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- The Lion of the North - 30/57 -
pikes. On the heads of four of the pikes were stuck gory heads, and in the centre of the party were three prisoners, two Swedes and a Scot. These were covered with blood, and were scarcely able to walk, but were being urged forward with blows and pike thrusts amid the brutal laughter of their captors.
Malcolm retired to his bed full of rage and sorrow. It would have been madness to have followed his first impulse to sally out sword in hand and fall upon the ruffians, as such a step would only have ensured his own death without assisting the captives.
"Hitherto," he said to himself, "I have ever restrained my men, and have endeavoured to protect the peasants from violence; henceforward, so long as we remain in Bavaria, no word of mine shall be uttered to save one of these murderous peasants. However, I am not with my company yet. The army is two marches ahead, and must by this time be in front of Ingolstadt. I have been two days without food, and see but little chance of getting any until I rejoin them, and the whole country between us is swarming with an infuriated peasantry. The prospect is certainly not a bright one. I would give a year's pay to hear the sound of a Swedish trumpet."
When darkness had fairly set in Malcolm started on his way again. Although his limbs still smarted from the weals and sores left by the cords they had now recovered their lissomeness; but he was weak from want of food, and no longer walked with the free elastic stride which distinguished the Scottish infantry. His wrists gave him great pain, being both terribly burned, and every movement of the hand sent a thrill of agony up the arm. He persisted, however, in frequently opening and clenching his hands, regardless of the pain, for he feared that did he not do so they would stiffen and he would be unable to grasp a sword. Fortunately the wounds were principally on the upper side of the thumbs, where the flesh was burned away to the bone, but the sinews and muscles of the wrists had to a great extent escaped.
He had not journeyed very far when he saw a light ahead and presently perceived the houses of a village. A fire was lit in the centre, and a number of figures were gathered round it.
"Something is going on," Malcolm said to himself; "as likely as not they have got some unfortunate prisoner. Whatever it be, I will steal in and try to get some food. I cannot go much further without it; and as their attention is occupied, I may find a cottage empty."
Making his way round to the back of the houses, he approached one of the cottages in the rear. He lifted the latch of the door and opened it a little. All was still. With his drawn sword he entered. The room was empty; a fire burned on the hearth, and on the table were some loaves which had evidently been just baked. Malcolm fell upon one of them and speedily devoured it, and, taking a long draught of rough country wine from a skin hanging against the wall, he felt another man.
He broke another loaf in two and thrust the pieces into his doublet, and then sallied out from the cottage again. Still keeping behind the houses he made his way until he got within view of the fire. Here he saw a sight which thrilled him with horror. Some eight or ten peasants and forty or fifty women were yelling and shouting. Fastened against a post in front of the fire were the remains of a prisoner. He had been stripped, his ears, nose, hands, and feet cut off, and he was slowly bleeding to death.
Four other men, bound hand and foot, lay close to the fire. By its flames Malcolm saw the green scarves that told they were Scotchmen of his own brigade, and he determined at once to rescue them or die in the attempt. He crept forward until he reached the edge of the road; then he raised a pistol and with a steady aim fired at one of the natives, who fell dead across the fire.
Another shot laid another beside him before the peasants recovered from their first surprise. Then with a loud shout in German, "Kill -- kill! and spare none!" Malcolm dashed forward. The peasants, believing that they were attacked by a strong body, fled precipitately in all directions. Malcolm, on reaching the prisoners, instantly severed their bonds.
"Quick, my lads!" he exclaimed; "we shall have them upon us again in a minute."
The men in vain tried to struggle to their feet -- their limbs were too numbed to bear them.
"Crawl to the nearest cottage!" Malcolm exclaimed; "we can hold it until your limbs are recovered."
He caught up from the ground some pikes and scythes which the peasants had dropped in their flight, and aided the men to make their way to the nearest cottage. They were but just in time; for the peasants, finding they were not pursued, had looked round, and seeing but one opponent had gained courage and were beginning to approach again. Malcolm barred the door, and then taking down a skin of wine bade his companions take a drink. There were loaves on the shelves, and these he cut up and handed to them.
"Quick, lads!" he said; "stamp your legs and swing your arms, and get the blood in motion. I will keep these fellows at bay a few minutes longer."
He reloaded his pistols and fired through the door, at which the peasants were now hewing with axes. A cry and a heavy fall told him that one of the shots had taken effect. Suddenly there was a smell of smoke.
"They have fired the roof," Malcolm said. "Now, lads, each of you put a loaf of bread under his jerkin. There is no saying when we may get more. Now get ready and sally out with me. There are but six or eight men in the village, and they are no match for us. They only dared to attack us because they saw that you couldn't walk."
The door was opened, and headed by Malcolm the four Scotchmen dashed out. They were assailed by a shower of missiles by the crowd as they appeared, but as soon as it was seen that the men were on foot again the peasants gave way. Malcolm shot one and cut down another, and the rest scattered in all directions.
"Now, lads, follow me while we may," and Malcolm again took to the fields. The peasants followed for some distance, but when the soldiers had quite recovered the use of their limbs Malcolm suddenly turned on his pursuers, overtaking and killing two of them. Then he and his men again continued their journey, the peasants no longer following. When at some distance from the village he said:
"We must turn and make for the Lech again. It is no farther than it is to Ingolstadt, and we shall find friends there. These peasants will go on ahead and raise all the villagers against us, and we should never get through. What regiment do you belong to, lads?" for in the darkness he had been unable to see their faces.
"Your own, Captain Graheme. We were in charge of one of the wagons with sick. The wheel came off, and we were left behind the convoy while we were mending it. As we were at work, our weapons laid on the ground, some twenty men sprang out from some bushes hard by and fell upon us. We killed five or six of them, but were beaten down and ten of our number were slain. They murdered all the sick in the wagons and marched us away, bound, to this village where you found us. Sandy McAlister they had murdered just as you came up, and we should have had a like horrible fate had you been a few minutes later. Eh, sir! but it's an awful death to be cut in pieces by these devils incarnate!"
"Well, lads," Malcolm said, "we will determine that they shall not take us alive again. If we are overtaken or met by any of these gangs of peasants we will fight till we die. None of us, I hope, are afraid of death in fair strife, but the bravest might well shrink from such a death as that of your poor comrade. Now let us see what arms we have between us."
Malcolm had his sword and pistols, two of the men had pikes, the other two scythes fastened to long handles.
"These are clumsy weapons," Malcolm said. "You had best fit short handles to them, so as to make them into double handed swords."
They were unable to travel far, for all were exhausted with the sufferings they had gone through, but they kept on until they came upon a village which had been fired when the troops marched through. The walls of a little church were alone standing. It had, like the rest of the village, been burned, but the shell still remained.
"So far as I can see," Malcolm said, "the tower has escaped. Had it been burned we should see through the windows. We may find shelter in the belfry."
On reaching the church they found that the entrance to the belfry tower was outside the church, and to this, no doubt, it owed its escape from the fire which had destroyed the main edifice. The door was strong and defied their efforts to break it in.
"I must fire my pistol through the lock," Malcolm said. "I do not like doing so, for the sound may reach the ears of any peasants in the neighbourhood; but we must risk it, for the cold is extreme, and to lie down in the snow would be well nigh certain death."
He placed his pistol to the keyhole and fired. The lock at once yielded and the party entered the door.
"Before we mount," Malcolm said, "let each pick up one of these blocks of stone which have fallen from the wall. We will wedge the door from behind, and can then sleep secure against a surprise."
When the door was closed one of the men, who was a musketeer, struck some sparks from a flint and steel on to a slow match which he carried in his jerkin, and by its glow they were enabled to look around them. The stone steps began to ascend close to the door, and by laying the stones between the bottom step and the door they wedged the latter firmly in its place. They then ascended the stairs, and found themselves in a room some ten feet square, in which hung the bell which had called the village to prayers. It hung from some beams which were covered with a boarded floor, and a rough ladder led to a trapdoor, showing that there was another room above. The floor of the room in which they stood was of stone.
"Now, lads," Malcolm said, "two of you make your way up that ladder and rip up some of the planks of the flooring. See if there are any windows or loopholes in the chamber above, and if so stuff your jerkins into them; we will close up those here. In a few minutes we will have a roaring fire; but we must beware lest a gleam of light be visible without, for this belfry can be seen for miles round.
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