He sat down at his usual spot at the table, Tamas across from him.
“So, would either of you know why I had Zekariah and Jarrett and their friends pounding at the door an hour after closing?”
Matthias hid his hands, with their scraped knuckles, on his lap.
“He said he was looking for you, son of mine,” she said. “And he seemed to have fewer teeth than when he was gracing us with his custom earlier.”
He tried not to look at Tamas, not wanting to give anything away, but his mother noticed something in his expression. “What did you do?” she asked, sounding defeated.
“Nothing,” he said. As Arian leaned past him to set cups on the table he became almost dizzy from her closeness, the sweet smell of her.
His mother brought her hand down on the table with a hard smack. “This is not funny,” she said. “If there are people looking for you in the middle of the night, I should at least know why.” She turned to his friend. “Tamas?”
Matthias almost groaned.
“There was a fight,” Tamas said quickly.
“And I suppose they had it coming.”
Tamas risked a nervous glance at Matthias, and Mareigh caught the look.
“Matthias,” she said, her voice dropping sternly.
“He did have it coming,” Matthias said weakly.
Arian had stopped her work, holding a cloth in one hand as she listened, ready to spring into movement should his mother happen to look her way.
she said, not waiting for him to explain. “They put the bread on our table, and a little coin in our pockets.”
He looked at Arian again. His mother always claimed poverty, but one as poor as she claimed to be didn’t have a servant like Arian to jump at her every command, to keep the bar and the taps in the tavern shining. And she was the only woman to own one of the taverns on the island, close to the castle, safe behind the walls.
She sighed heavily. “You know what you need to do.”
“I won’t,” he said.
“You will,” his mother stressed, in the voice that had settled hundreds of tavern fights. “You’re fifteen years old—when are you going to learn there are consequences to your actions? You will give them a few hours to sleep off the worst of it and then you will apologize.”
“I will not,” he said, pushing back from the table. “They had no right—”
“Matthias, they are our livelihood.”
“And that gets them as much ale as they can buy. It doesn’t give them the right—”
Again his mother turned to Tamas. “What did they do?”
Tamas sank on the bench. “You know how they get when they are in their cups. Joking and bragging.” He glanced at Arian, who was making a good show of wiping the counter. “They started in on Arian. Saying she would make a good wife. Someone to come home to. And then Jarrett said that there was no reason to marry her, when you could just pay her by the hour.”
As Tamas spoke, Matthias watched Arian, the long, slow stretches of her arm with the cloth, the way the raven hair that escaped from her kerchief fell over one eye.
He and Tamas had been drinking at a table close by, had heard every word the fat drunkard had said about Arian, every piggish laugh that his friend had given in response. Arian had kept her head down, her eyes averted, but he had seen the scarlet on her cheeks.
He had almost come to his feet when Jarrett’s clumsy paw circled her waist and tried to pull her close. But Arian moved lightly away, made off to the kitchen, to safety.
Both men laughed, and Jarrett said, “It’s more fun when you have to chase them a little.”
That decided it for Matthias. He slapped Tamas’s arm as the two drunks left. Tamas did not even try to argue—he had seen that look in Matthias’s eyes before, and he followed his friend out the door.
They trailed behind Zekariah and Jarrett for a while, putting some distance between them and the tavern. They each picked up a good-size chunk of wood from in front of the butcher’s shop, and when the two men staggered into the noxious alley behind, Matthias simply nodded at Tamas.
The drunks were leaning into the alley wall, looks of hard concentration on their faces as they pissed, trying to keep their balance.
“So,” Matthias said, and both men started. “You think it’s funny to mock a bar girl, do you?”
With a glance between them, Zekariah and Jarrett straightened up, fumbled with their belts, and pulled themselves to their full height. “And what are you, then? Her prince come to her rescue?”
Jarrett laughed. “Looks more like the bastard cur of that tavern wench, come for a beating.”