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SACRIFICE

19th October 1808

 

Is there no end to this? Another night, another terrifying event. As I write, it is ten o‘clock in the evening, and I have not slept a wink since one o’clock this morning. I was fast asleep, and awoke with a start when I heard the dogs barking furiously. I wondered what was going on, and then I heard a clattering of hooves and a crunching of wheels on gravel. Somebody was shouting “Open up! Open up, for God’s sake!” and then I heard heavy footsteps and a furious hammering on the back door. When I got downstairs in my dressing gown Mrs Owen had already opened the door, and Billy and Shemi had already rushed outside to see what the fuss was all about. One by one all the adults in the house appeared in the kitchen, rubbing their eyes. A minute later the men came back inside, carrying what looked like a corpse, with horror writ large on their faces. It was Will Owen, my shepherd and Mrs Owen’s son, covered in blood. They placed him on the kitchen table, and they were followed into the kitchen by Tomos Huws Plain Dealings, one of my labourers. “I found him on the Cilgwyn road at midnight,” he moaned, slurring his words. “I was coming home from town with the gambo. A bit of a night on the town. Oh God, I wish I hadn’t drunk all that bloody cider. I saw it was Will. Managed to get him on board, I did, and then I come hell for leather up the road. Couldn’t see nothing. It’s a bloody miracle we got here in one piece.........” Then the poor man collapsed, and Bessie had to take care of him.

Even before he had finished speaking Mrs Owen had taken control of the situation. If Will had been my son I should have been reduced to a snivelling heap on the floor in an instant; but with tears streaming down her face she issued orders like a general in the heat of battle. “He is alive. Billy, hot water from the fire place! Shemi, get clean rags from the cupboard under the stairs! Bessie, get the fire going properly! Mistress, don’t just stand there -- help me get the clothes off him! Grandpa, go and get Joseph from his room -- he is in no state to attend to the injuries, but he will know what we must do. Grandma, fetch the ointments from the medical chest!” and so on.

So we frantically unbuttoned his jacket and his breeches and pulled off his waistcoat, which was already unbuttoned. His shirt and undergarment were so covered in blood that we had to cut them off, and as we worked blood continued to pour from a multitude of wounds. He moaned, and we took that as a good sign. Within a minute or two, Mrs Owen and myself were also covered in blood.

Then I realized that there were five small children standing at the kitchen door which leads to the back passage. They had all been awoken by the shouting and banging, and as soon as they saw the bloody scene centred on the kitchen table, and saw the fear on all of our faces, they all burst into tears. “Mam!” wailed Betsi. “What’s happening?” I was covered in blood, and was in no state to gather them under my wings like a mother hen, but to her eternal credit Sian reacted immediately and made the children her priority. “Children, everything will be all right,” she said calmly. “Now just you come with me, and your Mam will be with you shortly.” And with that she ushered them from the room and back up the stairs, with puzzlement and fear still writ large on their faces. I had no time to worry about what damage might have been done to the poor mites, for our priority was the saving of Will’s life.

No sooner had the children disappeared than Joseph made his entry to the kitchen, hopping and hobbling and supported by Grandpa. He came up to the table and immediately said: “Wonderful, Mrs Owen. You have done everything that should be done. Now wash those wounds with carbolic soap -- he may scream with the additional pain, but it may well save his life.” So Mrs Owen did as she was bid, without any dramatic consequences, since Will was still hardly conscious. But when we started to dress his wounds and bandage him up, he started to moan, and his teeth started to chatter uncontrollably. “Shock,” said Joseph. “That’s a good sign. Now he needs to be kept warm. Nothing broken, I think, except maybe for a couple of ribs. Get a blanket under him, and let’s get him over here on the floor, in front of the fire, with more blankets on top of him.”

Gradually the mess was cleared away, and Mrs Owen started to scrub the kitchen table, like a woman possessed. She still had tears rolling down her cheeks. It was time for me to assert my authority. “Mrs Owen!” I scolded. “Stop that at once! Bessie will deal with the table, and the rest of the mess can be cleared up in the morning. Sit you down this minute. Will is safe now, and you can relax.” And at last, she did stop, and lost her self-control. After an hour or so of frantic activity, the tear drops on her cheeks were washed away by a veritable flood of tears. Grandma embraced her, and the two old ladies stood there, both of them weeping, rocking gently back and forth, in the middle of the kitchen floor. “There now, Blodwen bach,” whispered Grandma. “Will is going to recover. You need to weep, but he will be all right.”

“Oh, Jane bach, I do hope so. That boy! He will truly be the death of me.........” Then she stopped weeping, and blew her nose theatrically on a large purple kerchief which she conjured out of a deep pocket in her blood-covered dressing-gown. The tension was suddenly blown away, and everybody started to talk at once.

“Oh God, my head!” said Tomos Huws. “No more cider for me, that’s for sure.”

“What happened?” said Joseph.

“Would anybody like a cup of tea?” said Bessie, as she scrubbed the blood off the kitchen table with a bucketful of soapy water and a stiff brush.

“That was a close shave,” said Grandpa. “It’s a bitterly cold night. Thank God you came by when you did, Tomos, or it would have been too late.”

“Which bastards did this?” asked Shemi, in recognition of the fact that Will’s injuries had been sustained in a vicious and probably premeditated attack.

With Will fast asleep under his blankets in front of the blazing kitchen fire and under the watchful eye of the Wizard of Werndew, the rest of us sat round the kitchen table, sipping mugs of tea and trying to come to terms with what had happened. Mrs Owen’s tearful grief was now replaced by fury. “I thought that Will had reformed his ways!” she stormed. “And here he is, too drunk to stand up, beaten up in some tavern brawl by a bunch of thugs.....”

“There you are wrong, my dear Mrs Owen,” said Joseph from his settle by the fire. “This was no tavern brawl. For a start, this happened nowhere near an inn. It happened on the Cilgwyn Road, more than a mile from town. Will could not have walked that far after being so terribly injured. No -- he may have been drunk, but he was not too drunk to walk most of the way home. Then he was ambushed, and was left in the road to die.”

Like the others, I said that I was shaken by the brutality of the attack. His injuries had clearly been made not just by fists, but by boots, knives and maybe clubs. We all agreed on that. I knew that Will had been in many scrapes before, having had a somewhat chequered past. But most of his escapades had involved petty crimes, a spot of smuggling, and brushes with the revenue officers and the constables. The constables would not have beaten him up, since at midnight they were probably safely tucked up in their beds. I was not sure about the revenue officers, who had a reputation for brutality. So I asked: “Shemi, you know more than the rest of us about Will’s nocturnal activities. Did the revenue officers do this? Will has made them look like idiots many times in the past, and they may have decided to teach him a lesson.”

“Absolutely not, Mistress. I happen to know that there is a cargo coming in to Abereiddi this very night, and if the revenue spies are as good as they claim to be that is where the officers will be, with the excise cutter not far offshore. These fellows have not been seen in Newport in weeks...........”

“But that brute Griff Hickey has several scores to settle with Will, does he not?”

“That he does, Mistress. And so has Squire Price and his cousin Edwards of Wervil -- but the little episode concerning the silver spoons was eighteen months ago. If they were going to try to teach Will a lesson, they would have done it long since. And why would they do this, for God’s sake?”

As gently as if he were dealing with a newborn babe, Shemi removed the blanket which covered Will, who was still fast asleep. He quietly peeled away assorted dressings to reveal his chest. On it there were injuries that had clearly been made with a sharp knife. Three long parallel cuts about an inch apart, starting above one nipple and ending below the other. In the panic of clearing away blood and ensuring that Will stayed alive, we had all -- apart from Shemi -- failed to notice that these were not random cuts made by a slashing knife in the heat of battle. They had been made quite calmly, by somebody who knew what he was doing. I, for one, was frozen with horror as I realized the importance of this.

That was not all. Mrs Owen then fished a piece of blood-soaked paper out of her pocket. “And there’s this,” she said. “You wondered why I was in such a state not long since. Just as the children came in, and grabbed everybody’s attention for half a minute, I found this, pinned to his skin.........”

“Pinned to his skin?” I whispered, hardly daring to believe my ears.

“Yes. Pinned to the skin above his left nipple. With this pin.” And with that she burrowed into her pocket again, and produced an iron pin about three inches long. She placed both the pin and the piece of paper onto the table in front of her.

“Oh, dear God,” moaned Shemi. “Did he feel anything, Joseph?”

“I hope not,” said the Wizard. “This might have been done when he was already unconscious. Can I see the paper, Mrs Owen?”

She pushed it across to him. He examined it carefully, and frowned. Then he moved it along to me. It was difficult to read, but the words “For Rhiwallwn. From Gruddnei” could just about be made out. The words were written not with ink, but with blood.

At this point I almost passed out with terror, partly because of the realization that somewhere in our community there was a man -- or several men -- capable of unspeakable sadism, and partly because the image of John Fenton’s face came flooding into my mind. The cuts on Will’s chest were exactly the same as the cuts made on the chest of my dear man Owain when he was abducted and tortured a couple of years ago by a group of villains who were subsequently executed for various crimes. I am the only one who knows that John Fenton was the one who used the knife, because I heard it from his own lips. But I also knew that Fenton was dead. After a truly dreadful experience involving the abduction of little Sara, I saw him sinking into a quaking bog and going down to Hell. My recollection was perfectly clear. Or was it? Maybe my recollection was, after all, only partly based on observation, and partly on a wish to put that experience behind me? Surely that monster cannot have survived? Are we dealing here with a man, or a devil, or a ghost? And could it be that the culprit -- or one of the culprits -- is the strange creature whom we call the Nightwalker, now no longer content to stand and observe, but resolved to cause injury and mayhem?

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