They were a happy family once, Comfort and her family. Maybe they would be again, she thought as she darted through the thick, moss-covered trees that blocked her path to freedom. There probably wasn’t anyone left that didn’t think her a traitor. She knew she couldn’t shimmy her way up a tree to save her life, which is probably exactly what she needed to do right now. She just kept running. There was bound to be respite somewhere. It was just a matter of what form it would come in. That’s what she told herself to keep herself running. It had been nine months altogether since she began hiding and then running with the Codex. Laetitia was probably giving birth to her fifteenth child now. She had only just celebrated the news of the pregnancy before she first took the Codex.
“Conway, Grace, welcome!” Laetitia greeted. “And your sweet girls, welcome,” she smiled as she ushered us into her fine home. The ceilings had bits of soft pink cloth stripped from corner to corner across them in each room from the entry way to the room that seemed now to only be used for baby showers. All the other women whose husbands were part of the council were there, as usual. Her younger children played in the back, supervised by her older children. She took her duty to Codens seriously.
“Damn!” she whispered. A tree branch? A thorn? It didn’t matter now. It was already a few yards back. Hopefully she wasn’t bleeding enough to leave a trail for the hounds. She firmly held her left arm over the cut with her right hand, to keep the blood from dripping on the forest ground, hopefully. There! There was a small animal burrow, like a small dirt cave coming up from the ground. She was still a small girl, only 14 years and a small fourteen at that. She tightened her grip on her arm, slid into the burrow and pulled some of the fall leaves up in front of her. “Please don’t smell the blood. Please don’t smell the blood. Please don’t smell the blood.” No luck. She could hear their sniffing noses getting closer, and the pressing of their masters' boots into wet leaves.
“You dumb beasts! We aren’t out for food!” A sharp yelp followed as one of the hounds was kicked. She held her breath. After a minute or so the group walked off in another direction. She was too scared to move. She sobbed quietly to herself until she fell asleep.
Light peaked in between her clumsily put together leaves and slowly she began to wake. She tried not to stir in case anyone was still near. She listened carefully for a few minutes, and, hearing nothing, slowly climbed out of the little burrow. No one was around. All she could see was the forest, its tall trees letting in clumps of light through their bare branches, the ground covered in wet fall leaves from the rain the night before. She felt a small twinge in her arm. She looked at her injury. It was little more than a paper cut. She began to quietly sob. Here she was running into a forest she knew nothing about with little to no ability to survive on her own and she was in such pain and panic over a cut such as this? However was she going to make it? But she shook the thought from her head as effectively as possible (not very effectively), checked that her satchel still carried her heavy burden, and began to trek further away from Codens, though she didn’t know to where.
It was hard not to continue her tears a little as she walked. She could never see her sisters again. She could never see her mother. Her father thought she was a despised fugitive. Her hands instinctively went up to her face as she stood and cried again for a few moments longer. She heard a stir in the leaves. She gave a quick turn, but it was only a small hare darting about. Who knew how far away she was. Certainly she was far away enough that she shouldn’t see anyone anymore. What a lonely life. She wondered what she’d do with such a life. A girl and a book completely removed from civilization. What kind of life was that? Still, it wasn’t terribly different from before, she thought, just less people. The thought did little to console her. Back home she’d still be a girl with her book, maybe a wife and mother someday. She had no real desire or passion. She wasn’t like Charle with her horse breeding or Opal with her vegetable garden. She just had no interests like that. She just loved to read. The idea of marriage and children didn’t appeal to her either, but the pressures of a crumbling society would end up taking her over and she knew that. How could she not fulfill her duty to Codens? Now, she certainly wasn’t going to fulfill it to the same degree as Laetitia! Fifteen kids was a bit much for most people. Personally Comfort wasn’t interested in having children of her own, though she did occasionally like to watch over her younger sister or the little twins Preecha and Mali. They were good kids, but now they were just more people she’d never see.
“Sit up straight, Comfort, honestly. There’s a fork in your hand, not a book.”
“Yes mother,” she replied politely. There were such grand expectations placed on the child of a council member. She was quite proud of her father’s position. It was his duty, and the duty of the other council members to protect the Codex, the book of law that was laid down for her people, the mish-mash of humans left after the plague that wiped through the world. Their founder, now several hundred years passed, was a wealthy man who used his means to ride in a flight machine around the world picking up survivors to start a new colony with. Were it not for his devotion, mankind might have ended ages ago in little family pockets across the world, unable to work towards reproducing a new generation. That was the duty to Codens. Some, like Laetitia took it more seriously than others. Some, like dear Wen, wanted to, but were unable. Anyone who wasn’t interested in having children was shunned to the outer edges of the city as traitors to the human race. They weren’t even welcomed at market and it was presumed that they had developed a farming society of their own, or else were dead. Those were your options really, produce children and contribute to society reaching a state as it once was, or live as a farmer with few other people on the edges of civilization. Comfort supposed now, half joking to herself, that she had found a third option, to steal the Codex and run away, but the shame of the thought immediately filled her with embarrassment and she shook it from her head.
It had only been a few nights since her run from patrol took her out of Codens. She had been, for a long while, able to keep hidden within the city itself. Because there was such focus on expanding the city, many new couples were insistent on building their own homes. This left a lot of abandoned homes in the lower part of the city near the docks on the other side of the stream that flowed into the great lake. Not yet set with a plan, she first ran the book to a hiding place among the abandoned homes, but continued to live with her family for another six months before the council decided to make the theft of the Codex public. In so doing, they effectively created an entire city sized force searching for the Codex. She was terrified that they’d come across it, even though she had had faith in her hiding spot.
She had pulled out some wood underneath a window in one of the homes. It created a deceptively large hiding spot that the Codex fit in well. She had it wrapped in a leather satchel to protect it from any rain that may seep through the old home. For two more months, it was safe there. She kept a careful ear on where patrol was checking next under the impression to her father that she was just worried about their sacred book of law. Two weeks later he told her that they were going to comb through the abandoned houses by the docks again. Again? She panicked. If they were going through them again, that means they hadn’t found it the first time, but, going through them again meant that they were going to be more careful this time too. She stared out her windows down towards the docks all night that night.
They had found it.
She was a mess. She didn’t know what to do. The satchel wasn’t marked with her name or anything so there was no reason they should know it was hers, and they didn’t. They chalked it up to “no harm, no foul,” on an official level, but on an emotional level, the entire city was outraged and demanded the culprit be found.
Since the Codex was last in the possession of her father when it was stolen, it was returned to him once again. It had been decided that Codex rotation would pick up where they had left off and overall, the council was just relieved that it was back, and in the same condition as it had left in no less. For two nights she told herself that she was safe, that all was well.
Before long, she found out just how wrong she was, and was determined, yet again, to steal the Codex. She picked up the book, flung it into her satchel and ran into the forest, this time, determined to keep it by her side forever.
“How long have you been standing there?”
Comfort turned slowly to find that Critomir was looking up at her on the stairs. Comfort was frozen.
“How long have you been standing there, girl!” He hissed with anger at her. He might have shouted if he wasn’t concerned about waking up the others. She had watched him sneak into the house to get the book. She didn’t know what magic was, or why he wanted it, or what the Codex had to do with magic, but she knew she didn’t trust him anymore. He lunged at her before she could answer. She wouldn’t have answered anyway. She darted up the stairs away from him and shimmied down the tree that came up to her window in her bedroom. Climbing up was a different story, but down she could manage. She darted back around through the front door, grabbed the Codex, and took off. Her father wasn’t going to die over a book, no matter how special it was. She could hear him cursing quietly to himself as she took off. She didn’t know how far she could get before he reported it, but she hoped it was long enough. The next day as Patrol caught up to her, she realized that he couldn’t have reported it that night as he’d have had to explain why he was in their home to begin with.
She supposed at first that they’d never stop coming after her, but now, as each step was taking her just a bit further away from their small city, she wondered if she might get far enough away that they’d give up, that perhaps a new type of society would emerge that wasn’t dependent on a several hundred year old book written by a man no one could any longer remember.
She remembered the first time she saw him, well, part of him. There was a small statue at the front left entrance to the market. It was only of a pair of boots, and a little bit of pant leg that was left. It was said that a humble carpenter worked day and night to build a wooden structure to honor the man that had traveled the world looking for survivors. After years and weather had damaged it to little more than boots, someone had managed to teach themselves how to melt and pour metal properly, and covered what was left of the statue in bronze, to preserve what little was left of the man that had saved humanity. She wondered what he’d think of the way society had progressed, if he intended the Codex to be worshiped as holy law, or if he was the one that set up the council to protect and interpret it, if he’d be proud or ashamed of her for what she had done.
She had been craving tea cookies a lot lately. She went through what her father playfully called “craving cycles” where she would crave one food or drink over and over again for weeks. She stopped just a few steps down the stairs when she heard Critomir talking to himself, as he often did. She liked to listen to him because he got so flustered over tiny details. He was also very concerned with things being just so. His father had told her that it was because he was so devout to the Codex, but she couldn’t bring herself to see him as anyone so noble. He was a funny little man, often wearing red suspenders to hold up his cream colored pants that were somehow too large for his potbelly.
“Cursed book!” he muttered. She tried to stifle her chuckles at his frustration. “Cursed book, where are you secrets!” Well, that was new. She peaked around the wall of the stairwell to get a peek at him. He was rapidly flipping through the Codex with growing frustration. “Curses! Curses! Curses! You reveal your magic to me you wretched bits of fabric!” he growled. Magic? What on earth could he be talking about? What was magic? After a few more minutes of watching him flounder about between its pages, she decided to go on to bed. Rousing his frustration further at this point was not worth the sweet tea cookies and he was beginning to scare her.
The next morning she asked her eldest sister Felicity what magic was. She didn’t know. This only troubled her further. A few days later she asked Mrs. Wen before she left her behind with her son to babysit. Wen told her that that was a rather curious question, but that she was running late and would tell her when she returned. When Wen and her husband returned from their date, Wen refused to acknowledge what Comfort was talking about, and denied ever having mentioned the word magic to her. This was beyond unusual. Wen and Comfort were friends, years apart, sure, but Wen had always been kind and honest with Comfort. Comfort decided to ask her father next. Surely he would know, and he wouldn’t be afraid to tell her. After dinner the next night, Comfort curled up with her book next to her father’s large leather chair. It was one of the older antiques in their home and he was the only one privileged to sit upon it. He lit his pipe of tobacco and rested himself with the small collection of papers that reported on the town’s recent activities. After her sisters and mother had gone off to bed, she stayed behind, still continue to read a bit here and there, and sometimes just pretending to read while she tried to keep an eye on her father. Just as he began to get sleepy and had decided to go to bed, she stood up.
“Oh, Comfort? Are you still up? You don’t stay up much longer now, okay? Or I’ll have to wrestle that book away from you and have your mother cook it for dinner,” he chuckled. Comfort looked at him in all seriousness.
“Father, I have a question.”
“Oh? Go on then,” he replied.
“You’ll answer, won’t you?”
“Well, of course I will dear child! A father’s promise to his daughter is unbreakable,” he said with a comforting smile, setting his pipe down in its usual place for mother to clean in the morning.
“Father, what is magic?”
He froze in his place, the pipe just an inch or so above its resting place. He took a deep breath, sighed, and placed it down. “Now why on earth…No…Where did you hear that child?” he asked.
“You said a father’s promise to his daughter is unbreakable!” she protested.
“Please trust your father. Magic is not something to be trifled with. It is not something we speak of. It is not something that truly exists. It is a ghost, a ghost that men chase looking for power, and no good man chases after power. Tell me, where did you hear about this?”
She was struck with fear. She couldn’t answer.
“Was it in one of your books?”
She shook her head no.
“Was it from one of the council children you watch sometimes?”
She shook her head no.
“Was it at the market?”
She nodded. Why did she do that? Why did she lie to Father? What overcame her?
“That’s a good girl. Thank you for telling me.”
“Father, have I gotten someone hurt? Have I caused trouble?”
“My child, this isn’t some land where we go out killing people for mentioning an unfortunate word that brings chaos wherever it is spoke. That is what that word is, do you understand? Please don’t chase ghosts when you could be chasing dreams,” he said as he stroked her cheek. “Now off to bed, please, for Papa.”
“Yes, father. Thank you for telling me. I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was a bad word. I won’t say it again.”
“That’s a good girl.”
Was that…was that a light in the distance? It can’t be. There shouldn’t be anyone left in the world but our little village. She remained hidden in the tree line but continued in the direction of the light. She had to know what was out there. Could there be other humans? Was it some sort of beacon? She walked onward, occasionally stopping to watch a grazing deer or to chuckle at the scurrying of some rodent bouncing about in the tree tops. A small nut fell from the trees and knocked her on the shoulder. It made her realize how hungry she was.
It wasn’t unusual for even young children to be pretty knowledgeable about what they could eat off the land since it was only a few generations go that that was necessary for survival. Farming had only been around for a few generations and many were still experimenting with what worked best. Comfort tried to ignore the stinging of the very thin cut on her arm. It made her feel like such a child. Here she was miles away from home with the only thing in her possession that could literally turn the entire population against her, and she was wincing at the stinging of a small thorn cut! She grumbled and admonished herself as she fumbled about in the wet dirt and grass, looking for a few loose nuts she could eat. They sure wouldn’t be anything like her mother’s tea cookies. She sighed, tried to not think about her little cut and plopped herself on the ground in what she thought was the direction of home. She looked up at the cloudy, blue sky. It was if all signs of the thunderstorm yesterday afternoon were gone if you looked up. The wet ground and puddles here and there were all that remained of her memories of the night before.
She shook the memory from her head and began eating some of the nuts she had collected around herself. Into that very first bite, a bit of the nut shell jammed into her gums! She immediately yanked it out and she began to taste a bit of blood in her mouth. She sighed deeply, swallowed the bit of blood and began more carefully chewing on the nuts. She’d need water. Who knew where the next closest stream was. The stream back home was beautiful. It flowed right into the big water where the fishers went to catch fish for market. She knew she couldn’t go along that stream as they’d be looking for her there, knowing as she did that she’d need water before long.
She finished up her nuts, picked up her leather satchel again, still holding the Codex safe and sound, and slowly and cautiously turned her back on what she thought was the direction of Codens. In this way she began her way towards the light in the distance again. It was up on top of where the land grew big with mountains, but she hadn’t ever known anyone to go that far. Still, she felt a strange driving need to head towards that light. In all honesty, where else was she going to go? If there was some light in the distance that caught her eye, that was as good a direction as any to head into, right? So she did.
Two nights passed relatively uneventfully. She decided to try to drink some of the water from the puddles or that had collected in leaves. The dirt flavor was the price she paid to keep herself from the stream they’d be looking for her around. Breakfast was generally nuts and she munched the rest of the day on nuts, berries and some leaves and flowers she knew were safe to eat until she was ready to rest again. Every once in a while she’d check again on the Codex to make sure it was still in her satchel, even though she had no reason to think otherwise. It was just to comfort herself and to strengthen her own resolve to keep heading towards that light.
On the third night she was beginning to feel the effects of the little water and food she had in her belly and she was beginning to rethink her strategy of avoiding the stream. As she fell asleep, she resolved to rethink her run-away plan in the morning.
Comfort woke with a start to intense heat all around her. Flames lept with blinding light in every direction. There was a forest fire. She immediately checked her satchel for the book. It was safe. A few moments more and her eyes adjusted. There was one way out where the fire hadn’t gotten thick enough to completely block her path.
Without another thought she charged through, singing herself as she flew through the flames. A sharp, high-pitched gasp crawled out of her throat, choking her along with the growing smoke. She held the satchel close to her side and ran as fast as she could away from the flames. There was probably some part of her that realized that meant she was running back in the direction of Codens, but there was no time to stop and think of that. She just had to escape the flames. The fire lept up on her side, causing her to take a sharp turn in the direction of the stream, another place she didn’t want to head towards, but she had no choice.
Her breathing was rapid and the heat sticking along the outside of her legs was throbbing and stinging in rhythm with her steps, in rhythm with her breathing. Her heart beat heavily and it was if all these feelings at once were a chain reaction, each feeling following another back to back only to cycle through again. She kept running.
The fire was immense and the heat and smoke were right at her back when suddenly she fell. She stepped off a bit of raised forest floor. She couldn’t see a thing when she was suddenly sliding, her back against the hill when her right foot, which she had pointed ahead of her to try to balance, caught itself in what felt like a tree root that had uplifted itself somewhat out of the ground. The rest of her body, however, was unfortunately not finished falling. Her caught foot conflicted with the gravity pulling her down and her body tumbled forward snapping her foot from her ankle. She screamed in pain, tumbling forward until her body was flat on her back, her smashed foot and ankle flopping hard onto the ground as she came to a halt. Heaving and howling in pain, her vision darkened. The glow of the flames behind her danced on the tree branches above her resting place as her body gave up on maintaining consciousness.
Codens was founded by a wealthy man who, when the plague struck, took his flying machine across the world picking up unaffected families to bring to a new land. It was even rumored that he himself was somehow immune to the plague, but there was no way at this point to tell whether that rumor was based in fantasy or reality. After founding Codens, he settled down and created the Codex for the people to live by. Everyone was so thankful to be alive that no one questioned this decision and the Codex became an important and necessary part of the lives of the people of Codens.
Over time, the population grew and the passing down of the responsibility to protect and interpret the Codex was passed down as a group responsibility versus a solitary one. Eventually it grew to be the responsibility of 13 men, carefully replaced each time one of them passed away. Currently the thirteen men who held this responsibility were Jelle, Samuel, Eindrid, Asif, Critomir, Emer, Wei, Otto, Ammar, Matthew, Delwyn, Cyrus, and Conway, Comfort’s father. It was often considered the job of their wives to move smoothly among the people to learn of issues in society that might be addressed by the Codex through their husbands. The wives of the council members were Paula (married to Samuel), Kanda (married to Asif), Laetitia (married to Emer), Wen (married to Wei), Opal (married to Otto), Justice (married to Ammar), Britta (married to Matthew), Charle (married to Delwyn), Siv (married to Cyrus), and Grace, Comfort’s mother who was married to Conway. Though some matters were occasionally considered deep enough to be addressed by more than one council member, this was rare, and most problems among the society were shared at market or some other social gathering with the wives, who then reported it to their husbands, who then consulted the Codex, who then reported to the individual in question with a response to their situation.
It was the job of the children of the council members (for those that had children) to be model citizens in every way. Any sons, especially the first born son to a council member, were expected to vie for the position of their father on the council when he passed, but this was in their adulthood. In their childhood, they were expected to follow every ruling to the letter, to obey their parents perfectly, especially in public where other children and parents may be watching them, and to attend weekly Codex studies with their mothers to brush up on their behaviors. The children of the council members were many as the wives of the council members were, above all, held to a standard of being vessels to repopulate the human race. Asif and Kanda had Suchart, their oldest son, and their twins Mali and Preecha. Laetitia and Emer had many children, all of whom they named beginning with the letter A. There was Abigail, Abraham, Addison, Adelaide, Agatha, Agnes, Alfred, Alton, Amy, Angelica, Arthur, Astor, August, Aurora, and she was newly pregnant again when Comfort left Codens. Laetitia believed in the responsibility to repopulate the Earth and often said she’d keep going on getting pregnant until her body couldn’t do so anymore. No one in the known history of Codens was able to get pregnant as many times as she had without complications or death being the result. Wei, who would have likely gone the same route as Laetitia if she could have, only had one child, her son Da. She nearly died when giving birth to him and her husband and her then decided to not try for any further children. Otto and Opal had their only son Eurig and Cyrus and Siv were expecting soon. Then there was Justice and Ammar who had Chelly, Lisanna, Bridger, Davina, and Thrice. Matthew and Britta had Barry, Bree, Caitlin and Clancy and Comfort’s mother, Grace had Felicity first, then Misery who died shortly after childbirth, then herself, and then her younger sister Destiny.
These were all the people Comfort grew up with. Oh sure, the children of the council members were expected to go out and play with other children and to be a role model to them, but for the most part the mothers corralled them together with the unspoken understanding that they were the elite, that the future was in their hands, and they took their duty to prepare them seriously. Comfort knew them all personally, having babysat several herself, especially young Da and Kanda’s twins Preecha and Mali, all of whom she watched often. While Comfort’s mother tried to get her into some other useful task such as baking, teaching, gardening or the like, Comfort always replied with, “I know my duty mother, but I know I’m not yet ready to serve Codens and I wouldn’t want to let our people down,” or some other as such prepared statement. She just never felt any particular calling like the other mothers and older children did. Wen was adept at mending clothing and Chelly was an accomplished musician on a violin that had been passed down in her family. Many of Laetitia’s older children spent a great deal of their time either learning to farm or teaching their younger siblings. Suchart was already preparing himself to take his father’s place as councilman whenever his father was ready to pass which would likely still be years away. Comfort’s own older sister Felicity herded sheep which provided wool which she then spun into winter clothing for our family and sold any extra she could make. Comfort just liked to read. She did, however, love to watch her mother bake. After years of watching her bake she began to ask to read cookbooks which then spurned on her love of reading. She told her mother that she would learn to bake one day when she had read more, which sometimes contented her to leave Comfort alone.
Her father was never as concerned about her as her mother was. He believed she’d come into her own when she was ready and encouraged her to seek out the answers to who she was in books, which only increased her love of the pastime. Boy, was she ever going to miss her father...
The town she didn’t feel one way or the other about. Market often had some neat things in it, but she didn’t cook, couldn’t sew, and wasn’t particularly interested in the pretties her sisters and mother enjoyed so much. Plus, the statue of the bronzed feet of their dead savior was just a creepy memorial to someone no one could even remember anymore, but her mother said that was the point.
When she wasn’t dragged through market as an example to other children or attending her weekly Codex teachings from her parents, and when she wasn’t reading, she liked to walk to the pier and watch the fisherman shove their little boats off the edge of the land and into the water with their nets. It was somehow mesmerizing to her to watch the nets drop off the side of the boats empty only to be pulled up with fish in them. She would watch them until sunset if her older sister would agree to go with her so that she could walk back home safely in the dark. “What’s better than a sunset at the pier?” she’d ask Felicity, who would often reply that just about anything was. She didn’t understand Comfort’s patience for the passing of time and felt like it was a waste to just sit around and watch the sun move through the sky. Comfort knew this of course, but felt incredibly lucky that Felicity would humor her sometimes, especially since she wasn’t allowed to go alone that late.
When she read, her two favorite places to read were next to her father’s big chair and next to her sister Misery’s grave in the backyard. She wondered a lot if Misery would be more like her since she was so different from her industrious sister Felicity and her sister Destiny who enjoyed making and buying pretties more than anything else. She figured if she couldn’t know Misery, she could at least read to her.
She read books on baking at first of course, but before long she branched into books on herding, on fishing, books about the founder of their town (though they only listed him as “the founder” or “the savior”), books on gardening, books on math, literature books (though there were few), and even books on the brief history of Codens. She often asked about books from before the Plague but there were few and not everyone was willing to part with treasures that had remained in their family that long, even if only to borrow. Though always disappointed, Comfort understood. Had she had been able to bring something from the world before the plague, it would certainly hold a special place in her heart.
So that was the all of her life. Not much really. Just reading about things she’d probably never do, disappointing and frustrating her mother, amusing her father, annoying her sisters, and occasionally wasting time watching sunsets at the pier. And now she had nothing left to read but the Codex itself. When she decided to steal it, she knew that, but it was worth it to safe her father’s life.
Suddenly she could feel tears streaming down her face. Almost immediately after, she noticed constraints across her chest, hips, and knees. She was being held down by thick straps. She couldn’t feel her right foot at all, which wasn’t surprising to her as she thought it had been completely ripped off. Leaning her head forward she could see otherwise, though it was battered purple and green and was incredibly swollen. The sight made whatever food that was left in her stomach rise up. She coughed out bits of nuts and berries from the day before and began to hyperventilate. After a few moments of panic an older woman entered the room. She had short, curly, strawberry blonde hair and was wearing an apron over a flowing white top. “Shiori!” she called as she left the room again. “We’re gonna need a bucket!”
Her vision went hazy and she began to panic and hyperventilate some more. A slender woman with short, straight hair came into the roam wiping her hands on her apron which matched that of her partner’s. The two women stood over her. “Nah, she doesn’t need a bucket,” responded the woman who was apparently Shiori. “She’s done now, I think.” She pulled up a corner of her own apron and wiped away at Comfort’s vomit. “There, all better, don’t you think?” she asked.
Comfort could hardly answer. She was in too much of a panic. Her foot looked like something that shouldn’t even exist as part of a human body and she was strapped down to a table! “The Codex!” she shouted without thinking. She immediately bit her lip and she felt all the color leave her face.
“Yes, yes, child,” said the other woman. “It’s here, in the room. There’s no need to fret. The hunters won’t be checking the cabins of the outlanders for, what Shiori? Another day at least, yeah?”
Comfort turned her gaze to the woman called Shiori who nodded in response. “Go ahead and get her something better to eat then,” she paused to look at the vomit on her apron, “nuts and berries.”
The other woman laughed heartily, kissed Shiori on the cheek, nodded and left the room. “Don’t worry. Elizabeth’s a stunning cook. It’s entirely the reason I married her,” she said with a smirk, “but something tells me the greatest thief since the plague has more on her mind than my wife’s cooking. Do you want me to take off these straps now?”
Comfort nodded, completely dumbfounded. These two women were married? She never heard of such a thing back home. It made sense though. Two women couldn’t create a child. They must have been shunned as outlanders for that reason. She couldn’t help but feel a little excited. She had always wanted to meet an outlander, but of course, the daughter of a councilman had no business with those who would refuse to further the human race. She could hear her mother’s voice in her head as she thought this. She would have been disgusted with anyone who put something like love above duty.
“Yeah, we had to strap you down to keep you from wrenching yourself when you came to. Hope we didn’t give you too much of a fright.”
Comfort could only manage a small head shake in her confusion. Shiori checked her forehead.
“No temperature, it seems.” She brushed some hair out of Comfort’s face with a soft, warm smile. “Listen, I’ll be clear. You’re foot’s blasted all to hell. I’m gonna redo these straps on you at night so you don’t accidentally move it cause that’d be bad. It doesn’t seem like you’re feeling it much now, so that’s good. Don’t worry; we’re going to take good care of you. We’re gonna wait for the swelling to go down and then we’ll set your leg so the bones can hopefully re-attach. It’s not going to feel good and you may pass out a few times, but you’re safe here. We’ve got some south storage under the boards here,” she said as she stepped back a bit and tapped the flooring with her foot. She could hear that it was hollow. “We’ll have to lower you down into here whenever the patrol comes looking for you. We’ll have to do it in a hurry so forget about a smooth descent, but we’ll keep from bumping your foot at least. It can’t take a bump if it’s going to heal at all. You’ll be cramped and it’ll be hard to breathe but just breathe slow and deep and we’ll take you out as soon as it’s safe. Got it?”
Comfort nodded, “But…” Her voice came out much more horse than she had expected.
“Just you rest. We wanna hear the whole story behind why you stole the Codex. It’s not like the damn thing’s worth anything so you must have a pretty interesting reason and ‘Lizabeth and I are anxious to hear about it. I’m gonna go help her with dinner. Just rest and try not to pass out. You need some food in your little self.”
Comfort nodded again. “But why…?” she stammered out.
“Cause you’re a person,” Shiori replied. “Now rest!” She gave her a stern look as she lifted off her vomit covered apron and exited the room. Comfort breathed in deeply and slowly, trying to take stock of her body. She couldn’t feel her right foot at all, though she could tell from her glance at it that it was raised on a pillow covered in towels. She dare not try to move the leg after what Shiori had told her. Her right hip was tender and a few of her left toes were throbbing, but nothing too bad there. Her head was pounding though and her vision would get hazy from time to time but still, nothing too bad there either. When she breathed in deep her ribs ached but nothing worse than a bad flu. She still had the small cut on her left arm and the small wound from the nut that cut her gums but those were nearly gone. The rest of her seemed pretty in order overall. She tried to put the image and facts of her “blasted” foot out of her head. She took a few more deep, slow breaths, and slowly drifted to sleep. It wasn’t long before she woke again.
An earthy, fishy smell filled the air. Shiori and Elizabeth re-entered the room. They settled down onto little stump chairs and set their plates down on the other end of the long table. “Do you think you can sit up?” asked Elizabeth.
“I’m not sure she should with her leg.”
“You’d know better than me,” Elizabeth replied picking up another plate and walking over to Comfort. “You’re gonna have to lift your head just enough to eat and swallow, okay?”
“I’ll get her a head pillow,” Shiori said leaving the room again. Elizabeth nodded.
“Once we get some food into you maybe you’ll be able to tell us your fine story, huh?” she asked with a smile. “Alright, eat up. The sooner you eat, the sooner I get to!” she said with another hearty laugh. It was just like the one she let out before.
Comfort nodded as Shiori returned with a head pillow. She placed it under her head so that she didn’t have to hold her head up at an angle the entire time she was eating. Shiori disappeared from the room again. “I made fish of course, got some tomatoes too. You aren’t allergic to anything, are you?”
Comfort shook her head as she accepted the first bite of fish. It was amazing! It was earthy and moist and spiced in a way she had never had before. Her eyes fluttered at the savory flavor. She quickly opened her mouth for another bite. “Oh! You’re a little bird,” laughed Elizabeth. Shiori returned into the room with a cup of water. “Oh, too right, too right,” Elizabeth cooed. Shiori nodded and returned to her seat to eat. Elizabeth alternated between fish, tomatoes and sips of water until Comfort had finished them all. “That’s a good girl,” she smiled. “You all up?”
“Oh, good dear,” she said, almost fluttering back to her seat in anticipation. “Now please! Tell us everything!”
“Why…” she paused and cleared her throat. “Why don’t you think I’m a criminal?” she asked.
“Why would it matter if you were?” Shiori answered.
“Oh do go on dear! I’ve been so looking forward to hearing how a young girl must have snuck in and took the great book away from its keepers and then managed to get past the council members and into the forest and past the hounds! Oh my goodness! I can’t wait!”
“Oh…Okay,” she stammered out. “Well, um…my name is Comfort.”
“Oh we know that,” chortled Shiori. “Your name is spoken all throughout the town now.”
“You…you can go to town?” Comfort asked.
Elizabeth laughed again. “Just cause no one’s gonna talk to us doesn’t mean we’re not allowed there!” Shiori smirked at her response.
“Oh…” She felt a pit in her stomach. Her father must hate her. Slowly tears began to stream down her face. “I just…” she tried to breathe through the tightening in her throat. “I just wanted to save my father,” she said. With that confession the tears came out thick and fast. She turned her head to one side and balled up her right hand into a fist. Immediately she yelped in pain!
“Oh dear, we told you about that leg.” Elizabeth was clearly trying to comfort her but had to fight her own instinct to pat Comfort gently on her busted leg.
“Yeah I…I didn’t know I was tightening it.”
“It’ll take a lot of practice but you cannot tighten or move those muscles,” Shiori instructed. “Now what’s this about your father?” Shiori asked as she walked up to Comfort. She pulled out a small handkerchief with bits of brown crinkled things on them.
“What are those?”
“Dried grapes. Try them. They’re sweet.”
Comfort nodded as she put a few in her mouth. They were sweet and they soothed the rise of sadness in her. “The Codex was in my father’s possession for research for a dispute. Critomir had been muttering about something my father told me was a bad word. He had been talking to himself about it a lot lately.”
Elizabeth snickered a bit to herself. “I didn’t know Critomir still talked to himself.” Shiori shot her a glance and Elizabeth made a silly face and hushed herself. Shiori nodded to Comfort to continue.
“One night I heard him say he needed to look at the Codex. He said it over and over again. I didn’t understand. He was on the council. He could look at it any time! I heard him say he’d kill my father to look at it. I immediately snuck over to the stand it sits on when it’s in our home, grabbed it, stuffed it into my leather satchel, and ran off. I didn’t want him to kill my father,” she said again as the tears flowed down her cheeks. Shiori gestured to the dried grapes which Comfort ate happily, letting them calm her down once more.
“Where did you hear him say these things?” Shiori asked.
“He often talked at our house door before he’d come inside, or sometimes in the reading room when Father was packing his pipe. My room is just above our house door and the reading room. Sometimes I’d sneak out of my room for treats at night and hear him at the stairs.”
“Are you sure he wasn’t just speaking out of frustration?” Elizabeth asked.
“How could I risk it if he was?!” She grabbed her leg in pain as she had tightened again without meaning to. Elizabeth frowned at her pain. Shiori stroked at her left leg making shushing noises. “Besides, even after I hid it for months, he still pursued it and came after me too!”
“Why don’t we send a letter to your parents, letting them know the situation and where you are? I bet they’d understand, take you on home, and heal you much better than we could.”
Comfort shook her head no. “He’ll never see me again! He thinks I’m a traitor!” Instinctively she took another small clumping of dried grapes. “I’ll have to be an outlander now…” she said the words as she thought them. The two women looked to each other.
“Now that just won’t do. Why would you be so willing to just leave home forever, with the Codex no less, and not even consider going home to your parents? What – I…I just don’t understand,” Elizabeth said slouching and plopping her arms in her lap in confused frustration.
“Why don’t you think about it, dear?” Shiori asked. “I know this is all so much for you and all this happened so quickly. It’s okay to take time to think about your decisions. In your place, they are big ones.”
“But it wasn’t quick! I hid the book for months and months before this!”
“That may be,” Shiori responded. She looked to Elizabeth who shrugged in equal confusion. “But the running, your injury – “
“You won’t tell? You won’t tell anyone?” Comfort asked in a panic, cutting Shiori off.
“Well we’ve already told our postman and our neighbors, but no, we won’t contact patrol or your parents. That’s got to be up to you,” Shiori responded.
Comfort nodded. “Thank you misses for your kind hospitality. Could I have the straps now? For sleep?”
“Oh, there’s that council child politeness,” Elizabeth laughed. “Of course, dear. You’ll need lots of extra sleep to heal. We’re going to make some healing ointments for your foot. When we apply them, they may wake you, but we have to alternate between several applications repeatedly to get the swelling down so we can set the bone, so if we wake you, please just try to bare it, okay?”
Tears welled up in Comfort’s eyes. “Thank you misses. Thank you so, very much.”
“It’s Shiori and ‘Lizabeth. Alright?” Shiori corrected.
“Yes, Shiori.” She couldn’t keep the tears from strolling down her face. She was so grateful she didn’t know what to do with herself. “Thank you Shiori. Thank you Elizabeth.”
They both smiled and set to the task of strapping her in. “Good night dear,” Shiori said as they both left the room. “You sleep well and you think about what we said.” Comfort nodded and, in her exhaustion, she quickly fell back asleep.
The next morning, bright and early, the sun peaked into the windows and the warmth on her face caused Comfort to stir in her sleep. She could hear Elizabeth, she wagered, in the kitchen, probably making breakfast. She wondered what kinds of lives they led, how they passed their days. She felt a twinge at the bottom of her right leg and tentatively decided to look down again at her foot. The swelling had gone down substantially and it was covered in some sort of orange goo.
Suddenly she heard what sounded like a pan crashing to the floor. Elizabeth immediately crashed into the room. “They’re coming!” she said with shock written all over her face. Comfort immediately felt the blood drain from hers. “Shiori isn’t here! How will I – “ She raced about the room moving things out of the way trying to get to the floorboard where Comfort must hide. She swiftly moved the board out of the way and then looked at Comfort. “Shit, girl!” She immediately went over and untied her as quickly as she could. “We’re going to have to do this together, you and me.” Comfort nodded, though she wasn’t quite sure how this was going to happen. “We don’t have time!” There was a knock at the door. Elizabeth didn’t stop to answer it because she knew who it was and was determined to get Comfort to safety. There was no telling what the patrol would do if they found her and Elizabeth wasn’t keen on finding out! She quickly threw Comfort’s right arm over her shoulders. “You’re going to have to hold on to me as best you can.” Comfort nodded and turned into Elizabeth to hold her right shoulder with her left hand. Elizabeth then dipped and put her weight and her right hand under Comfort’s right thigh. It was the best she could do under the circumstances. The foot lifted off its pillow and dangled painfully from her ankle. She knew she couldn’t yelp or holler at the pain. She bit her lip and pressed her forehead into Elizabeth’s chest as if this would somehow block out the pain. Elizabeth then dragged the left side of her body, dropping all of her but her right leg into the small enclosure under the layer of wood flooring. It was damp and freezing in there, but there was no choice. There was another knock at the door and a woman’s voice barking something neither of them paid attention to. With the rest of her body slumped inside, Elizabeth, with a very worried expression, gently lowered Comfort’s calf into the enclosure having slid her right hand down her thigh and using it to, as gently as possible, steady Comfort’s foot. The second the foot was in place, she immediately picked up her speed again. She knocked the satchel with the Codex in it into the pit with her foot while she scooted the wood flooring back into place. With that she disappeared from Comfort’s sight.
Tears streaming down her face, Comfort was in so much pain, so cold she was shivering, and so damn grateful that she couldn’t keep from sobbing in silence to herself. She grabbed on to the Codex and held it tight to her chest, lying still on her back. She tried to take solace from the pain in her grip on the book and wished deeply in her heart that she would not be caught. She could hear two women arguing and then a door slamming. She tried her best to even quiet her breathing.
The flooring was removed. She was too frightened to open her eyes, worried that it might be a patrol member rather than Elizabeth. She heard a short chuckle. “Hurts, don’t it?” She opened her eyes. It was Shiori! Elizabeth was behind her looking pissed beyond comprehension. “Brought you some tea. Sorry to have scared you.” Comfort let the tears fall from her face pressed her lips together as she let her eyes close and her body relax. “Don’t get too overjoyed. This is just to help with the pain. They’re still coming. I just got here first. You keep a good thought in your heart. We’ll see you soon.”
Shiori and Elizabeth disappeared behind the floorboard once again. In her crammed, quarter seated up position she winced in pain as she sipped on her little cup of tea. It wasn’t sweet at all but drinking it was a good distraction from the pain. It was mostly quiet for a while. She’d occasionally hear the tapping of a foot or some sort of ruckus in the kitchen. She tried to think about how wonderful breakfast could be to distract herself from her worrisome situation. For the most part there was silence, and for quite a while too. She expected they would come sooner but perhaps they were taking their time examining each house.
She finished her tea and laid the empty cup down in the crook of her right elbow, holding the Codex again close to her with her other arm. She waited and waited. After a while, despite the gravity of the situation, she began to grow bored. After a while longer, she began to grow worried. She hadn’t heard anything in a while. They wouldn’t have killed them, would they? That’s unthinkable! She shook the thought from her head and in so doing, accidentally tightened her leg yet again. She let out a small, involuntary whimper. She froze. She tucked her head into her chin and told herself that there was no way she was going to make another sound. Eventually, tuckered out and with nothing to do, she fell asleep.
The floorboard moved with a jerk! A very startled Comfort jerked awake, crying out in pain as she had thumped her foot on the floor in doing so.
Elizabeth cracks up laughing. “It’s a good thing we waited until they were out of the territory,” Shiori said trying to hide her amusement. “I take it the tea worked?”
Comfort oh so gracefully wiped a bit of drool from her mouth as she looked around for the cup. It had maneuvered itself underneath her arm. She handed it back to Shiori, but from her lowered place in the floor, it only came up to Shiori’s shins.
“You’re really out of it, aren’t you girl?” Elizabeth crooned.
“I’m…hungry…” Comfort stammered out shyly.
Shiori lost it with laughter. “Go get the poor git something.”
Comfort immediately felt blood rush to her face.
“Don’t worry dear. She doesn’t mean it,” Elizabeth said with a comforting pat on her head. “We’ll get you out of there after you eat. You need food in you!”
Shiori plopped down next to Comfort on the floor next to their floor hole. “You were right not to return,” she started, suddenly serious. “No one’s stolen the Codex before, so there was no precedent, but it’s been decided that you should be put to death. They’re taking this rather seriously.”
Tears fell out of Comfort’s eyes. She couldn’t even respond. She could only think about her father. Would he really agree to something like this?
“It looks like you can never go back. I’m sorry.”