A historical novel set mainly in the Aberystwyth area, with twin themes of local industry and romance.
Here’s an exclusive extract of By the Banks of the Rheidol by Geraint Roberts.
The novel begins with young lead miner Dafydd forced to flee his family after being targeted in a violent confrontation…..
Lost and Found
HOW LONG HAD he been running? He couldn’t think of where to go, except away from his loved ones and the land of his birth. After years of torment, he had finally stood
up to his tormentors, and disaster had struck.
‘Who the hell do you think you are anyway?’ Parry had said. ‘Jones Foreman says you’ve been seeing my girl in Aber again.’
He reached the old coach road along the top of the Rheidol Valley. It marked the end of his world and the beginning of the unknown.
‘Should throw you down the bloody shaft, Dafydd Thomas,’ Parry snarled, looking to his friends for support. ‘Do Frongoch a big favour, there’s no place here for the likes of you.’
Dafydd had spent his life in this land, working at the mine as his father and grandfather had before him. Now he had the choice of two roads – Aberystwyth or Devils Bridge and beyond. He’d been down to Aberystwyth a few times. At least he knew the place a bit, although it had been the cause of his current crisis. Taking a deep breath, he stumbled on towards the town.
‘I told you enough times to stay away, but you’re just too big for your boots. Taken my place on the Aber run, now you’re trying for my girl,’ Parry shouted, shoving Dafydd back with a prod. ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’
It had all gone too far. He had let it go on for too long. With no energy left, Dafydd loped on awkwardly. He knew the coach road by day. The view was rewarding, like being on the roof of the land, looking over the Rheidol Valley at the hills beyond. On this night, though, the hollows were dark and full of foreboding, the land bleak and silent. A few miles on, the road ran next to an old mine, a rocky outcrop cut away in a long-ago search for silver-lead, one of many ventures that had foundered without return. All that was left of this one was the shaft and a mound of spoil: ‘an epitaph to someone’s struggle’, Dafydd’s school teacher had once called it, lamenting the desecration of the valleys.
Sharp black and silver in the moonlight, the vertical opening was larger and more dangerous than Dafydd remembered. As dark as the space between the stars above,
it drew him until he stood at the edge. It offered ultimate escape. Why not, what was there left?
‘Right,’ Parry said. ‘It’s time we put you in your bloody place once and for all.’
It was the girl; those louts were happy enough just taunting him before she came along. It changed when he got chosen to help Jones Foreman with some business
in Aberystwyth. There, he met Gwen, and his world got nastier.
A chill wind from the direction of the mine shaft stirred his hair. If he just jumped… If he didn’t jump, they would catch him, he knew. Catch him and hang him for his
moment of anger. They wouldn’t understand.
He closed his eyes and sighed. It was a simple choice. Carry on along the road into the unknown, or step forward and end his plight.
He felt light-headed, surprised by a sudden urge to giggle. Then the anger rose again, frightening him more than despair – and he stepped back.
‘To hell with them,’ he spat into the pit. He’d go to Aberystwyth, perhaps take a boat, perhaps to become a sailor. Weren’t his family supposed to have been seamen
once? Something about his tad-cu being the bastard son of a Spaniard? He’d never believed it, but now the idea gave him a future of a kind.
The shaft still pulsed its terrible offer, but he stepped back slowly until he was free of it and trotting along the road to safety. Funny that it was anger that saved him from
the pit. Not too long ago his anger had set him on this road.
With his arms pinned by the other two, Dafydd was helpless as Parry lined up with his stick. ‘Now then,’ he snarled. ‘Time you got taught a lesson, good and proper, you bastard.’
This, after an innocent tease by Jones Foreman.
‘He’s taken to your old girl at the harbour Parry,’ Jones had chuckled. ‘I think you’d better watch him, the hwrgi. I’ll be handing him my job next.’
Parry had erupted at the mere thought of “his girl” in the arms of another. Dafydd hadn’t even held her hand.
Dafydd had been taught well by his father. As Parry took his first swing, Dafydd lashed out a kick straight for the man’s groin. Parry crumpled, mouthing soundless curses.
The other two were paralysed for the moment, and Dafydd took advantage, pushing back, knocking them off balance. One broke his grip; Dafydd smashed the other
against the wall of the waterwheel pit and butted his face. Spinning round, he picked up the stick and faced his last assailant. No mercy was given, as he laid into his tormenter.
The rage took him.
Dafydd winced at the memory. He’d never imagined he could be that violent.
‘Iesu… Dafydd, what have you done?’
He heard the shout from the engine house and looked down at the body below him. There was no movement. Blood was running from the man’s ears. Dafydd ran like he
had never run before.
‘You’ve got to keep running, boy,’ Mam-gu had shouted, grabbing the jar from the fireplace, tipping out the emergency fund.
Dafydd had never heard his mother shout so loud.
‘We’ll protect him here!’
The old woman shook her head. ‘No grandson of mine will be taken for a killer,’ she had growled. ‘Those vermin had it coming. We should have had Owain sort it long time back.’
‘The boy may not be dead,’ his mother cried desperately, ‘At least wait until we know what happened…’
‘I’ll not chance it,’ Mam-gu snapped. ‘Go now boy,’ she said, thrusting the money from the jar into his hand. Hastily, she kissed his brow. ‘Make a new life for yourself, cariad. Get away.’
‘Please!’ His mother whispered. His little sister, Sioned, whimpered at her skirts.
‘There’s no time,’ Mam-gu said.
‘I’ll be all right, Mam,’ Dafydd tried to reassure his mother. Her shoulders slumped in defeat.
He hugged them all, then ran out into the night. He’d not even had time to thank his father – for teaching him how to fight. For saving his life, perhaps.
Dafydd now felt anything but all right. He thanked God for the moon, which allowed him to make good progress – although it threw the wooded areas into deep shadow, which slowed his flight. He’d passed a few scattered cottages, dark and silent. Nobody disturbed him, though he felt hunted nonetheless. It was a relief when he smelt the salt in the air and he knew he was close to his goal. He would lose himself in Aberystwyth town, perhaps change his name…
Why bother though? No one knew him anyway.
He stumbled down a hill to a crossroads, the gateway to the town. The shadow of a larger hill lay ahead and Dafydd knew it for Pen Dinas, the one with the monument at the top. Its fair slopes went down to the harbour, where Gwen lived in Ropemakers’ Way.
The gloom was lifting slowly and Dafydd stopped. Five roads met here, with a small turnpike cottage in the middle. He almost panicked as he saw the white house. He imagined smoke wisping from the chimney and a glimmer of light in the window, but the gates were open, and the house remained silent.
Creeping forward, he crossed into the shadow of the bushes beyond the cottage, then ran as fast as he could past the white gates and down the road. He ran until his legs
gave way and he rolled to a stop, gasping, heart pounding. Exhaustion overwhelmed him and he stood and retched, before settling into sobs. He cursed himself for a fool – for
what he had done, for running when he had nowhere to go. Most of all for the panic-induced dash that now left him keeled over by the roadside.
‘Why scared of a turnpike?’ he whispered.
They’d stopped using them before he was born, when his father was a child, and this one remained only as the ghost of a watching presence. Now, a door opened. Someone
called out. Dafydd got up and set off down the hill towards the town.
He found himself near a railway bridge. The breeze was picking up and the smells of the port grew stronger; rotting seaweed, fish, and a faint malty aroma from a nearby
brewery. He knew where he was now: at Trefechan, across the river from Aberystwyth. The south bank of the harbour. He had reached his destination – and the end of his plan,
such as it was.
As he crossed the bridge his legs ached from the nightlong flight, his back had stiffened and he began to shiver. He was also hungry, but there was nothing to be done about that for now. He scanned his surroundings for somewhere secluded to rest. He’d try the landward side of the bridge, where it curved slightly from the road. Just a few minutes, out of sight and out of the wind…
‘Dafydd?’ A voice came through his dreams; light and gentle, musical even – full of humour, faintly familiar.
‘Dafydd, is that you?’
He stirred, his shoulder felt on fire. He heard the rustle of a skirt, felt sweet breath as someone gently shook him. He wondered why he couldn’t see anything.
He woke. It was morning and the early rays of light showed him a road busy with carts, a path full with people going about their business. And Gwen Jones, the girl of his
dreams, the creator of his nightmares.
Men were drawn to her like a magnet. Her fair hair, long eyelashes and dark eyes bewitched them. With her easy smile and happy manner, it was no wonder she was fought over. Now she crouched in front of him, a basket over her arm. She was smiling, but with a look of puzzlement. Her hair curled out of the sides of her lace cap, making Dafydd want to reach out and touch them. There was, he noticed, a smell of warm bread in the air. His hunger made him imagine fresh rolls nestling cosy in her basket all ready to be buttered and eaten.
‘Sleeping off a night in The Beehive are you?’ she said, then frowned. ‘No, you don’t look hungover. What you doing here then, run away or something?’
Dafydd nodded. He tried to speak, but only managed an incoherent croak.
‘You’re parched, boy,’ Gwen said. ‘Starving too, I’ll wager. Right, best have you away from here before the constable has you for a tramp and marches you off to the workhouse. Come with me, I’m off to the baker’s and you can tell me all about it as we go.’
He noticed a few folk staring, and curtains twitched in a nearby house. He got up hastily. A seagull landed on the wall of the bridge nearby to laugh at him. Gwen took his arm, and they made off.
Dafydd had been in awe of the girl since he had first met her at the harbour. Frongoch’s lead and zinc came down from the hills to Trawscoed, then was taken by rail to the
harbour for loading onto ships. Jones had set Dafydd to work checking the loads were secure, and that the bags reached the ships safely. Of course, once Jones was satisfied,
he’d want to quench his thirst. On that hot summer’s day they had settled themselves in the street in front of the tavern.
Dafydd had never tasted beer in his life. He looked glumly at the mucky brown liquid, as the splashing flagon was thrust in his hand.
‘Here, Roberts’ best and from the source,’ Jones nodded to the brewery behind the tavern. ‘Tell you what, we’ll have a few here, then why don’t you explore for a little while. I have business to attend to.’
Jones didn’t say, but Dafydd knew there was a woman he visited. Parry had smirked about it many times before.
Dafydd sipped his ale. Jones was long gone and the noisy and boisterous tavern made him nervous. His head buzzed. He drank the last of the ale, then wandered down the road feeling as if a blanket was stuck on his head. He went down to the river for the cooler air and leant against a wall. After a while, the river’s noise and motion made him feel better.
‘Well,’ a voice rang out. ‘You going to be sick or not?’
Dafydd saw a girl, about his age, deftly working at the frayed ends of a large rope with a knife. She grinned as she carried on with her work.
‘I’m not going to be sick,’ Dafydd grunted, then ran to the riverside and lost the contents of his stomach.
‘There now,’ the girl said with a gentle smile. ‘Feel much better for that, I’m sure. You can give me a hand now.’
Dafydd spat away the taste as best he could and wiped his mouth. Then he stumbled over and sat by her, watching her deft fingers sort the good ends from the bad. He felt grateful that she hadn’t mocked him. He joined in the work, and as they talked, he warmed to her the more.
He remembered the day well, for the ale had made him cheeky to his father on the return, and he’d got a sore lip for his trouble. He’d been back a few times to Trefechan since then and always found time to see Gwen, the girl at the river. He looked forward to every visit. In his happiness, he failed to notice how it had only stoked the jealousy within others that would bring him to this wretched moment.
Now, with Gwen’s arm linked in his, Dafydd felt warm for the first time in ages. He had never touched her before and his hand tingled with pleasure.
‘Seems you’re always picking me up at the bridge,’ he managed.
She smiled. ‘I suppose I’d best let you walk closest to the river then, in case you want to be sick… You’re all serious you know,’ she added, as her remark failed to raise a smile.
‘Oh God, Gwen, I’m in trouble,’ he groaned.
‘I can see that,’ she replied. ‘But let’s get some food in you and then we’ll have a chat, right?’
She bought her bread and then took him down to the river, by the old mills.
‘Here,’ she said, handing him a roll. ‘But I need to talk quick before the bread gets cold and I’m missed.’
‘I’ll pay,’ said Dafydd, his mouth crammed with hot bread.
‘Got it extra, Daf, don’t you worry. Save your money there.’
Dafydd looked away. ‘I think I killed someone, Gwen.’
She arched her eyebrows. ‘You think? You’d better tell now.’ Dafydd told her the tale. ‘So, what you saying is this. You beat someone senseless,’ Gwen said. ‘Knowing that
bully-boy, he deserved it and all.’
‘Gwen, I killed him. I’m a murderer.’
Gwen shook her head, squeezing his arm for support. ‘How do you know – ask the doctor, did you? He was still alive when you left and, knowing the thick heads of that lot,
I’d wager he’s still alive now.’
‘But he wasn’t moving,’ Dafydd stammered.
‘Proves nothing,’ Gwen said, flicking her hand for effect. ‘Tell you what though, you probably done them all a favour. That Parry was a right twll du. You done womankind a big favour by kicking him where it hurts. There’s less chance of children for some poor wife later on.’
‘Kept on saying you were his girl,’ Dafydd said shyly.
‘Him?’ Gwen’s raised her voice in shock. ‘I’d become a nun before I’d lie with him. Besides,’ her smile was sweet. ‘I’m no-one’s girl. Not yet, at any rate, and whoever wins me won’t have it so easy neither. Parry’s a fool. I’m with who I want and it certainly’s never going to be that lump of…’
Dafydd was taken aback by Gwen’s cursing and she saw his look and smiled. ‘Sorry Daf, forgot you were a bit delicate.’
‘I’ve heard worse, girl,’ came the defensive reply. ‘Just never from a lady.’
‘A lady?’ Gwen laughed. ‘Well, it’s nice to be called that. It’s a bit rough round here. What you going to do now, anyway?’
‘No idea, Gwen. Thought I could maybe jump a ship or something.’
‘No need, Dafydd. This town is big enough to hide you. Besides,’ she said, showing the tip of her tongue in a sweet smile. ‘I think I’d like you around here for a while.’
Dafydd sighed. ‘To do what? I’ve no trade.’
‘Come back with me to Ropemakers’ Row. No, listen now. I’ll ask around and see if there’s anything at the harbour. Plenty of trade here; chandlers, sailmakers, ropes, lime
burning. We’ll find you somewhere safe.’
Her brown eyes held him in their spell.
‘All right, Gwen, I’ll try it out. I suppose I’ll at least get to find out what’s going on. Just let’s not try over the Trefechan side, that’s all.’
‘Had your fill of Frongoch then, have you?’
Dafydd gave a tight grin. ‘Well I don’t want to be seen around the ore ships, just in case.’
‘Wouldn’t worry ’bout that,’ Gwen replied with a giggle. ‘We’re pretty tight-lipped around here. I’ll make sure no word gets around. Right you are then, I’ll hide you from
your devils, Dafydd bach. Come back with me down Ropemakers’ and meet my father. He’ll know what’s going on.’
She smiled and stroked his cheek. ‘Don’t you worry, Daf, I’ll look after you now.’
A tingle went down Dafydd’s spine. All he wanted now was to be at Gwen’s side. He felt safe for the first time in days as he followed her off towards the harbour. ‘Your father going to mind you turning up with a strange tramp in tow?’ Dafydd asked.
Gwen just laughed. ‘He’s seen worse tramps in his time. Don’t you worry, he’s not hit anyone for ages now. Besides, you’ve learnt to duck, haven’t you?’
By the Banks of the Rheidol by Geraint Roberts (£8.99, Y Lolfa)