The Book Thief
It was winter in Elysia.
Snow blanketed the ground, reflecting the light of the stars and moon. Trees stood there, bereft of leaves, or creatures that might feed on them. And crouching in the branches of one of those trees, away from fire, keeping to the shadows, Chris kept in place. Her breath appeared before her, carried away on the wind. Staring at the building before her. Surrounded by stone walls and iron railings, guards patrolling the outside. Like a fortress, yet as silent as a tomb.
She shivered in the winter's chill, watching a solitary guard standing by the gate, tightening her woollen. He wiped his nose with a gloved hand. There'd been two more guards a few minutes ago, but one had started complaining about his foot, about not being able to feel it. The other had taken him away, towards a nearby wooden shack. She'd passed it on her way here, taking time to smell the scent of stew as she passed by, all before climbing into the trees that grew near this section of the wall. Trees that, if she kept her balance and pace, would allow her to jump over the wall, and the spikes that jutted up from the railings. After that, she'd have little trouble. Everyone was intent on keeping out the Unblessed from the structure, and from what she could tell, there was no-one on the other side of the wall. With luck, none in the building itself. And if a Blessed did want to enter the building at night…well, she wasn't counting on that happening. They came during the day. But on a winter's night such as this…she tightened the shawl even further. Adjusted the blade in her belt.
She ran a hand through her hair, flicking away pieces of snow. Getting to her feet, balancing on the branch, she readied herself for the leap. Gritting her teeth, she began to run. She knew that in a few seconds, one of three possible outcomes would occur. One, she would get over the wall and railing, and make it to the courtyard of her target. Second, she would fall into the snow, landing in front of a guard who was holding his nose with one hand, and a halberd in the other. Third, she'd be impaled on a line of spikes.
Six Years Ago
"I'm sorry. But the Creator has not blessed her."
Chris couldn't understand – why were her parents looking so crestfallen? Who was the man who sat opposite them, dressed in robes, wearing a medallion bearing a white, four-pointed star? Why, a few minutes ago had he cut her palm and poured some of her blood into a vial? Even now, with it bandaged, it still throbbed.
"Are you sure?" Father asked.
Chris looked up at him as Mother bounced her on her lap – why did Father sound so unhappy?
"Of course. Do you doubt me?" the man who was not Father asked.
"No, I just-"
"She has shown no signs of magic," said the man, writing on a piece of parchment. "Our testing is thorough. Like yourselves, she is Unblessed."
Unblessed. What did that mean, Chris wondered. And why did that news seem to hurt her parents so? She held the wrist of her right hand, trying to ignore the pain that throbbed through its palm.
"You may go," said the man, not taking his eyes up from his writing. "Creator guide you."
Creator. Who the Creator was, Chris didn't know. Father and Mother mentioned hum a lot though – that doing something bad was for the Creator's sake, or hoping he would preserve them…whatever preserve meant. But whatever it was, why hadn't it blessed her? Or her parents?
Mother took her off her lap and put her feet on the ground, gently taking her hand – the one that was not bandaged. She tried to meet her gaze, but Mother was not looking at her. Nor was Father – both kept their gazes straight ahead towards the exit of the chapel, which would take them into the town of Parethon. An open door that led out to the summer air.
"Mother?" she asked. "Father? What's happening?"
"Nothing dear," Father said. "We're just going home."
A cool breeze drifted in through the door. A change from the scorching summer sun. And yet she shivered.
"Mother?" she asked. "What does Unblessed mean?"
Mother didn't answer. She just kept walking, hurrying her along. Her grip on Chris's hand tightened.
"Unblessed," Father murmured, "means to not be chosen by the Creator. To not have magic." He sighed. "To not have a voice, to not own land, to not-"
"To have no education, or support. Lives at the mercy of the Blessed, to eke out a living from dusk till dawn, to-"
Father stopped walking. He let out a sob, putting a hand to his mouth. Mother let go of Chris's hand and walked over to him, putting her arms around her husband.
"Mother?" Chris asked. "Did I do something wrong?"
"No, Christina," Mother said, all the while holding father. "It's not your fault." She glanced at her with a sad smile on her face. "You've done nothing wrong."
Chris tried to smile as well. Tried to believe her. But couldn't.
And all the while, her hand continued to bleed.
Chris covered her right hand's wound with snow, keeping low to the ground. Getting over the railing had worked, mostly. Only as she'd come down had she scraped her palm against one of the spikes, tearing the skin open.
That takes me back.
She tore off some of her shawl and wrapped it around her palm, pocketing the now ruined glove that had covered it. That had been years ago. The day when hope for her family had died. It wasn't long after that when she truly understood what it meant to be Unblessed. If you were lucky, you were left alone. Unlucky, you could be made to do anything, for anyone, or at least, anyone who had received the blessing of the Creator. And Unblessed certainly didn't have the rights to enter the structure that lay before her. Keeping low, she made her way towards the building. The main door would be unlocked.
"Not my leg!"
She glanced over at the guardhouse. She could have sworn that-
"Please, don't take it! It'll get better! You'll see, it'll-"
She kept moving, right up to the door. Crouching down on the stone stairs that led up to it. Slowly, she raised a hand up to the handle.
And glanced back as shrieks tore through the air. Shrieks, screams, and every other sound from nightmare. So she returned her hand to the knob. Slowly turning it. Smiling as it began to open. Shivering as a winter wind blew. Ducking in and shutting it behind her.
Straining her eyes, she peered through the gloom. Shelves upon shelves awaited her. She covered her mouth, unable to believe her eyes, the wound to her palm forgotten. In her eight years, she had never seen anything like it. Only rumours. And seeing it now…it was beautiful.
She was finally in a library.
Three Years Ago
"What are you doing? Stop it! Stop it!"
Chris looked up from the cutting block, where she'd been cutting up wood for the fire. It had been an unseasonably cold summer, made worse by the war with Hadea.
But war could wait, she told herself, as she ran across the grass to the house. Her mother's shouts, the sound of male voices…clutching the hatchet in hand, she came round the side. The house she and her parents shared consisted of two rooms, and wasn't large. Yet the walls were long enough for her to peer round. And see the sight before her eyes.
Creator. Lord and Master of All, Creator of Man, the Saviour, the Master, and the Giver of Magic to those who had earned His blessings. And someone who was useless to her right now as two men-at-arms dragged her father out of the house, accompanied by an obligator.
"Stop it!" Mother yelled. "He's done nothing wrong!"
Another pair of men-at-arms held her back, and Chris winced – Mother shouldn't be moving, she recalled. Mother's stomach had grown large over the last few months, and Father told her that she had to rest. But all of that paled to the fact that Father should not be having his arms held by two strange men as another two held her mother, the fifth writing in some kind of rectangular object. One he read out of, and wrote in, using a quill. As if it were a knife, carving out a portion of her soul.
"Orpheus, Son of Hein," the fifth man said. He was better dressed than the men-at-arms, Chris noticed – he wore robes, and bore a four-pointed medallion around her neck. The same type of symbol she'd seen three years ago, when she'd been a two-year-old being told that she was Unblessed. "By order of His Beneficence, you have been chosen for service in the Army of Elysia."
Chris's eyes widened – conscription? An army? That happened to other people. Men and boys throughout the province were being drafted, she'd known that for months, but-
"Term of service, as long as His Beneficence deems necessary. Assignment effective immediately." He closed the rectangular object.
"No," Chris whispered. She watched as Mother tried to get to her feet, but was held back by the men-at-arms. She watched her Father, tears in his eyes, half-heartedly try to break free.
This couldn't happen. Wouldn't happen. A war with a country she'd never seen, for reasons she'd never been given – what was a war, anyway? Mother always told her fighting was wrong.
The men began to move. Her father was being taken with them.
And so she ran at the men taking her father from her. Screaming. Wielding the hatchet with every intent to use it. Swinging it. And stopping dead in her tracks as some kind of force grabbed her.
"Let me go! Let me go!"
The force did not oblige. Was this magic, she wondered? Was it why her arms were stretching out on their own?
"Drop it," the obligator said, referring to the hatchet.
"Didn't you listen? I said-"
"No!" she yelled. "He's my father! You can't do this. You can't-"
The men-at-arms that had been previously holding Mother walked over to her. While her body was still held in place, she could still turn her head. Enough to meet the gaze of the men.
"You're Unblessed too!" she yelled. "Why are you helping them?"
"Be quiet girl."
Chris spat at him. The man recoiled and the other raised a hand to slap her.
"Why?!" she yelled.
The hand was lowered, and the man lowered his gaze. "I'm sorry," he whispered as he took the hatchet away.
Chris felt her body slump, and she too fell to the ground. She felt like a dry tunic, taken in from the line. And just as tattered.
"Control your child, or I'll do it for you," the obligator said to Mother. He gestured towards the men, the one with the hatchet dropping it to the ground. "Come."
"Father?" she asked, as he was led off. "Father!"
"It's alright," he said, his voice low, his eyes lower. "I'll be back. I promise."
She tried to run forward. But she was grabbed from behind. This time, it was Mother.
"No!" she yelled, kicking and screaming. "Let me go!"
The men kept walking. Across the grass to the dirt of the Chaplain's Road. Leaving Chris and her family in the dirt as well.
"Let me go!"
"You can't," Mother said. "He'll be back. I promise. But we can't argue with the Blessed. We…we…"
And she trailed off. Collapsing down into the grass. Breathing heavily. Her chest heaving.
"Mother?" she asked.
Mother didn't answer. She just sat there. Like a chicken, knowing it would die soon. Sbe gazed at the procession, heading for the next house.
"He'll be back, right Mother?"
"Of course," she whispered. "I promise."
Chris got down as well and hugged her. Father was gone. For now. All because of what the obligator had written in that strange object.
But he'd be back. Mother had promised.
When she gave birth to Chris's brother a month later, Mother made the same promise to him as well. And again, Chris believed her.
Mother never broke her promises.
The inside of the library was like nothing Chris had ever been in.
The walls, they were made of stone – she'd never been in any building made of anything other than wood, and certainly none that consisted of more than one story. And never had she seen anything like the tall, rectangular objects that were located throughout it – shelves, she thought, was the name for them. But more importantly were the small, rectangular objects within them. The things that as an Unblessed, she had no right to read. The thing the obligator had written in three years ago. The thing that had consigned her father to his death.
His body had never been returned to them. All she knew was that he'd died somewhere in Hadea. The war was over. The Blessed had no reason to care what happened to their levy.
So she had come here. She'd spent months planning this, weaving in and out of her home, evading her mother's notice. She'd come here to get something. A book. Any book. Because maybe, it was the only form of rebellion she could ever show. Maybe, it would show the Blessed that her life could amount to something. Maybe it could help her understand why her father had to die.
Provided, of course, she could evade the sight of the night guardsman. Or what she assumed was a night guardsman, because who else would be holding an oil lamp, slowly moving across the floor. Keeping her breath steady and her posture low, she scampered away from the entrance, hiding behind one of the shelves.
Male, she noticed. Old. Buggered left leg as well, given the way he dragged it. Unblessed as well, but then again, what man guarding this place wasn't?
Old, and senile, Chris reflected, given how he talked to himself.
Or maybe just lonely. She picked out a book, peering through the hole she'd left. She wanted to hate him. Hate all of them. Hated the men who'd taken her father away. Hated them as much as the obligators.
Or at least, she told herself that. Because eight years of life had taught her one thing – you did what you had to do. And if that meant guarding books you could never read, standing in the cold, losing your leg…well, if you and your family got fed, she couldn't judge.
The guardsman began to shuffle off. Picking another book, she quickly skimmed through the pages of both – words, words, and more words. Both were fiction – perfect. She began to head for the door and-
The guard had seen her. In the space of less than a second, Chris's mind processed the facts – yes, she'd been seen. That if the guard's eyesight was good enough, he'd see the books she'd got under her arms. Third, he was sending his halberd towards her chest and-
She wove to the side, the blade tearing off some of her tunic, but leaving her body unscathed. On instinct, she threw one of the books at the man, forcing him to shield his face and stumble. Years of brawling with boys in the back alleys of town had taught her that deception and distraction were far better options if she wanted to avoid "a good licking." But they were lessons she applied as she darted forward, sweeping right leg against the back of the man's left one. He tumbled to the ground, dropping the halberd. It was all the time she needed to draw out her blade and put it to the guard's throat.
"You're…" he sputtered. "You're a child."
Chris winced. Child. Well, that was better than him pointing out that her blade was a kitchen knife, and that in all its years of use, it had never been used on anything more deadly than a carrot.
"How…how old are you?"
She pressed it further against his throat. She had no desire to give that information out. Instead, she was considering her predicament.
A burglary had occurred this night. It might have been bad enough for the guard once the missing books were discovered, but now that he'd seen that burglary take place, that could be much more complicated. The missing books could be identified. If he could identify her face, that would…she took a breath. There was, of course, a far easier solution to the issue at hand. Just kill him.
"Are you…going to kill me?" he whispered.
And why not, she wondered. No-one had cared when her father had died. No-one could care if this man died either. The only difference was that his body might have a chance of being returned to his family, and-
She sheathed the knife in her belt, ashamed at having even considering using it. No. She would never do that. Ever. She'd been through that herself. And once was enough.
She kicked the halberd under one of the shelves, picked up the books, and headed for the door, opening it to the winter air. Glancing back at the guard, wondering what he'd do next. Wondering if he'd seen her face well enough to identify it. She kept her visage on the side, in the shadow. Hoping it was enough.
"Don't talk about this," she whispered. "It'll be a long time before anyone notices these books are missing. I mean, you're not the only guy who guards the interior right?"
"No," he murmured. "I'm in the snow sometimes."
She remained silent. Wondering what he thought about. Whether he had a family to go back to. Whether he'd still have a family if his failure this night was ever discovered.
"You're Unblessed, aren't you?" the guard asked.
She nodded. No point in lying there – why would the Blessed break into their own library? And why would a Blessed have to use physical means of disabling an opponent?
"I'm leaving now," she said, shivering in the winter's chill. Snowflakes drifted in, lodging in her hair, and under her eyes – as if the world itself was weeping. "Just…don't tell anyone I was here. Please."
He remained silent. Chris didn't dare assume that meant anything in of itself. All that was left to do was leave, and hope that her show of mercy would mean something. She went to leave and-
"Do you ever read them?" she asked.
She stopped at the door, returning her gaze to the guard.
"At night," she continued. "When no-one's around. Do you ever just…open the pages?"
"Of course not," the man said softly. He smiled, and Chris was reminded of her father. The type of smile he gave her when he told her he'd never leave, that the war with Hadea would end. The smile he'd given her a few days after her lack of magic was known, assuring her that everything would be alright. The type of smile that was meant to hide despair, yet conveyed it all too well.
"Why would I?" he continued. "I can't even read. Of course I don't open them."
Chris smiled too. She almost laughed.
"Of course not," she whispered. "Why would you do that?"
And then she ran out the door. Across the snow. To the side gate. Unbolted it, and ran off into the night.
One Year Ago
"Have you been fighting again Christina?"
"Chris. My name is Chris."
"Indeed? When the watchmen brought you here last week they told me your name was-"
"The watchmen are idiots."
"Well then," Father Ross said, bringing over a bowl of water along with a rag. "I suppose that's one thing we both agree on."
Chris laughed, the sound echoing throughout the chapel. It was a wooden building, not unlike the one she'd been in when she was two (that one had burnt down years ago). Yet Ross was a chapalier, not an obligator. His role was to speak the word of the Creator, not enforce it, as interpreted by His Beneficence. And in Ross's mind, as he'd often said, it was far more important to do more than just speak of good deeds and wisdom. It was his role to do some of that himself.
Which in this case was getting the dirt and grime off her face. And her cut lip.
"Same old gang?" he asked. "Tinto and his group?"
She nodded. She appreciated what Ross did for her. She appreciated him allowing her to come to the chapel, even though Unblessed were forbidden from entry except on holy days, a rule that even obligators mostly turned a blind eye to.
"How many this time?"
"Five," she whispered. She winced as he moved over her lip, feeling like a child again. A real child, not a girl at the age of seven who was expected to be able to walk into Parethon and get home on time, all by herself. "I hate them," she whispered.
"I hate them!" she yelled. "They're always hassling me! They…they called my father a coward! Said his body was never returned because he fled!"
"That's not true though, is it?"
"I hate them!" she yelled, swiping the bowl away. "I…I…" She fell back into one of the chapel's pews. She looked up at the four-pointed star, designed to represent how the Creator watched over the four corners of the world. The Creator Himself was never shown in any imagery though, only the star that represented him. A symbol of a being who gave some blessings, and some not. The being who had allowed the war with Hadea to occur. The being who either could not, or would not, save her father. To return him to her. Who had let her brother be born the way he was.
"Are you going to say it?" she whispered.
"Say what?" Ross asked, taking a seat beside her.
"That violence solves nothing. That I shouldn't fight."
The chapalier sighed. "No," he said. "I won't say that. The war with Hadea…well, it did end with Elysian victory, after all. I suppose violence did solve that problem."
At what cost, Chris felt like asking.
"But then again, far better for violence to never be made necessary," Ross continued. He patted her on the shoulder. "I know it hurts, the things those boys say. But how many of them have lost family?" He sighed. "Pain is like a plague, Christina. It spreads among us. We spread it ourselves when we try to shift our pain to others. We think it helps us. But it only makes things worse."
That wasn't what Mother had said, Chris reflected. Mother said that it was human nature for the strong to dominate the weak. How the Blessed ruled the Unblessed. And how boys like Tino were trying to establish themselves over those weaker than them. Her daughter, for instance. And that despite all that, she wanted no more hiccups. They only had so much copper to spare.
"Does it ever stop?" Chris whispered. "The pain?"
"Eventually, yes," Ross said. "But only if we let it." He got to his feet, picking up the bowl. "Come. I have something to show you."
Chris followed him up to a lectern at the far end of the chapel. She had an idea of where this was going – some holy words, some platitudes, and a swift goodbye. That Ross took down a rectangular object from the lectern didn't do anything to change her assumption.
"I shouldn't do this," he said. "But the obligators…well, sometimes I think there's less concerned about following the Creator's word, and more about that of His Beneficence."
Chris nodded, before frowning as Ross opened the first page. "You know I'm not interested in that stuff," she said.
"Oh yes, very much so," he said, opening the book. "I've tried that already. But I'm not here to speak about the Creator's word, Chris."
Her eyes shone up. And not just because of the use of the name she preferred. Rather, it was the book itself. It had pictures in it, and words beneath them. The pictures themselves showed gardens, and princes, and princesses. But the text beneath them was what caught her eye. Strange symbols that she'd never been able to understand. But now, spread out like this…
"I'm going to help you Chris," Ross said, taking a seat on a pew and beckoning her to join him. "I'm going to teach you how to read."
Ross had told Chris not to steal once. But that had been before he'd been transferred to another village, and before Father Murdoch had ended any hope of any visit. That was months ago. And right now, all Chris cared about was that she was home.
"Hello?" she asked, opening the door, trying to prevent any snow coming in as she entered.
A single candle lit the kitchen as she made her way in – she'd run most of the way, and even now felt chilled to the bone.
She realized her mistake – Mother was there, as always. She had fallen asleep at the table. Slowly, Chris made her way to the bench, placing the kitchen knife she'd borrowed among all the others. And just as slowly, she made her way over to Mother. Adjusting her shawl. Kissing her on the cheek.
"I'm home," she whispered.
Mother couldn't hear her. And that was as well, Chris reflected. Mother did so much for her. Even after the death of Father, after the birth of her brother, she was still there. So taking the candle with her and heading for the room the family shared, she was resolved to do the same.
"That you Chris?" a voice asked as she opened the door.
She darted to the side as her brother got off his bed. He slowly walked towards the door.
"Over here, Michael" Chris said.
Her brother changed his trajectory. Slowly but surely he moved over towards her, and she remained in place. Only at the last moment did she dart around behind her brother, grabbing him. Hugging him. Ruffling his hair.
He laughed, as only a three year old could. As one who took joy wherever they could find it could. As one who was born blind could. For a moment, she was glad he was blind – at the least, he wouldn't worry about her cut hand, or torn shawl.
And again, she regretted that thought. There was no reason whatsoever to live in a life of darkness. And it made her hug him all the harder.
"Did you get it?" he asked, making his way back to the bed. "Did ya? Did ya?"
"Yeah," Chris said, kneeling down on the ground and picking out the books she'd taken. She took off her shawl and gloves, putting them in the small pile of clothes she had to choose from. "No problems."
A lie. But Mother lied to Michael all the time, saying that he could be whoever and whatever he wanted when he grew up. That there was a life for him beyond cutting up firewood – even if he couldn't see, her brother was far from helpless. But without sight, there was only so much he could do.
Chris knew it. It was part of why she'd gone to the library this very night.
"Can you start?" he asked.
"Mike, I…alright, just a bit," Chris said, opening up one of the books and holding the candle over the parchment – Michael didn't need the light, but she did. She squinted through the gloom, looking at the symbols on the parchment before her. Recalling her lessons with Father Ross. Thinking back to the days when Mother and Father told her stories as a child. Mother had no time for stories now. She hadn't for a long time.
"It doesn't have to be tonight," Michael said. "We can wait."
Chris shook her head, knowing that her brother would never see the motion. "No," she said softly. "It's alright."
She blinked back tears, and sat on the bed beside her brother, putting an arm around him. Feeling, for the first time in a long while, blessed. And feeling warmth that stemmed from more than just the candle's light as she began to read. To tell a story. To go where neither of them ever could, except in their dreams.
"It was winter in Elysia…"