It was so hot that I could barely breathe.
The air hung thickly in the kitchen, despite the open window. There was no breeze to offer any respite to this incessant heat.
Outside, the blazing midday sun intensified as it beat down relentlessly on the dusty gravel road, casting a hazy shimmer in the air that made me feel dizzy the more I stared at it. Perhaps it was the heat or the hunger that ached in my belly, signalling that it was time for me to sneak out and scavenge for whatever food I could hunt or steal.
Apprehension mixed with adrenalin pumped through my bloodstream at the task that lay ahead. For a moment, in the silence that surrounded me, I could swear the sound of my pounding heart was loud enough to wake Emma. I wiped my sweaty palms on my apron and headed to the small bedroom that my sister and I shared, treading quietly, careful not to wake her as I retrieved the folded pile of black clothing that I’d hidden behind the closet that morning.
I changed quickly, in the bathroom, shedding my apron, smock and gown for black trousers, a tunic, a leather belt and boots. Despite the fact that I’d worn them before, I could never shake the discomfort that came from the risk that wearing these clothes presented. I was no longer Adeline from CornVale when I wore them. Instead, they transformed me into William.
A boy, a thief, a target.
I tucked my dark, braid up under the straw hat, the final accessory that concealed my gender.
I was ready and felt pleased with the outcome. I could definitely pass for a boy.
A faint rapping caught my attention, alerting me that it was time.
I hurried out through the kitchen towards the back door, taking care to shift the iron locks slowly and quietly, not wanting to rouse Emma.
Standing before me in the doorway was Henry. He was dressed similarly to me, and I was reminded that it was his clothes after all, that I was wearing. His green eyes were alert, equally aware of the danger we would face if we were caught.
‘What took you so long?’ he said, reaching out his hand to help me down the steps.
‘Sorry, I had to be careful not to wake Emma,’ I replied quietly.
It was still light, so we had to ensure we wouldn’t be seen or heard. The King’s Guards were everywhere, patrolling the villages, guarding the lords and governors who owned the land we worked and lived on, protecting them from us, their own labourers.
The famine had forced us to steal what we could to survive. The punishments if caught were severe.
The thought of being publicly flogged or worse, losing a limb, made me flinch, and I swallowed the nausea that swirled in my empty gut, dispelling the thought as quickly as it arose. I had to focus or else my life was on the line. I had no other choice.
Sweat and dirt clung to my brow. It had been the hottest summer that I had lived through. Food was scarce as our crops were scorched and death spread across the land, claiming lives in one of three ways, by fire, starvation or disease.
Our kind, the serfs, were the first to suffer. There was no mercy for the labourers of the land, a reservation laid to claim only by the lords, noblemen and gentry who possessed the means to ensure that they would thrive, irrespective of the state of the world around them.
This was not a privilege or luxury that my family and I possessed. Instead, we were subjected by the hand of circumstance, to survive each minute of every day, in any way that we could in order to stay alive.