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World Without End by Ken Follett

World Without End by Ken Follett
Published: 10/9/2007
ISBN13: 9780525950073
Page Count: 1024
GWENDA WAS EIGHT YEARS OLD, but she was not afraid of the dark.
When she opened her eyes she could see nothing, but that was not what scared her. She knew where she was.
She was at Kingsbridge Priory, in the long stone building they called the hospital, lying on the floor in a bed of
straw. Her mother lay next to her, and Gwenda could tell, by the warm milky smell, that Ma was feeding the
new baby, who did not yet have a name. Beside Ma was Pa, and next to him Gwenda’s older brother,
Philemon, who was twelve.
The hospital was crowded, and though she could not see the other families lying along the floor, squashed
together like sheep in a pen, she could smell the rank odour of their warm bodies. When dawn broke it would
be All Hallows, a Sunday this year and therefore an especially holy day. By the same token the night before
was All Hallows’ Eve, a dangerous time when evil spirits roamed freely. Hundreds of people had come to
Kingsbridge from the surrounding villages, as Gwenda’s family had, to spend Halloween in the sanctified
precincts of the priory, and to attend the All Hallows service at daybreak.
Gwenda was wary of evil spirits, like every sensible person; but she was more scared of what she had to do
during the service.
She stared into the gloom, trying not to think about what frightened her. She knew that the wall opposite her
had an arched window. There was no glass – only the most important buildings had glass windows – but a
linen blind kept out the cold autumn air. However, she could not see even a faint patch of grey where the
window should be. She was glad. She did not want the morning to come.
She could see nothing, but there was plenty to listen to. The straw that covered the floor whispered constantly
as people stirred and shifted in their sleep. A child cried out, as if woken by a dream, and was quickly silenced
by a murmured endearment. Now and again someone spoke, uttering the half-formed words of sleep talk.
Somewhere there was the sound of two people doing the thing parents did but never spoke of, the thing
Gwenda called Grunting because she had no other word for it.
Too soon, there was a light. At the eastern end of the long room, behind the altar, a monk came through the
door carrying a single candle. He put the candle down on the altar, lit a taper from it, and went around touching
the flame to the wall lamps, his long shadow reaching up the wall each time like a reflection, his taper meeting
the shadow taper at the wick of the lamp.
The strengthening light illuminated rows of humped figures on the floor, wrapped in their drab cloaks or
huddled up to their neighbours for warmth. Sick people occupied the cots near the altar, where they could get
the maximum benefit from the holiness of the place. At the opposite end, a staircase led to the upper floor
where there were rooms for aristocratic visitors: the earl of Shiring was there now with some of his family.
The monk leaned over Gwenda to light the lamp above her head. He caught her eye and smiled. She studied
his face in the shifting light of the flame and recognized him as Brother Godwyn. He was young and
handsome, and last night he had spoken kindly to Philemon.
Beside Gwenda was another family from her village: Samuel, a prosperous peasant with a large landholding,
and his wife and two sons, the younger 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 scrutinized them,
Brother Godwyn nodded respectfully and said: “Good morning, Sir Gerald, Lady Maud.”
Gwenda saw what had attracted her father’s notice. Sir Gerald had a purse attached to his belt by a leather
thong. The purse bulged. It looked as if it contained several hundred of the small, thin silver pennies,
halfpennies and farthings that were the English currency – as much money as Pa could earn in a year if he had
been able to find employment. It would be more than enough to feed the family until the spring ploughing. The
purse might even contain a few foreign gold coins, florins from Florence or ducats from Venice.
Gwenda had a small knife in a wooden sheath hanging from a cord around her neck. The sharp blade would
quickly cut the thong and cause the fat purse to fall into her small hand – unless Sir Gerald felt something
strange and grabbed her before she could do the deed…
Godwyn raised his voice over the rumble of talk. “For the love of Christ, who teaches us charity, breakfast will
be provided after the All Hallows service,” he said. “Meanwhile, there is pure drinking water in the courtyard
fountain. Please remember to use the latrines outside – no pissing indoors!”
The monks and nuns were strict about cleanliness. Last night, Godwyn had caught a six-year-old boy peeing in
a corner, and had expelled the whole family. Unless they had a penny for a tavern, they would have had to
spend the cold October night shivering on the stone floor of the cathedral’s north porch. There was also a ban
on animals. Gwenda’s three-legged dog, Hop, had been banished. She wondered where he had spent the night.
When all the lamps were lit, Godwyn opened the big wooden door to the outside. The night air bit sharply at
Gwenda’s ears and the tip of her nose. The overnight guests pulled their coats around them and began to
shuffle out. When Sir Gerald and his family moved off, Pa and Ma fell into line behind them, and Gwenda and
Philemon followed suit.
Philemon had done the stealing until now, but yesterday he had almost been caught, at Kingsbridge Market. He
had palmed a small jar of expensive oil from the booth of an Italian merchant, then he had dropped the jar, so
that everyone saw it. Mercifully, it had not broken when it hit the ground. He had been forced to pretend that
he had accidentally knocked it off the stall.
Until recently Philemon had been small and unobtrusive, like Gwenda, but in the last year he had grown
several inches, developed a deep voice, and become awkward and clumsy, as if he could not get used to his
new, larger body. Last night, after the incident with the jar of oil, Pa had announced that Philemon was now
too big for serious thieving, and henceforth it was Gwenda’s job.
That was why she had lain awake for so much of the night.
Philemon’s name was really Holger. When he was ten years old, he had decided he was going to be a monk, so
he told everyone he had changed his name to Philemon, which sounded more religious. Surprisingly, most
people had gone along with his wish, though Ma and Pa still called him Holger.
They passed through the door and saw two lines of shivering nuns holding burning torches to light the pathway
from the hospital to the great west door of Kingsbridge Cathedral. Shadows flickered at the edges of the
torchlight, as if the imps and hobgoblins of the night were cavorting just out of sight, kept at a distance only by
the sanctity of the nuns.