Following his bestselling debut, Before I Wake, Robert J. Wiersema returns with this exquisitely plotted blend of supernatural thriller and domestic drama.
For novelist Christopher Knox, getting up early every morning to write isn’t bringing him the sense of fulfillment it once did. It’s been ten years since his first novel was published, to some acclaim, and he’s hit a wall in trying to write his next. His marriage to Jacqui isn’t doing much better, and it’s been months since he’s slept anywhere but his office above the detached garage.
The part of Chris’s life that is going well, and brings him easy joy, is his relationship with his eleven-year-old son, David. While Chris may not make it to all of his son’s ball games, their nightly ritual of reading together at bedtime not only helps David overcome his struggles with reading, but is a calm within the storm for them both, when their days are so full of challenges. And what better way for a novelist to connect with his child than through their mutual love of books, and a bedtime story routine as unwavering as Chris’s love for his son.
When Chris comes across a book by one of his favourite childhood authors in a local used bookstore, he knows it will be the perfect gift for David’s birthday. To the Four Directions is not one Chris has read before, but he knows that Lazarus Took’s adventurous, magical stories of young heroes and other realms would be just the thing for David, as they were for him. David is less than thrilled to receive a book he’s never heard of before, however – he’d been hoping for The Lord of the Rings – and Jacqui is quick to see it as yet another sign of Chris’s detachment from David’s life.
But once they start reading the novel together, David is completely enthralled, to the extent that he truly cannot put the book down. The story, of a young peasant boy who is plucked from his home by castle guards and sent on a quest for a mysterious Sunstone, makes David feel like he is right there, in the action. Even after his parents have to take the book away from him, he can’t help but sneak it back to his room. As David is reading alone that night, he suffers an inexplicable seizure and falls into a state of unconsciousness. Doctors perform a barrage of tests, but cannot determine what’s wrong. And as David’s seizure recurs every night, his father learns that only one thing will calm it: being read to from his strange new book.
True to his nature, as someone with an inherent belief in the power of words, Chris becomes convinced that the secret of David’s collapse lies within the pages of To the Four Directions. After failed attempts to find out more about Lazarus Took from his estate, Chris traverses the continent in search of the truth. Meanwhile, David wakes up within the story he has been reading – as the boy he has been reading about – and finds himself facing perils unimaginable, in a world that he soon realizes was created to capture the hearts and souls of children like him. Because he’s not alone as he takes over the hunt for the Sunstone, but accompanied by those boys who have come before him. And as the quests of father and son lead them toward a fateful collision of worlds, David realizes that while he’s not the first to fall victim to the book’s horrific spell, perhaps he can prove himself strong enough to be the last.
David’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.
“These are customers,” 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.”
His laugh faded when he saw the wood in the boys’ hands.
The fight was quick and dirty, and left the two men in sodden heaps in the muck of the alley.
“Is that true?” his mother’s question jarred Matthias out of his reverie, but she wasn’t talking to him. She had turned to confront Arian.
The girl paused a moment, not able to meet the older woman’s gaze. Finally, she nodded.
“You should have told me,” she said, in a voice as close to understanding as Matthias could ever recall hearing. “I would have taken a round or two out of them myself. You need never tolerate that, do you understand?”
Arian kept her eyes on the ground, looking more uncomfortable with the sympathy than she would have been with Mareigh’s temper.
Tamas sighed and deflated a little, obviously relieved.
Matthias, though, knew that it was not yet over.
“And as for you,” his mother said, rounding on him. “What business is it of yours if some customers have a little fun at the expense of the help?”
“That is her business. And mine. It has nothing to do with you.”
She took a long look at his face, and he willed himself to be stony, to give nothing away. But she had seen something. And she did not like what she saw.
A furious pounding at the front door seemed to shake the whole tavern.
“Open in the name of the King.”
“Matthias,” Mareigh whispered hoarsely, turning toward the front room.
“Mother, I didn’t . . .”
She shook her head. “I’ve told you your temper was going to be the end of you.” She looked at the serving girl, who shrank under her gaze, and back at Matthias. “You’ve brought this down on all of us.”
He could barely breathe.
Mareigh tied on a fresh apron. “I’ll get the door, and pretend that I don’t know exactly why they’re here. You two”—she looked at Matthias and Tamas—“take the back door. Don’t go home,” she said sternly to Tamas. “They’ll be looking for you as well. Find a place, maybe on the shore, to wait this out.”
Matthias was stunned; the idea of running from the King’s Men had not occurred to him, and now to have his mother suggest it . . .
“Go,” she snapped, pushing her way through the swinging door into the tavern.
He didn’t move. What was she doing? She had worked so hard to build this place, and now she was suggesting that he run. It could ruin her. If anyone even suspected that she had helped in his escape, the Royal Fiat that allowed her to run the tavern on the island, inside the walls, would disappear like a night of drink. How could he have been so stupid?
But then he looked upon Arian, and he realized that he’d really had no choice. He would do it all again, and damn the consequences.
Her eyes were wide and dark, shining against her ivory skin. She was looking at him as if she was about to cry.
Tamas tugged at his sleeve. “Matthias, come on,” he whispered frantically.
He could hear his mother shouting, “All right, all right, give a poor woman a chance . . .”
Matthias wanted to go to Arian, to say something to comfort her, but there was no time.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s go.”
They ran out the back door and retraced their steps, again not bothering with the gate. It seemed like hours since they had tumbled over the stone wall. This time they pushed themselves over it—
—and into a small group of King’s Men, facing them in an orderly row.
Waiting for them.
The captain of the King’s Men stepped forward. “I command you halt, in the name of the King.”
The soldiers lowered their halberks toward the boys, backing them against the wall with the gleaming metal blades, then herded them into the tavern kitchen.
Mareigh was already sitting down, her hands on the table in front of her. Arian was sitting beside her; she bit her lip as Matthias walked through the door.
More of the King’s Men stood surrounding the table, their halberks at their sides.
When Mareigh saw her son, her face fell.
They had caught him anyway.
“Matthias,” the captain said, grasping the boy’s sleeve. “Take a chair.”
Matthias shook off the captain’s grip, then stumbled as the captain pushed him onto the bench across from his mother. How did the captain know his name?
The captain turned to Tamas. “You, boy.” Tamas wilted under his gaze. “Aren’t you supposed to be at the stables?”
Tamas looked blank at the question, then nodded.
“Then I suggest you hie yourself over there and not give the master further cause for a whipping.”
Tamas barely hesitated. Matthias watched his friend race out the back door—it was only right. Following the men from the tavern, the beating in the alley—it had all been Matthias’s fight. It was better that Tamas avoid the consequences.
And given the number of King’s Men gathered in the kitchen, the consequences would be dire indeed. He tried not to think of the stories he had heard of the dungeons, buried deep within the castle. The stories of men who went in and never came out.
The captain stepped to the head of the table, and with both hands lifted the bronze helmet from his head. His hair was long, damp with sweat. He had bright blue eyes and a short, well-trimmed beard.
He set the helmet carefully on the table, and nodded toward Matthias’s mother.
“Good morning, Mistress Mareigh,” he said.
“And to you, Captain Bream.” Matthias’s mother met the captain’s gaze and held it.
Matthias looked between them: his mother knew this soldier? Matthias had seen him in the street on occasion, but he wasn’t one of the soldiers who frequented The Mermaid’s Rest.
Arian shuddered next to him, close enough to touch.
“I trust you are well,” the captain said.
Mareigh looked pointedly at the men ringing the kitchen. “I’ve had better mornings.”
Matthias flinched at his mother’s tone. He expected the captain to lash out at her, with either words or, more likely, his hands.
Instead, he looked at the guards. “Gentlemen,” he said.
At the single word, the men broke rank and filed out through the swinging door.
“They’ll wait in the tavern,” he said. “Out of sight. I am aware that the sudden appearance of the King’s Men can be bad for business.”
Mareigh nodded. “I appreciate that.”
“We’re here about your son,” he said, turning to look at Matthias.
Matthias pushed back from the table, starting to rise to his feet. “I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I didn’t mean to, but I couldn’t . . .” He glanced at Arian, then back at his mother. “My mother, she told me to wait here while she answered the door, but I was scared so I ran.”
The captain listened to him, his face set in a dark scowl that broke, surprisingly, into a smile. “What are you talking about, boy?”
The question stopped him. “About what happened this morning.”
The captain took a satchel from one of the men. He tossed the bag as if it weighed nothing, but it landed on the table in front of Matthias with a heavy smack.
“About Zekariah and Jarrett.”
“That is none of my concern. There are clothes in there. Boots. You’ll need to clean up.”
Matthias glanced at his mother; she seemed as puzzled as he.
“Clean up,” the captain repeated. “The Queen has summoned you.”
The sound of the door slamming brought me back to myself. Davy’s footsteps were already fading into the house, up the stairs toward his room. Jacqui was standing in the doorway, her keys in her hand, her purse under her arm.
“You’re not coming to his game?”
It wasn’t really a question, and I didn’t answer. I just closed the book slowly.
She shook her head. “You should have bought him The Lord of the Rings.”
She walked away before I could say anything.
Mareigh swept aside the heavy curtain and stepped into Matthias’s sleeping room without warning. He hurriedly finished pulling the new shirt over his head.
“I’m worried for you,” she whispered, so as not to be overheard by the guard at the foot of the narrow staircase.
Matthias was scared too, more than he would let his mother see. His insides had turned to water when the captain delivered his summons, and the feeling was only getting worse.
“You know the captain?” he asked.
“Captain Bream,” she said. “He served with your father.”
“But . . .”
She squeezed his arm so tightly it hurt. “Stop,” she said firmly. “We don’t have much time.”
He pulled his arm away from her and took a step back. His legs pressed against his low bed.
She moved closer to him. “You have to be careful,” she whispered. “The Queen . . .” She shook her head as if she had decided something. “She gets what she wants.”
Of course she gets what she wants, she’s the Queen. He didn’t dare say so; his mother’s face was white and taut.
“I’ll be all right,” he whispered, though he feared the words were a lie.
He hugged his mother close, holding her tight until Captain Bream called for him from the tavern below.
“Be careful,” she said, as he started down the stairs.
The captain looked at him appraisingly as he descended. “That will have to do, I suppose.”
Matthias had hoped to see Arian one last time, but the captain led him directly into the street, where the King’s Men formed a tight circle around him. There was nowhere for him to turn, no way for him to run, and he fell into step with them as they led him away, up the sharp rise of the island, toward the castle.
“Are your teeth brushed?” I asked, up to my elbows in soapy water. “Nolan fed?”
“Yup.” He was already in his pyjamas, and his face was red and shiny from a recent encounter with a washcloth.
“Okay. I’ll be up in a sec.”
I finished the dishes and opened a bottle of red wine, leaving it on the counter to breathe as I went upstairs to read David his story.
Jacqui and I passed on the stairs: she was coming down after kissing David good-night. I tried smiling at her, but her face displayed the same stony rigour she had maintained since dinner.
I tried to put it out of my mind before I got to David’s room.
Davy’s bedtime was my favourite part of the day, and we had stumbled into it by accident. When Jacqui had gone back to work at the ER after her maternity leave, we had talked about the importance of consistency and routine. Knowing how crazy her schedule was going to be—shifts all over the map, on-call so often—we had decided that it would be best if bedtime were my domain.
It worked for me, too. I was at home, busy with the new book, and finding routine was essential for both my writing and my sanity.
At first it had been easy. Babies don’t need much of a bedtime routine. As Davy got older it became more involved: fights about tooth-brushing, constant negotiations for extra time, arguments about TV shows.
That was before we discovered reading together.
Standing in front of the bookshelves beside his door, my back to him, I asked, “So, what shall we read tonight?”
“Daaaad,” he said, drawing out his exasperation. Playing along.
“All right . . .” I slid the hardcover of The Hobbit off the shelf and carried it over to the chair beside the head of his bed.
He was already nestled under the covers. Nolan the hamster was running merrily in his wheel.
The bookmark was leather, rough-cut and almost rectangular, with faded, painted letters, some of them backwards, that read, “To the best Dad in the world.” He had made it for me for Father’s Day when he was six, and we used it in all of the books we read together.
“We’re getting pretty near the end of this,” I said. “We’ll have to figure out what to read next.” I didn’t want to be the one to suggest the book that I had given him, still sitting on the coffee table in the living room.
“The Lord of the Rings?” he asked. Again.
We had watched part of The Fellowship of the Ring on DVD, the parts before it got too violent and gory, and he had been wanting to read the book ever since.
“We’ll see,” I said measuredly. “Those are some pretty meaty books, so we might want to wait for a bit.”
He pouted deliberately.
“There are plenty of good books out there.” Not hinting. Not really.
David had always been a reluctant reader, only doing his Language Arts homework under duress. We learned why when he was eight and his teacher sent him for some testing: dyslexia. Reading was a struggle for him, and since then we had done everything we could to make it easier.
But our nightly ritual wasn’t about work, or learning, it was all about pleasure.
“Dad,” he said tentatively, before I could start. “None of my friends get a bedtime story every night.”
“Darren Kenneally says stories are for babies.”
“Do you think he’s right?”
He shook his head.
“Good. Because I know for a fact that he’s wrong.”
“Because you write stories. For grown-ups.”
I smiled. “Right. And you know what? Darren Kenneally doesn’t know what he’s missing.”
His face brightened.
After that he was quiet for so long that I was about to start reading when he said, “Dad?”
“When am I going to be too old for you to read to me?”
The thought brought a thickness to my chest. “Someday. That’s up to you.” Hoping silently that day would be a long time coming.
He watched me carefully for the first few minutes I was reading. Every time I looked up our eyes would meet, and he would grin a little and press himself deeper into the pillow. After a while he turned onto his back, folded his arms over his chest and closed his eyes. His breathing slowed.
He never fell asleep when I was reading, but he always closed his eyes. Once when I asked him why, he explained, “When I close my eyes I can see what you’re reading. It’s like a movie inside my head.”
Although it took more than an hour, we finished The Hobbit that night; there wasn’t really a good place to stop in the last few chapters.
I was slipping the book back into the space on the shelf by the door when he said, “Lord of the Rings next?”
I turned back to him, setting the bookmark on the edge of the shelf. “Maybe,” I said, trying not to sound hurt. “We’ll have to see.”
He snuggled more deeply under the covers. “Okay.”
“Time for sleep now, though.”
“Sweet dreams,” I said as I stepped into the hallway. “Happy birthday.”
I left the door open a foot or so, the way he liked it.
The soldiers marched Matthias quickly toward the castle, their boots echoing off the cobbles and the stone walls. Few people were out so soon after sunrise, but those who were gave the men wide berth, stepping into gutters or doorways to let them pass.
He gasped when they rounded the corner and the castle came into view.
The castle gates were closed.
For as long as he could remember, the gates had stood open, guarded, but swung wide onto the broad castle boulevard, the gardens within, and the towers that always seemed to shine against the blue sky. People would come and go freely. But this morning the entrance was blocked with towering wooden doors braced with iron.
Matthias stumbled slightly when Captain Bream stopped at a narrow iron door cut into a shallow recess in the castle wall, a short distance from the gates. The captain tapped three times on the door, and an eye-slit opened. The eyes behind the door surveyed them carefully, and after a moment a tumbler chunked into place and the door opened.
Matthias peered into the narrow opening, expecting to see the castle grounds on the other side of the wall. Instead, there was a dim tunnel, lit with torches, sloping into the depths of the castle. Armed guards stood inside.
“Come on,” the captain said, directing him through the door.
Matthias’s heart jumped into his throat as he stared ahead, his mind filled with his worst imaginings of the castle dungeons.
The captain dismissed his men, and they swung the heavy iron door shut as they left. The captain took a torch from one of the guards and started down the hallway.
Matthias followed silently, the torchlight wavering on the walls. The tunnel angled downward for a while, the walls growing damper, the air thick. Men stood guard at the openings of other tunnels, and they straightened as the captain passed.
Then the tunnel began to climb. In time, the air became fresher, cooler. The walls and the floor dried. Matthias had lost track of how long they had been walking when they came to a sudden stop at a dark archway, covered by what seemed to be a heavy curtain.
The captain pushed his torch into a bracket on the wall, then led Matthias through a barely noticeable seam in the middle of the curtain.
No, not a curtain, Matthias realized as he passed through it: a tapestry.
He found himself in a wide corridor, flanked on one side by a row of tapestries down the length of the stone wall through which he had just passed, and on the other by a series of high windows. A breeze blew cool from outside.
Matthias stopped in the middle of the corridor. The captain turned to him. His face was hard, and his mouth opened to speak, but he stopped himself.
Matthias was overwhelmed, and confused. To go from the backroom of the tavern to the heights of the castle . . .
He looked first at the wall.
The tapestries were all about the kingdom. He was standing in front of a weaving of his home: the island at the mouth of the Col River with the walled lower city rising toward the castle, and on the shore, Colcott Town. The next tapestry over was a battle scene, soldiers fighting, and falling, the Sunstone crest bright on their standards. One soldier was rising from his mount, driving his sword deep into the chest of a Berok warrior, the blade piercing the bearskins the savages wore instead of armour.
He took several steps toward the windows and looked down, first, on the castle and its gardens, then, beyond the castle wall, on the narrow streets of the lower city winding down to the protective wall at the shoreline. From this direction there was nothing but the sea beyond the outer wall; if the corridor had been on the other side of the castle, he knew, he would have been able to see Colcott Town on the shore.
“It is difficult to tell how far you’ve walked in the tunnels,” the captain said. He looked toward the windows. “Or how high you’ve climbed. Only the royal chambers and the battlements are above us now.”
The royal chambers? Matthias glanced down the hallway at the huge double doors, the pair of guards standing in front of them. His heart thrummed in his chest.
“The Queen’s receiving rooms. Come.”
The guards pushed the doors open as they approached.
Inside, the heady smell of spices and flowers and perfumes filled the bright, sunlit air. Without warning, the captain fell to one knee, bowing his head so it almost rested on his other knee.
“My Lady,” he said.
Not having any idea what else to do, Matthias copied the soldier. He didn’t dare look up. His stomach lurched, and he trembled with fear.
“Rise.” The voice, rich and melodious, had come from the far end of the room.
Matthias waited until Captain Bream started to his feet before he stood up. He kept his eyes fixed to the floor, knowing better than to look on the Queen unbidden.
“Come,” said the voice, and Matthias followed Captain Bream forward.
He glanced about surreptitiously, curious about his surroundings. The room was large, but seemed cozy, with tapestries on the walls, low couchettes in the corner, carpets over much of the floor.
He couldn’t help but look up.
The Queen was the most beautiful woman Matthias had ever seen, with long dark hair and pale skin that seemed to shine in the light. She reclined on a low divan on a raised stone platform, a small bowl of dried fruit and a goblet close to hand.
“Y-yes, Your Majesty,” Matthias choked.
“Has Captain Bream told you why we bid you come?”
He shook his head, conscious of every motion. “No, Your Majesty.”
He tried to look away as she stood up. Her blue-grey gown trailed behind her as she stepped down carefully from the platform.
“You’re here because we need you, Matthias,” she said, close enough that he could smell the sweetness of her breath.
He almost jumped when she reached out and took his hand, holding it warmly between her own.
“The kingdom needs you.”
When I got down to the kitchen, I poured Jacqui and me each a glass of wine. As I carried the glasses and the bottle into the living room, I pictured myself passing the glass to Jacqui, reminding her of what we had been doing eleven years ago right now, the night that David was born. I imagined a moment of shared history, of tenderness.
She had been flicking through channels, but she turned the TV off as I set her glass on the end table next to her.
She didn’t say anything.
“Davy’s to bed,” I said as I sat down. Anything to break the silence.
She picked up her glass.
“We finished The Hobbit.”
I wished she had left the television on, for the noise, the distraction. I lifted my glass toward her.
“Eleven years,” I said.
She smiled a small, sad smile, and sipped her wine.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. Odds were the answer was going to involve me somehow, but I couldn’t bear the silence, the feeling of things hanging in the air.
She shook her head. “It’s the same old stuff,” she said dismissively. “Is it really worth getting into it, all over again?”
I could feel myself deflating. “Okay.”
“I mean, seriously, Chris. You couldn’t even be bothered to come to his ballgame? On his birthday?”
“And that book. It’s like you don’t even know him. You spend more time with him than any other dad I know spends with his kids, and it’s like it doesn’t even register.”
“Do you even know who Rob Sterling is?”
She was so quick with the question, I knew that she had been waiting to use it. And I couldn’t answer.
“I didn’t think so.” She shook her head and looked away. “He’s his coach, Chris. Coach Sterling. David talks about him every day. Do you even listen?”
I leaned forward on the couch. “Of course I listen.”
“Really? Then why didn’t you get him what he wanted for his birthday? Instead, you get him that . . .” She nodded toward the book on the coffee table. David had taken all of his other gifts upstairs to his room.
“He’s going to like it,” I said, aware even as I was speaking the words that they weren’t going to make any difference. “When I was a kid—”
“Exactly,” she said, so loudly I almost flinched. “That’s exactly it, Chris. When you were a kid. This isn’t about you. This is about David. It’s his birthday. And you couldn’t even be bothered—”
“Right,” I said, leaning forward to set my wineglass on the coffee table and pick up the book. “You’re right.” I stood up. “It’s probably not worth getting into it all again. I’m gonna go.”
“Chris,” she said to my back as I turned out of the room, but I didn’t respond.
I walked through the house and out the back door. I navigated the narrow path in the spill of light from the kitchen window and unlocked the door in the back of the garage.
He sat up slowly, listening to the faint sound of his parents’ voices as they rose up the stairs, drifted through the partly open door.
After a few moments, the voices grew louder, not really shouting but definitely upset. It was impossible to ignore them, to tune them out. He couldn’t make out actual words, just a texture of voices raised in anger.
Biting his lip, he stood up and walked across the room, careful to be quiet. He closed his door fully, and darted back to bed in the dark, pulling the covers up to his chin and burying his head in the pillow.
He could barely hear the voices, now.
I’m not gonna cry, he told himself. I’m not gonna cry.
The narrow staircase was dim with the light from my desk lamp, which I left on from four in the morning until I went to bed. In the shadows of the small kitchen, I filled a glass with vodka from the bottle in my freezer. I set the glass on top of the morning’s pages and sat down at my desk.
Why did it always have to go so bad so fast?
I pulled my cigarettes out of my pocket and set my lighter on the desk next to this morning’s work. The engraving caught the light. After tapping a cigarette out, I put it to my lips, savouring the feel of it there, its light presence.
For a long time, I had allowed myself a single cigarette each day, just before I turned in. It was a holdover from my days as a smoker, and was supposed to be a reward, a way of recognizing a good day’s work, a capstone to a productive time. Now, I was smoking compulsively again, my hands shaking as I flicked the lighter, as I held the flame to the paper waiting for that subtle crackle.
As I drew in the first smooth lungful of smoke, I ran my thumb across the lettering on the lighter.
Christopher J. Knox
The Zippo had been a gift from my Canadian editor. He had lit my cigar with it at the launch party for my first book, then handed it to me with a broad grin and an arm draped drunkenly across my shoulders.
“To the first of many,” he had toasted me.
“Right,” I muttered to the memory, throwing the lighter onto the desk and taking a healthy swallow of the icy vodka. It chilled all the way down, and when the burn hit my stomach I shivered.
That had been a perfect night: my life was on track, unfolding as I had always dreamed it would. My novel was just out, and already on the best-seller lists. Jacqui and I had just bought the house, and every time I met her eye across the crowded bar, she smiled. The future was wide open.
And this was where it all led: me sitting in what once had been my office over the garage, trying to ignore the bed in the tiny adjoining room. There had been no more books, no more launch parties. And, over the last couple of years, precious few of those smiles from across the room.
I sat quietly for a moment, watching the shadows of the smoke play along the desk in the pool of golden light. As I opened David’s book to where I had left off—since I had started reading it, I’d been sneaking in a few pages whenever time allowed, and when it didn’t—I deliberately kept my back turned to the bookcase next to the desk, the top shelf with the different editions of Coastal Drift, the second shelf stuffed with bulging notebooks, stacks of loose-leaf, battered files. Ten years in the life, waiting for a match.
It felt like the floor had tilted beneath his feet. Matthias couldn’t think, could barely breathe, with the Queen so close to him, holding his hand, staring into his eyes.
“Let us sit,” she said, turning him toward a cluster of divans and chairs against the wall.
“That’s better,” she said, a smile of comfort softening her face as she settled on a divan. “Sit.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Matthias said as he sat, not sure of how to speak.
“Comfort is a fine, fine thing,” she said, almost to herself. “Save for the price that must be paid.”
Her smile disappeared as she looked at Matthias again. “Five days ago, the watchtowers fell. Three of them. All under cover of a single night. The Berok have taken them.”
Matthias stole a glance at Captain Bream; the man’s face was hard and still.
“Our most feared enemy is at the borders of the kingdom, less than two days’ ride from the city. From this castle—” She broke off as handmaidens entered the room with wine.
Matthias’s mind reeled: the Berok?
Matthias and Bream waited while the maidens tasted from each cup before serving them, and then until the Queen had taken a sip before they drank. The wine was cool and strong.
“The King has brought you here today,” the Queen said, “because we think you can help.”
Matthias bit back a protest. He knew only tavern fighting, and all he knew of the Berok were the stories his mother had told him when he was a boy. The country to the north was the stuff of myths and children’s stories, of blood-thirsty warriors and epic betrayals. Surely there was nothing he could do. He drowned the words he was tempted to say with another swallow of wine, knowing better than to argue with the Queen.
“I know you believe there is nothing you have to offer,” she said, seeming to read his thoughts and expression. “But others think differently. Loren,” she called, barely raising her voice.
From a doorway at the far end of the room a man appeared, a long, grey beard falling to the middle of his chest. Within the folds of his tattered robes, Matthias could see he carried a large, leather-bound book.
“Loren is an historian and a scholar. One of the King’s most trusted advisers,” the Queen said, not even glancing at the man as he took his place beside her. “He has been working in the libraries, both in the castle here and at the monastery,” the Queen said. “He has found some startling information.”
The monastery: the old man was one of the Brotherhood.
“I am a translator,” Loren said in a thin voice, “of the ancient texts. When I learned of the attacks on the watchtowers, I was reminded of a manuscript that I translated, some years ago. Not a book. Private papers, from the reign of King Harkness.”
“And why did it remind you of that?” the Queen prompted.
“Because of when the attacks happened,” he explained. “On a night when the moon was swallowed by the dark.”
Matthias remembered the night, almost a week before, when he had stood outside the tavern next to Arian as the moon seemed to disappear momentarily into the night sky. He sat forward to listen more closely to the translator.
“There is a prophecy,” the old man said. “In those scrolls. A prophecy which I am only now beginning to understand. It is mostly fragments, scattered within another text.” He opened the book in his hand, balancing it carefully as he turned the pages. “It begins:
The fall of man shall come,
As a fall comes to all things.
The mighty walls of Colcott shall crack
On the night the moon dies in the sky.”
The old man looked up from the book and fixed his eyes on Matthias. “There is more. Much more. And it concerns the boy.”
“Me?” Matthias asked, before he could stop himself.
“You,” the translator said.
The old man shook his head, and Matthias closed his mouth. Loren continued speaking, but Matthias barely heard him over the rushing in his ears. It couldn’t be him. He was . . . nobody.
“Hidden as it was, the prophecy has long puzzled scholars. But the confluence of events, the attack on the watchtowers on the night of the disappearing moon . . .” His voice trailed off. “I believe I know what it means.”
Matthias shifted, uncomfortable in his chair.
“The prophecy describes a treasure, a relic so powerful that it was hidden away before the time of King Harkness. A relic that will save this kingdom. The Sunstone.”
“A sunstone?” Matthias asked. It was the symbol of the kingdom, on every flag, every gate, and sewn onto the shoulder of Bream’s tunic.
“Not a sunstone,” the scholar corrected. “The Sunstone. The first Sunstone, carried into battle by Stephen the Bold, before he was the First King.”
There was a long moment of silence before the captain said, “That’s just a myth. A children’s story.”
“It’s much more than that,” the old man said. “Do you know why the Sunstone is the symbol of our kingdom? Not because it was Stephen’s sigil, but because of what it could do. What it did, in our darkest hour.”
“What could it do?” Matthias heard himself asking.
“It is believed the stone held great power. How else to explain the victory at Corindor Field, when the brave five hundred broke the army of the Berok, more than ten thousand strong, turning them back and forging this kingdom in blood and iron?”
Matthias recognized the last few words from a poem that every child was taught, the chronicle of the founding of the kingdom.
“Tactics,” the captain said. “Bravery. Loyalty. As battles have always been fought and won.”
“You would believe that, of course,” the old man said. “But the truth is much stranger. The truth is that Stephen rode into battle with the Sunstone, the first Sunstone, on his breast, and a magus at his side.”
“Are you talking about magic?” Matthias asked.
“Indeed I am. A magic so powerful it can render an army unbreakable. A magic so powerful that King Stephen, even in the flush of victory, could see its dangers. After Corindor Field, he ordered the Sunstone hidden where no one, not even he, could find it. He entrusted his dearest friend Gafilair, the first of the Brotherhood to be paired with the king, the first high mage, to hide the stone. To wrap it in mysteries and magics such that no man could ever find it.
“The magus did as the new king instructed, hiding the stone away where it would remain for more than a thousand years, until the kingdom once again was in such grave danger that the stone’s powers would be its only salvation.”
“If it is hidden so well—” Captain Bream began.
“There is one who can find it,” the scholar said. “That is the reason for the prophecy. That the Brothers of Gafilair, his heirs and followers, might follow the signs, might find the right person at the right time to recover the stone and return it to the King. The clues to finding the stone are in here,” he said, gesturing to the book. “As is the information we needed to find the one who could retrieve it.”
“Me?” Matthias asked incredulously.
The captain nodded.
“Captain Bream has selected a troop of his finest men,” the Queen said. “His most loyal and true. You will ride out with them to find the Sunstone, and bring it back that it might protect the kingdom once more. Loren will ride with you to decipher the signs left by the first high magus.”
“But it can’t be me,” Matthias blurted.
The magus spoke slowly: “There are signs, portents, in this book. We have studied them. Studied you. The signs of your birth. Your parentage. There is enough for us to be sure.”
“Matthias,” the Queen said. “You’ll ride out at dawn in three days’ time. You’ll be well cared-for, well protected. And when you return with the Sunstone, you will receive a hero’s welcome. Do you understand?”
He nodded slowly. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
He had no choice.
“Come,” she said. “The importance of this journey cannot be overstated.”
The Queen led the three men around the stone platform at the end of the room, to a double door hidden behind a tapestry. The captain opened the door, and stepped back to allow the Queen to enter. Matthias followed.
In the centre of the room stood a huge bed. The man lying on it was tiny, and clearly sick, his skin yellow and waxy, his hair missing in patches. He lay facing the door, considering his guests with pale, milky eyes.
Loren took several steps toward the bed before falling to his knee. “Your Majesty,” he said, almost in a whisper.
Matthias looked at the Queen.
“This,” she said, “is why we need the Sunstone so badly.”
The crumpled figure on the bed raised a shaky hand. “Loren,” he said weakly. “Loren, my friend.”
The mage rose to his feet and stepped to the bedside. The King took his hand.
“Have you found the boy?”
Matthias could feel his heart in his throat.
“I have, Your Majesty. He’s here.”
The King’s eyes searched the room, and prompted by a gentle push from the Queen, Matthias stepped to the old man’s side.
“This is him?” the King asked.
“It is, Your Majesty.”
A weak smile came to the King’s face as he took Matthias’s hand. The King’s grip was sticky and cool, and Matthias tried to breathe mostly through his mouth; the air near the bed was sweet and acrid with the smells of sickness.
“Yes, so it is,” the King said, as if finally able to see him. “It is all yours to do now,” he said to Matthias. He winced and strained with each word. “The future of the kingdom is in your hands.”
Dumbstruck, Matthias nodded. The King’s grip tightened, then fell away. His eyes sank shut. For a moment, Matthias’s hand hung in the air where the King had held it. But then a rough, wet breath brought a sense of relief. The King was only sleeping.
“The great secret at the heart of the kingdom,” the Queen said slowly.
Matthias turned back to face the Queen and the Captain of the Guard, both still standing in the doorway.
“No one knows of the King’s illness. Your mission, therefore, must remain a secret, known to as few people as possible. You cannot go home. Not now. Not before you leave. Do you understand?”
“I do, Your Majesty.”
Robert J. Wiersema was born in Agassiz, British Columbia, in 1970, and has spent his life immersed in books. He attended the University of Victoria, where he earned an honours degree in English literature. He has worked in bookstores for the last twenty years, and is currently the event coordinator at Bolen Books in Victoria, where he curates one of Canada’s most highly regarded literary events series.
In 1999, Wiersema began reviewing books for Quill & Quire magazine; today, he is one of Canada’s most recognized and respected book reviewers, with his work appearing regularly in the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Edmonton Journal, the Vancouver Sun and numerous other publications.
Before I Wake, Wiersema’s first novel, was published in the summer of 2006 to exceptional reviews, went on to become a national bestseller and was named a Globe and Mail Best Book for 2006. In 2007, it was shortlisted for the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Before I Wake has been published in more than a dozen countries. The World More Full of Weeping, a novella, was published in 2009, and was shortlisted for the Aurora Award. His second novel, Bedtime Story, was published in 2010, and was also a national bestseller. Wiersema’s first work of non-fiction, Walk Like a Man: Coming of Age with the Music of Bruce Springsteen, will be published in fall 2011.
Despite the success of his books, Wiersema remains dedicated to his work as a literary journalist and as a bookseller. “I don’t envision myself leaving either bookselling or reviewing behind,” Wiersema has said. “I like being a part of the conversation, a part of the ongoing unfolding of writing in this country. I like putting books in the hands of readers, bringing authors together with their readers, weighing in on the books themselves. I’m a lifer.”
Wiersema lives in Victoria, BC, in a house filled with music and books.
"Powerful… Bedtime Story is all that it should be. More. It is frightening. It is fabulous entertainment. It is intensely thought-provoking. Above all, it is a hint and a tickle of things to come."
— January Magazine
"About a good book, we say we 'devoured it.' But what if a book devoured us?… In Robert Wiersema'ss Bedtime Story, it does."
— The Vancouver Sun
“Un-put-downable. . . . Wiersema advances his story not through any lyrical flourishes but through masterful storytelling and intricate plotting. The narrative clips along perfectly in tune with the events of the novel, weaving seamlessly back and forth between worlds and times, and drawing the reader deeper and deeper into the mystery and suspense. . . . Bedtime Story is immensely enjoyable.”
— Edmonton Journal
“Serpentine and clever in structure, . . . rich in weird, surprising characters. . . . Enchanting.”
— The Globe and Mail
“Creative and well-written.”
— Winnipeg Free Press
“Fascinating and transformative. . . . The ‘supernatural thriller’ aspect of the novel is well-oiled and keeps the pages turning.”
— Philip Marchand, National Post
“An absorbing excursion. . . . [Bedtime Story] . . . is a genre unto itself, a hybrid of supernatural thriller and sword-and-sorcery fantasy.”
— Times Colonist