"Erik, my boy, I'm afraid that I'm in horrible trouble."
My father stood before me on the dirt floor of our humble cottage, wringing his hands as though he were the quaking, erring son and me, the fierce and condemning father. A log disintegrated in the hearth behind him, sending up a shower of sparks and a puff of angry blue-gray smoke. Simmering in a battered pot over the fire, the stew that I had made for supper sent out a pale but delicious odor that battled unsuccessfully with the smell of our two cows living on the other side of the wall.
"What is it, sir?" I asked, my heart in my throat, for I knew all too well my dear father's long list of weaknesses.
Were we to lose our tiny cottage this time, perhaps, as we had already lost our big house, most of our land and all our livestock save the two aforementioned cows? Were the bailiffs after him, ready to do as they had threatened so often, lock him up in our village jail or, worse yet, send him to the capital and the great debtors' prison that sprawled on its western side?
"Erik, my dear boy..."
I confess, I was finding his hand wringing rather irritating. "Yes, Father?" I hoped I didn't sound as sharp as I was feeling.
"Well, my boy, you know that I have this little weakness..."
My poor father had a large and varied supply of them, as I've mentioned, none of which were cheap, all of which got him continually into trouble of one kind or another. He liked to drink, he liked to gamble, he liked to argue with little to back up his arguments, he liked to ... but there, why go on? I loved him dearly but he was not a comfortable man with whom to live. I could hardly blame my two brothers for departing and leaving him in my hands--though oftentimes, in the dark reaches of the worrisome night, I did just that.
"I fear, my child, that I have been rash enough to make a promise that might be rather hard for us to keep..."
I sighed. "Not money, Father, I hope? You know we only have enough to pay our taxes, and I'd really hate to sell anything else."
Not that we had much left to sell. We had gotten rid of most of our old possessions when we'd sold our big house and moved to this hovel, save a few personal items and a dozen or so books. At the thought of them, a chill struck my heart.
"Father, we're not going to have to sell our books, are we?" Though what those ragged old tomes would fetch in our tiny village, where few save myself could even read, I could not begin to imagine.
"No, no, dearest boy, not at all! In fact, you may well find that you shall soon have all the books your heart desires!"
Well, for all the delightful images those words called up, I could hardly believe it.
"You'd best explain, Father," I said, trying to resign myself to this newest catastrophe. "But wait, you're freezing. Sit down and warm yourself while I fix you some supper."
I bundled him into our best armchair--indeed, our only armchair--and filled him a bowl of stew. He took a bite or two, but his tragic thoughts interfered with his meal. He set the bowl on the floor beside him and eyed me with a weak smile.
"My dearest Erik, my loyal son!"
I didn't like the sound of this at all. I sighed. "You'd best tell me, Father."
Well, the story was the same one that I'd been hearing for all of my twenty-some years--Father had played a "friendly" game that wasn't quite so friendly as he had imagined, and ended up owing a rather large sum of money. The same old story, but with one rather odd exception. This time Father had somehow managed to find someone to pay the sum for him. Of course, he was now indebted to this philanthropist--who turned out to be, to my surprise, the richest woman around. This woman, of whom I had never heard until now, lived in a huge old stone castle behind high forbidding walls, out in the forest that stretched threateningly between our village and the mountains. For a change, however, Father didn't owe this woman money or land or livestock in repayment of his debt.
He owed her--me.