Read An Excerpt From World Without End
Beside Gwenda was another family from her village: Samuel, a prosperous peasant with a large landholding, and his wife and two sons, the youngest of whom, Wulfric, was an annoying six-year-old who thought that throwing acorns at girls then running away was the funniest thing in the world.
Gwenda's family was not prosperous. Her father had no land at all, and hired himself out as a labourer to anyone who would pay him. There was always work in the summer but, after the harvest was gathered in and the weather began to turn cold, the family often went hungry.
That was why Gwenda had to steal.
She imagined being caught: a strong hand grabbing her arm, holding her in an unbreakable grip while she wriggled helplessly; a deep, cruel voice saying "Well, well, a little thief;" the pain and humiliation of a whipping; and then, worst of all, the agony and loss as her hand was chopped off.
Her father had suffered this punishment. At the end of his left arm was a hideous wrinkled stump. He managed well with one hand—he could use a shovel, saddle a horse, and even make a net to catch birds—but all the same he was always the last labourer to be hired in the spring, and the first to be laid off in the autumn. He could never leave the village and seek work elsewhere, because the amputation marked him as a thief, so that people would refuse to hire him. When travelling, he tied a stuffed glove to the stump, to avoid being shunned by every stranger he met; but that did not fool people for long.
Gwenda had not witnessed Pa's punishment—it had happened before she was born—but she had often imagined it, and now she could not help thinking about the same thing happening to her. In her mind she saw the blade of the axe coming down on her wrist, slicing through her skin and her bones, and severing her hand from her arm, so that it could never be reattached; and she had to clamp her teeth together to keep from screaming out loud.
People were standing up, stretching and yawning and rubbing their faces. Gwenda got up and shook out her clothes. All her garments had previously belonged to her older brother. She wore a woollen shift that came down to her knees and a tunic over it, gathered at the waist with a belt made of hemp cord. Her shoes had once been laced, but the eyelets were torn and the laces gone, and she tied them to her feet with plaited straw. When she had tucked her hair into a cap made of squirrel tails, she had finished dressing.
She caught her father's eye, and he pointed surreptitiously to a family across the way, a couple in middle age with two sons a little older than Gwenda. The man was short and slight, with a curly red beard. He was buckling on a sword, which meant he was a man-at-arms or a knight: ordinary people were not allowed to wear swords. His wife was a thin woman with a brisk manner and a grumpy face. As Gwenda scrutinised them, Brother Godwyn nodded respectfully and said: "Good morning, Sir Gerald, Lady Maud."