an excerpt from
The Thieves of Pudding Lane

February, 1666

'Wake up, Samuel. Come on, son. Wake up.'

Samuel only opened his eyes as far as a squint. Yellow candlelight gleamed off his father's face, leaning over his own.

'What time is it?' Samuel asked, his throat dry. All he felt like doing was going back to sleep.

'Time to get up,' his father said quietly. Then he pulled back Samuel's woollen blanket.

Samuel sat up as the winter chill surrounded him. He clutched his arms to protect them from the cold draught, then buried his hands in his armpits. Looking across the bed chamber, he couldn't even see the first hint of morning light shining through the crack between the shutters. It was still the middle of the night.

'What's going on?' he asked, suddenly worried.

'Get dressed, Samuel,' his father said. 'Quickly.'

On the other side of the room Samuel's older brother was kneeling over his chamber pot. When he finished he stood up and shed his crumpled nightgown. Glancing round, he caught Samuel's eye. Thomas looked just as confused, and just as worried, as Samuel felt.

'Come on, boys,' their father insisted. 'Do as I tell you, please.'

Samuel swung his legs over the side of the bed and started pulling off his nightgown too.

His father went over to the large oak chest both brothers shared. Placing the candle on the floor beside it, he lifted open the lid and began to pull out clothes.

He already had a couple of half-filled canvas sacks lying on the rug. As he pulled out clothes he stuffed them into one of the two sacks, making sure he filled them about the same.

'I have sent word to Father Stephen,' he told them, glancing back at Thomas to make sure he especially was listening. 'He is expecting you. Go straight to St Clement's Church. He will do what he can for both of you.'

Samuel saw his brother nod unquestioningly.

They both dressed quickly after that. Samuel's still tired fingers fumbled with the buttons of his grey tunic. Then he tugged the same black breeches he had worn yesterday up his legs. They were cold on his skin, and Samuel shivered. Lastly he slipped his freezing toes into his hard wooden clogs and stretched his legs.

When the brothers had finished dressing their father held out the sacks.

'One for each of you,' he said. 'There's fresh bread at the bottom of both. Now, be very quiet coming down the stairs. I don't want you to wake your mother.'

Samuel and Thomas took a sack each and followed their father down the narrow wooden steps. Samuel made sure to avoid the third from the top, which he knew creaked.

'I want to say goodbye to Mother,' he said.

'Quietly, Samuel,' his father whispered. 'She's asleep.'

But as they reached the bottom of the stairs Samuel heard the loud sneeze from her bed chamber, followed by a sticky, hacking cough, then another sneeze that sounded full of spit.

'She's awake now,' Samuel said.

'There's no time now, you have to go,' his father said, not trying to be quiet any more. 'Father Stephen is expecting you.'

Then he clamped a forceful hand over Samuel's shoulder and guided him to the front door. Samuel allowed himself to be led without any more argument. Thomas went willingly. At the door they stopped long enough to don their worsted coats.

Their father opened the door. Samuel stepped out into the frosty night first. It had snowed again, but not heavily. A fresh layer of pure white covered patches of dirty snow beneath. Taking his first breath of frozen air got rid of the last bit of tiredness that kept trying to drag Samuel back into his dreams. He sighed out a billowing cloud of visible breath.

'You're the oldest,' his father whispered into Thomas's ear, but Samuel still heard. 'You have to look after your brother. Promise me that. Don't let him come back here. Don't let him out of your sight for a moment.'

'I promise,' Thomas whispered back.

'And take this.'

Samuel saw his father press a few coins into Thomas's hand then squeeze the older boy's fingers tightly over the top of them.

Their father didn't say anything more after that. The smile he gave them looked far too cheerful, thought Samuel. After a moment, he shut the door between them. Samuel heard the key turn in the lock.

Thomas grabbed Samuel's wrist tightly. 'Come on,' he said. He had suddenly adopted an authoritative tone, as if he was pretending to be their father. 'You heard what he said.'

After a moment Samuel didn't need to be pulled along. He trotted beside his brother, trying to keep up with him. Together they headed down the narrow lane towards the church, their clogs clacking noisily on the cobbles as they went. Samuel glanced back only once, but the house had already vanished into the shadows of a moonless night.

Thomas kept his word to his father and didn't let Samuel out of his sight for the rest of the night, which they spent at St Clement's with Father Stephen. He didn't let Samuel out of his sight all of the next day either. Father Stephen took them to one of his neighbours, who had agreed to let them stay for a while.

But Samuel still wanted to see his mother and, unlike his brother, he hadn't made any promises to their father.

Samuel waited until Thomas fell asleep the next night. They had been given a pile of blankets on the floor of the parlour. It wasn't as nice as a bed, of course, but Thomas was so tired he started to snore within a minute of lying down. Samuel watched him sleep a little longer, wanting his brother to be in a deep sleep from which he wouldn't be easily woken when Samuel got up.

Thinking himself rather clever, Samuel didn't put on his clogs until he got out into the street. He padded barefoot out of the parlour and stood in the dark hallway as he pulled his outdoor clothes on over the nightgown his father had stuffed into his sack. Then he opened the front door slowly, and shut it again with even greater care. He and Thomas had gone to bed early but the owner of the house might still be awake, he thought.

The freezing ground bit at Samuel's feet and he quickly pulled on his clogs. He kept to patches of snow as he headed down the street, the snow's softness cushioning his footsteps and allowing him to walk quietly past the parlour window.

It was another dark, moonless night and the streets were empty again. Samuel hadn't gone far before he realised this was the first time he had been out on his own after dark. By the time he got home he was running.

But when he reached the front door he stopped instantly. He didn't knock. He didn't move at all. He didn't even breathe. He couldn't.

Two brutal strokes of red were painted on the front door, slashed one across the other in the sign of the cross. Dribbles of paint had bled down the rough-hewn oak where it had been applied thickest. Samuel didn't need to touch it to see it was still wet.

He and his brother had seen this sign on enough doors in the past year to know what it meant. Plague. But he had never expected to see it on this front door.

As he stood there, frozen to the spot, the dull sound of a heavy bell being slowly rung came around the corner. When Samuel finally turned his head and looked he heard the clattering of cart wheels on the cobbles. A straining, snorting horse loomed out of the darkness, pulling the cart, and led by a man in black clothes. The man rang his bell again.

Samuel stepped back, under the jettied upper storey of the house opposite, where he hoped the shadows would make him invisible.

As the cart went past, its wheels cutting ruts through the slushy snow, Samuel saw the large dirty canvas. It rose in the middle where it covered whatever was piled in the back of the cart.

Only after the cart had passed him by did Samuel see the bare foot with a grubby sole sticking out from beneath the canvas.

He started running then, away from the cart, away from home, but he couldn't run far enough fast enough to escape the bellman's shrill words.

'Bring out your dead.'

Extracted from The Thieves of Pudding Lane published by Bloomsbury Publishing (c) Jonathan Eyers 2014

5 stars: 'Vivid... exciting... a really good novel about one of the most famous events in English history '

'A pacey, atmospheric story full of heart stopping moments... so vividly told you almost feel yourself choking on the smoke.'

'Exciting... very well written, full of dialogue, intense action... it shows the best of human love.'

'An exciting read about desperation, friendship and trust.'

'Exciting adventure... an excellent read.'