The Vengeance Of The Wolf

by J. Aquila Kempster

A Drama in Wales

In the great stone hall of Llangarth, Daurn-ap-Tavis, the old Welsh Wolf lay dying. Outside was the night and a sullen gale whose winds came moaning down the hills and clung about the house with little bodeful whispers that grew to long-drawn eerie wails, while pettish rain-squalls spent their spite in futile gusts on door and casement.

And through the night from time to time a horseman came, spurring hard and spitting out strange Welsh oaths at the winds that harried him. Five had passed the door since sun-down, four worthy sons and a nephew of the Wolf. They stood now booted and spurred about the old man's couch, a rough-looking crew with the mud caking them from head to foot, while the leaping flames from the log fire flung their shadows black and distorted far up among the rafters.

They hung around him sullenly, but as he looked them up and down the sick man's eyes took on a new keenness and a low, throaty laugh that was half a growl escaped him.

"Well, Cedric, man, what devil's game have you been playing of late? and, Tad, you black rascal—ah, 'twas a pity you were born to Gruffydd instead of me. Well, well, boys, the old Wolf's cornered at last, cornered at last, and Garm, Levin, Rhys—the Cadwallader's going to live and laugh, aye, he's going to live and laugh while a Tavis roasts in hell."

Garm started with a low growl, while Cedric kicked savagely at a hound that lay beside the logs.

"Aye, Ced, kick the old dog, but it won't stop the Cadwallader's laugh."

Cedric clenched his fists at the taunt and his face grew purple in the fire glow, but old Daurn went on remorselessly: "Twenty years he's laughed at the Wolf and his whelps, an' think you he'll stop now? He was always too lucky for me. I thought when my lads grew strong—— But there, he laid me low, the only man that ever did, curse him! There's the mark, boys; see the shamed blood rise to it?"

He loosened his shirt with a fretful jerk and they bent over and glowered at the red scar which ran across his chest. They had all seen it times before, knew the dark quarrel and the darker fight, had tingled with shame again and again, but to-night it seemed to hold an added sting, for the Wolf was going out with his debt unpaid.

Cedric, the elder, gaped and shuddered, then fell to cursing again, but Daurn drew back the quilt and went on talking: "I swore by the body of God to get even, and day and night I've watched my chance. I tried at Tredegar, and that night ye all mind at Ebbu Vale. Yes, I tell you a dozen times, but he's a fox, curse him! a sly old fox, and now the Wolf's teeth are broken. What's that, Ced? Look to him, Tad—aye, look to all thy cousins. Fine grown lads, big, brave, and fierce, but the Cadwallader still lives and laughs; yes, laughs at old Daurn and his boys. My God! to think of it."

"Curse me! choke me!" Cedric stormed out in spluttering fury, gripping his sword with one hand while he dragged at his coat with the other. "I'll cut—cut his bl-black gizzard, blast him. I'm a c-c-coward, eh! Right in my t-teeth! Well, wait till th'-th' dawn an' see."

He had crammed his hat over his eyes and with coat buttoned all awry was half way to the door before Tad caught and held him, whispering in his ear: "Steady, Ced, steady. He's got some plan or I'm a fool. Come back an' wait a bit, an' if I'm mistaken I'll surely ride along with ye."

Cedric yielded, doubtful and sullen, but Daurn greeted him bravely: "God's truth, lad, you've the spirit of the Wolf at least, but you've got no brains to plan. Come close an' listen, an' if ye truly want a fight thy father'll never balk thee."

Then with faltering breath but gleaming eyes he unfolded the plan he had conceived to make his dying a thing of greater infamy than all his bloody days.

The beginnings of the feud between the House of the Wolf and that of Llyn Gethin, the Cadwallader, were so remote that probably both had forgotten, if they ever knew them, for the old Welsh chieftains passed their quarrels on from generation to generation and their hot blood rarely cooled in the passing. Llyn was about the only man in the country who had been able to hold his own against "the Tavis," but hold it he had with perhaps a trifle to spare. Indeed, of late years he had let slip many an opportunity for reprisals, and thrice had made overtures of peace which had been violently rejected. Llyn had fought fair at least, even if he had struck hard, but the life of the Wolf had been as treacherous as it was bloody. And day by day and year by year, as Daurn's strength began to fail and brooding took the place of action, the bitterness of his hatred grew, and out of this at last the plan. It was simple.

Daurn was old, dying, and weary of the strife. He would pass at peace with the world and particularly with his ancient foe. A messenger should be sent inviting Llyn and his sons to Llangarth. They would suspect nothing, for all Wales knew the Wolf lay low—would probably come unarmed and needs must, as time was short, travel by night. Well, there was a convenient and lonely spot some three miles from Llangarth—did the lads understand? Aye, they understood, but their breath came heavily and they glanced furtively each at the other, while the youngest, Rhys, shivered and drew closer to Tad.

Daurn's burning eyes questioned them one by one, and one by one they bowed their heads but spake never a word.

"Ye'll swear to it, lads," he whispered hoarsely, and drew a long dagger from beneath his pillow. For answer there came the rattle of loosened steel, and as he again bared his breast they drew closer in a half circle, laying their blades flat above his heart, his own dagger adding to the ring of steel.

And then they swore by things unknown to modern men to wipe out the shame that had lain so long upon their house, and that before their father died.

As their voices ceased the wind outside seemed to take up the burden of their bloody oath as if possessed, for it shrieked and wailed down the great chimney like some living thing in pain. And then, in a little lull following on the sobbing cry, there came a curious straining push that shook the closed oak door.

They stood transfixed, for a moment daunted, with their swords half in and half out their scabbards, till with a warning gesture to his cousins, Black Tad stole softly across the floor and, lifting the heavy bar cautiously, opened the door.

He paused an instant on the lintel, motionless and rigid to the point of his sword, his eyes fixed on the white face of a girl who was cowered back against the further wall. For a fraction of time he hesitated, but the awful anguish of the face and the mute, desperate appeal of the whole pose settled him. With a rough clatter he sprang into the dim passage, rattling his sword and stamping his feet, at the same time giving vent with his lips to the yelp of a hound in pain, and following it with rough curses and vituperation. Then, without another glance at the girl, he re-entered the hall and slammed to the door, grumbling at Rhys for not keeping his dogs tied up.

By one o'clock the great hall was still. The men were lying scattered about the house, for the most part sleeping as heavily as many jorums of rum made possible.

But the firelight flickering in the hall caught ever an answering gleam from the old Wolf's eyes as he lay there gray, shaggy, and watchful. From time to time his bony fingers plucked restlessly at his beard, and now and again his lips stretched back over yellow teeth in an evil smile as he gloated over the details of his coming vengeance.

And out in a chill upper hall Gwenith, the fair daughter of a black house, sat in a deep embrasure, her arms clinging to the heavy oak bars desperately. The wind moaned and sighed about her while her white terrified lips echoed the agony of her heart. And the burden of her whispered cry was ever, "Davy!—Davy!" and then: "For the Christ's sake! Davy!—Davy!—Davy!"

So the night drew on with the men and dogs sleeping torpidly; with the old Wolf chuckling grimly as the shadows closed about him, and with the child in the cold above sobbing out pitiful prayers for her lover, for only yesterday she had plighted her troth to Davy Gethin, the Cadwallader's youngest son.

These two had met in the early days when she wandered free over the rolling hills, a wild young kilted sprite, fearful of nothing save her father and his grim sons. And Davy had wooed her ardently, though in secret from the first. It had been charming enough in the past despite the fear that ever made her say him nay. Then yesterday he had won her from her tears and fears, won her by his brave and tender front, and she had placed her little hands on his breast and sworn to follow him despite all else when once her father had passed away. And now, twelve short hours after her fingers had touched him, her fear had caught her by the throat, for they would kill him surely, her prince, the only joy she had ever known.

So went the night, with desperate distracted plans, and the dumb agony of cold despair. And in the very early dawn, when men and things cling close to sleep, she heard a gentle stirring—a muffled footfall on the stairs, and Black Tad stood at her side, a great shadow, questioning her.

"Mistress, what heard you?"

And she answered quick with loathing: "All! all the vile, shameful thing!"

"They are our foes" he muttered moodily.

"Foes! Foes! Nay, none of you are worthy any foe—save the hangman! Ah, God will curse you! Cruel! Cruel!"

She leaned out of her seat toward him, her panting breath and fierce words lashing him so that he stepped back a pace, dazed—she was ever such a gentle child.

"What would you, Gwen?"

"What would I! My God!—a fair fight at least. Oh, Tad, and I thought you were a brave man."

"I—I—damme, I, what can I do?—and what does it matter?"

"Matter?—a foul blot!—matter to you and Ced and father—nothing! Murderers! I hate you all! What has the Cadwallader done? All Wales knows 'twas ever father set on him, not he on father—Always!—always, I say! Aye, I remember that bloody night at Ebbu Vale. Shame! Shame! And the harrying and burning at Rhyll, when the mother and her babes perished. No, you weren't there, Tad, but you know and I know who was. Ah, Tad, she's crying to God—that mother, and holding the little dead things in her hands, close up to his face. And now you'd murder Llyn, for all he's ever been for peace."

"Hush-s-sh! not so loud, Gwen."

"Not so loud! not so loud!" she jibed bitterly. "If you fear my poor voice now, what will it be when all Wales is ringing with this last foul deed?"

Tad breathed hard, then caught her wrists suddenly, crushing them in his fierceness: "Listen, Gwenith. After all I'm no Tavis—I'm Gruffydd, and I love you."

She shrank away with wide, fearful eyes, her breath coming in little painful gasps.

"What—what do you mean, Tad?"

"I love you, Gwen."

"And——?"

"Well, I'm no Tavis—I'm Gruffydd."

Slowly the meaning which he himself hardly understood dawned on her.

"You'll save them, Tad?"

"Na, na. A fair fight is what you said. 'Tis all I can do."

"And you will?"

"I love you," he persisted stubbornly.

She closed her eyes tightly and leaned back against the wooden shutter, her hands still held close in his grasp. And she strove to see clearly through the mist of horror and pain. It was a chance, at least a fighting chance, to save Davy, her prince; the only chance, the only way, and outside that what else mattered?

Her eyes opened and her lips trembled; then she got her strength back and faced him in the dim dawn.

"My life for theirs, Tad,—is that it?"

Her eyes and her question shamed him, but he clung to his text doggedly, for he had loved her long and hopelessly in his wild, stubborn way, and this was his first and only desperate chance.

"I love ye, Gwenith, I love ye!"

There came a stir in the far hall, a long-drawn yawn; and at the sound the girl whispered fiercely: "Well, it's a bargain; give them fair warning and I'll—I'll do—give you your will. Yes, I swear it by the dear Saint David. Quick! let me go—no, not now!—Tad, I command you, I—I—Quick! that's Garm's voice; let me go."

"Llyn Gethin! a word in your ear before we ride on."

It was Tad who spoke to the old Cadwallader out in the moonlight. Llyn had answered Daurn's urgent message for peace, and a few miles north of Llangarth had met Tad. At the words the old man looked at him curiously, but reined his horse in, while his sons watched the pair suspiciously, for they were young, their blood and their hate still ran hotly, and save for their father would have had none of this death-bed reconciliation.

"Well, lad, what is it?" asked Llyn, when they were out of earshot.

"A word of warning, sir—from one who hates you."

"Ah! You were ever a good hater, boy. What is it?"

"'Tis a trick o 'mine, sir—this visit—and you'd better ride back."

"I think not, Tad."

"Well, have your way, but if you ride with me you ride to hell."

"We ride with you, Tad."

"Your blood be on you and your sons, then, Llyn Gethin. You're safe to the stone bridge; after that fend for yourself. I—I'm a cursed traitor, but, by David, I strike with my house. There, I've warned you, and God forgive me."

"Amen, lad! Will you shake hands before we ride?"

"No, choke me! I'd sooner ding my dagger in your neck."

So they rejoined the waiting group and rode forward, Tad moodily in advance, Llyn and his sons in a whispering bunch some yards behind. It had been Tad's own suggestion that he ride forward and meet the Gethins so they might be lured the more easily to the turn beyond the bridge. Now they followed on till they saw the white masonry gleaming in the moonlight, and then the dark form of Tad's horse crossing it, when there was a halt and a grim tightening of belts and loosening of swords. And as the man on the bridge threw up his arm, Llyn answered the sign hoarsely: "God keep thee, son of Gruffydd!" he cried. Then as his sons closed in he turned on them sternly: "Remember, lads! who touches him touches me. Ah! steady now! Forward!"

Even as they clattered on the bridge Tad's challenge and signal to his kinsmen rang out furiously:

"The Wolf! The Wolf and Saint David!"

Then came a rush of horse and steel and wild-eyed men, which but for their preparation would have swept the Gethins down. As it was they met it fiercely as it came. They had not come unarmed—perhaps wise old Llyn distrusted such late penitence even as did his sons. Be that as it may, the cry of "Cadwallader!" rose against "The Wolf!" and bore it back, for even in the first wild rush, Cedric fell away before a long, swift thrust, and a moment later Rhys, the youngest of the house went down and died beneath the stamping iron hoofs.

When Llyn saw this he called to stop the fight, but Tad, in a frenzy of horror and remorse, flung on again with Garth and Levin striking wild beside him. 'Twas a wicked rush, but now the fight stood five to three, and in the crash Levin slipped and got a dagger in his throat, while Tad spurred through an open way. Then as he reined and turned, the end was come, for Garm's shrill death-cry tore the air, and he was left alone.

Thrice he charged like a wounded boar, shouting hoarsely for the house he had betrayed. "The Wolf! The Wolf! Saint David and the Wolf!"

And ever he found that open way and ever their steel avoided him.

At last he reined in his sweating mare and fell to cursing, his face distraught with agony and wet with blood and sweat and tears. So he stood, desperate—at bay, and taunted them with every vileness his furious tongue could frame. Then faltered at last with a great heartbroken sob, for they sat silent and still and would not give him fight.

On the road at his horse's feet Cedric lay and Rhys, and over yonder in the grass the other two. He swayed weakly as he looked, then slid from his saddle and stooping, kissed his cousins one by one, with those grim, silent figures looking on. He broke his sword across his knee—his father, Gruffydd's sword—and flung the pieces with an oath at Llyn. Then, ere they could guess his meaning, his dagger flashed, and with a last weak cry for "the Wolf," he fell with the men of his House.

Back at Llangarth the great hall was aglow and Daurn chuckled and waited and plucked at his beard, till, just past midnight, there came a sudden commotion and the heavy tramp of horses in the outer court. Then Gwenith ran in white and wild, and kneeling, buried her sobs in the drapery of the couch. And ere her father could question her a group of sombre figures filled the doorway.

'Twas a dream—surely 'twas a fearful dream! Or were they ghosts? Yes, that was it; see the blood on them! He was either dreaming or these were the very dead.

They drew up to the couch, Llyn and his tall, stern sons. Daurn knew them well and strove to curse them, but the Cadwallader's grave voice hushed him to a sudden fear.

"Peace be with thee, Daurn-ap-Tavis, we come—to bid thee farewell."

Daurn gasped and stuttered, his fingers clawing fearfully while a cold sweat broke out over his forehead. But ere he found his voice two of Llyn's sons, David and Sion, drew away to the door, and later, Llewellen and Pen. They came back heavily and laid their burdens gently by the fire logs and returned, then came again and went. Five times in all. And an awful fear was in Daurn's eyes as he glared at those still, muffled shapes lying close beside him in the firelight.

Then Llyn spoke, slow and sorrowfully, as he stooped and one by one drew the face-cloths from the dead.

"Peace be with thee, Daurn-ap-Tavis; thy son Cedric—bids thee farewell.

"Rhys—bids thee farewell.

"Also Tad, thy brother's son—bids thee farewell."

But the end was come, for Daurn, with a little childish cry, had gone to seek his sons. Llyn stooped and gently closed the old Wolf's eyes, then with bent head and weary step passed from the room.

But young Davy stole back softly and knelt near the stricken girl at the foot of the couch.