The Lion of the North by G. A. Henty
Chapter VI. The Attack on the Village
"And now," the farmer said to Malcolm, "what is your advice? That we will fight is settled. When, where, and how? This house is strongly built, and we could so strengthen its doors and windows with beams that we might hold out for a long time against them."
"No," Malcolm said, "that would not be my advice. Assuredly we might defend the house; but in that case the rest of the village, the herds and granaries, would fall into their hands. To do any good, we must fight them in the wood on their way hither. But although I hope for a favourable issue, I should strongly advise that you should have the herds and horses driven away. Send off all your more valuable goods in the wagons, with your women and children, to a distance. We shall fight all the better if we know that they are all in safety. Some of the old men and boys will suffice for this work. And now, methinks, you had best summon the men, for there will be work for them tonight."
The bell which was used to call the hands from their work in the fields and woods at sunset soon sounded, and the men in surprise came trooping in at the summons. When they were assembled the farmer told them the news he had heard, and the determination which had been arrived at to defend the village.
After the first movement of alarm caused by the name of the dreaded band of the Wolfsburg had subsided Malcolm was glad to see an expression of stout determination come over the faces of the assemblage, and all declared themselves ready to fight to the last. Four of the elder men were told off at once to superintend the placing of the more movable household goods of the village in wagons, which were to set out at daybreak with the cattle and families.
"Now," Malcolm said, "I want the rest to bring mattocks and shovels and to accompany me along the road. There is one spot which I marked as I came along as being specially suited for defence."
This was about half a mile away, and as darkness had now set in the men lighted torches, and with their implements followed him. At the spot which he had selected there was for the distance of a hundred yards a thick growth of underwood bordering the track on either side. Across the road, at the end of the passage nearest to the farm, Malcolm directed ten of the men to dig a pit twelve feet wide and eight feet deep. The rest of the men he set to work to cut nearly through the trunks of the trees standing nearest the road until they were ready to fall.
Ten trees were so treated, five on either side of the road. Standing, as they did, among the undergrowth, the operation which had been performed on them was invisible to any one passing by. Ropes were now fastened to the upper part of the trees and carried across the road, almost hidden from sight by the foliage which met over the path. When the pit was completed the earth which had been taken from it was scattered in the wood out of sight. Light boughs were then placed over the hole. These were covered with earth and sods trampled down until the break in the road was not perceptible to a casual eye.
This was done by Malcolm himself, as the lightest of the party, the boughs sufficing to bear his weight, although they would give way at once beneath that of a horse. The men all worked with vigour and alacrity as soon as they understood Malcolm's plans. Daylight was breaking when the preparations were completed. Malcolm now divided the party, and told them off to their respective posts. They were sixteen in all, excluding the pastor.
Eight were placed on each side of the road. Those on one side were gathered near the pit which had been dug, those on the other were opposite to the tree which was farthest down the valley. The freebooters were to be allowed to pass along until the foremost fell into the pit. The men stationed there were at once to haul upon the rope attached to the tree near it and to bring it down. Its fall would bar the road and prevent the horsemen from leaping the pit. Those in the rear were, if they heard the crash before the last of the marauders had passed through, to wait until they had closed up, which they were sure to do when the obstacle was reached, and then to fell the tree to bar their retreat.
The instant this was done both parties were to run to other ropes and to bring down the trees upon the horsemen gathered on the road, and were then to fall upon them with axe, pike, and arquebus.
"If it works as well as I expect," Malcolm said, "not one of them will escape from the trap."
Soon after daybreak bowls of milk and trays of bread and meat were brought down to the workers by some of the women. As there was no immediate expectation of attack, the farmer himself, with the pastor, went back to the village to cheer the women before their departure.
"You need not be afraid, wife," the farmer said. "I shall keep to my plans, because when you have once made a plan it is foolish to change it; but I deem not that there is any real need for sending you and the wagons and beasts away. This young Scotch lad seems made for a commander, and truly, if all his countrymen are like himself, I wonder no longer that the Poles and Imperialists have been unable to withstand them. Truly he has constructed a trap from which this band of villains will have but little chance of escape, and I trust that we may slay them without much loss to ourselves. What rejoicings will there not be in the fifty villages when the news comes that their oppressors have been killed! The good God has assuredly sent this youth hither as His instrument in defeating the oppressors, even as He chose the shepherd boy David out of Israel to be the scourge of the Philistines."
By this time all was ready for a start, and having seen the wagons fairly on their way the farmer returned to the wood, the pastor accompanying the women. Three hours passed before there were any signs of the marauders, and Malcolm began to think that the idea might have occurred to them that he had gone to Glogau, and that they might therefore have postponed their raid upon that village until they could make sure of taking it by surprise, and so capturing all the horses and valuables before the villagers had time to remove them. Glogau was, however, quite out of Malcolm's direct line for the Swedish camp, and it was hardly likely that the freebooters would think that their late captive would go out of his way to warn the village, in which he had no interest whatever; indeed they would scarcely be likely to recall the fact that he had been present when they were discussing their proposed expedition against it.
All doubts were, however, set at rest when a boy who had been stationed in a high tree near the edge of the wood ran in with the news that a band of horsemen were riding across the plain, and would be there in a few minutes. Every one fell into his appointed place. The farmer himself took the command of the party on one side of the road, Malcolm of that on the other. Matches were blown, and the priming of the arquebuses looked to; then they gathered round the ropes, and listened for the tramp of horses.
Although it was but a few minutes before it came, the time seemed long to those waiting; but at last a vague sound was heard, which rapidly rose into a loud trampling of horses. The marauders had been riding quietly until they neared the wood, as speed was no object; but as they wished to take the village by surprise -- and it was just possible that they might have been seen approaching -- they were now riding rapidly.
Suddenly the earth gave way under the feet of the horses of the captain and his lieutenant, who were riding at the head of the troop, and men and animals disappeared from the sight of those who followed. The two men behind them pulled their horses back on their haunches, and checked them at the edge of the pit into which their leaders had fallen.
As they did so a loud crack was heard, and a great tree came crashing down, falling directly upon them, striking them and their horses to the ground. A loud cry of astonishment and alarm rose from those behind, followed by curses and exclamations of rage. A few seconds after the fall of the tree there was a crash in the rear of the party, and to their astonishment the freebooters saw that another tree had fallen there, and that a barricade of boughs and leaves closed their way behind as in front. Deprived of their leaders, bewildered and alarmed at this strange and unexpected occurrence, the marauders remained irresolute. Two or three of those in front got off their horses and tried to make their way to the assistance of their comrades who were lying crushed under the mass of foliage, and of their leaders in the pit beyond.
But now almost simultaneously two more crashes were heard, and a tree from each side fell upon them. Panic stricken now the horsemen strove to dash through the underwood, but their progress was arrested, for among the bushes ropes had been fastened from tree to tree; stakes had been driven in, and the bushes interlaced with cords. The trees continued to fall till the portion of the road occupied by the troop was covered by a heap of fallen wood and leaf. Then for the first time the silence in the wood beyond them was broken, the flashes of firearms darted out from the brushwood, and then with a shout a number of men armed with pikes and axes sprang forward to the attack.
A few only of the marauders were in a position to offer any resistance whatever. The greater portion were buried under the mass of foliage. Many had been struck down by the trunks or heavy arms of the trees. All were hampered and confused by the situation in which they found themselves. Under such circumstances it was a massacre rather than a fight. Malcolm, seeing the inability of the freebooters to oppose any formidable resistance, sheathed his sword, and left it to the peasants to avenge the countless murders which the band had committed, and the ruin and misery which they had inflicted upon the country.
In a few minutes all was over. The brigands were shot down, piked, or slain by the heavy axes through the openings in their leafy prison. Quarter was neither asked for nor given. The freebooters knew that it would be useless, and died cursing their foes and their own fate in being thus slaughtered like rats in a trap. Two or three of the peasants were wounded by pistol shots, but this was all the injury that their success cost them.
"The wicked have digged a pit, and they have fallen into it themselves," the farmer said as he approached the spot where Malcolm was standing, some little distance from the scene of slaughter. "Verily the Lord hath delivered them into our hands. I understand, my young friend, why you as a soldier did not aid in the slaughter of these villains. It is your trade to fight in open battle, and you care not to slay your enemies when helpless; but with us it is different. We regard them as wild beasts, without heart or pity, as scourges to be annihilated when we have the chance; just as in winter we slay the wolves who come down to attack our herds."
"I blame you not," Malcolm said. "When men take to the life of wild beasts they must be slain as such. Now my task is done, and I will journey on at once to join my countrymen; but I will give you one piece of advice before I go.
"In the course of a day or two the party left at Wolfsburg will grow uneasy, and two of their number are sure to ride hither to inquire as to the tarrying of the band. Let your men with arquebuses keep watch night and day and shoot them down when they arrive. Were I in your place I would then mount a dozen of your men and let them put on the armour of these dead robbers and ride to Wolfsburg, arriving there about daybreak. If they see you coming they will take you to be the band returning. The two men below you will cut down without difficulty, and there will then be but three or four to deal with in the castle.
"I recommend you to make a complete end of them; and for this reason: if any of the band survive they will join themselves with some other party and will be sure to endeavour to get them to avenge this slaughter; for although these bands have no love for each other, yet they would be ready enough to take up each other's quarrel as against country folk, especially when there is a hope of plunder. Exterminate them, then, and advise your men to keep their secret. Few can have seen the brigands riding hither today. When it is found that the band have disappeared the country around will thank God, and will have little curiosity as to how they have gone. You will of course clear the path again and bury their bodies; and were I you I would prepare at once another ambush like that into which they have fallen, and when a second band of marauders comes into this part of the country set a watch night and day. Your men will in future be better armed than hitherto, as each of those freebooters carries a brace of pistols. And now, as I would fain be off as soon as possible, I would ask you to let your men set to work with their axes and cut away the boughs and to get me out a horse. Several of them must have been killed by the falling trees, and some by the fire of the arquebuses; but no doubt there are some uninjured."
In a quarter of an hour a horse was brought up, together with the helmet and armour worn by the late captain of the band.
As Malcolm mounted, the men crowded round him and loaded him with thanks and blessings for the danger from which he had delivered them, their wives and families.
When the fugitives had left the village a store of cooked provisions had been left behind for the use of the defenders during the day. As the women could not be fetched back before nightfall, the farmer had despatched a man for some of this food and the wallets on the saddle were filled with sufficient to last Malcolm for three or four days.
A brace of pistols were placed in the holsters, and with a last farewell to the farmer Malcolm gave the rein to his horse and rode away from the village. He travelled fast now and without fear of interruption. The sight of armed men riding to join one or other of the armies was too common to attract any attention, and avoiding large towns Malcolm rode unmolested across the plain.
He presently heard the report that the Swedes had captured Frankfort-on-the-Oder, and as he approached that town, after four days' riding, heard that they had moved towards Landsberg. Thither he followed them, and came up to them outside the walls of that place six days after leaving Glogau. The main body of the Swedish army had remained in and around Frankfort, Gustavus having marched against Landsberg with only 3200 musketeers, 12 pieces of cannon, and a strong body of horse. Hepburn and Reay's Scotch regiments formed part of the column, and Malcolm with delight again saw the green scarves and banners.
As he rode into the camp of his regiment he was unnoticed by the soldiers until he reached the tents of the officers, before which Colonel Munro was standing talking with several others. On seeing an officer approach in full armour they looked up, and a cry of astonishment broke from them on recognizing Malcolm.
"Is it you, Malcolm Graheme, or your wraith?" Munro exclaimed.
"It is I in the flesh, colonel, sound and hearty."
"Why, my dear lad," Munro exclaimed, holding out his hand, "we thought you had fallen at the sack of New Brandenburg. Innes and Lumsden were believed to be the only ones who had escaped."
"I have come through it, nevertheless," Malcolm said; "but it is a long story, colonel, and I would ask you first if the king has learned what Tilly is doing."
"No, he has received no news whatever of him since he heard of the affair at New Brandenburg, and is most anxious lest he should fall upon the army at Frankfort while we are away. Do you know aught about him?"
"Tilly marched west from New Brandenburg," Malcolm said, "and is now besieging Magdeburg."
"This is news indeed," Munro said; "you must come with me at once to the king."
Malcolm followed Colonel Munro to the royal tent, which was but a few hundred yards away. Gustavus had just returned after visiting the advanced lines round the city. On being told that Colonel Munro wished to speak to him on important business, he at once came to the entrance of his tent.
"Allow me to present to you, sire, Malcolm Graheme, a very gallant young officer of my regiment. He was at New Brandenburg, and I deemed that he had fallen there; how he escaped I have not yet had time to learn, seeing that he has but now ridden into the camp; but as he is bearer of news of the whereabouts of Tilly and his army, I thought it best to bring him immediately to you."
"Well, sir," Gustavus said anxiously to Malcolm, "what is your news?"
"Tilly is besieging Magdeburg, sire, with his whole strength."
"Magdeburg!" Gustavus exclaimed incredulously. "Are you sure of your news? I deemed him advancing upon Frankfort."
"Quite sure, sire, for I accompanied his column to within two marches of the city, and there was no secret of his intentions. He started for that town on the very day after he had captured New Brandenburg."
"This is important, indeed," Gustavus said; "follow me," and he turned and entered the tent. Spread out on the table was a large map, which the king at once consulted.
"You see, Colonel Munro, that to relieve Magdeburg I must march through Kustrin, Berlin, and Spandau, and the first and last are strong fortresses. I can do nothing until the Elector of Brandenburg declares for us, and gives us leave to pass those places, for I dare not march round and leave them in my rear until sure that this weak prince will not take sides with the Imperialists. I will despatch a messenger tonight to him at Berlin demanding leave to march through his territory to relieve Magdeburg. In the meantime we will finish off with this place, and so be in readiness to march west when his answer arrives. And now, sir," he went on, turning to Malcolm, "please to give me the account of how you escaped first from New Brandenburg, and then from Tilly."
Malcolm related briefly the manner of his escape from the massacre at New Brandenburg, and how, after accompanying Tilly's army as a teamster for two days, he had made his escape. He then still more briefly related how he had been taken prisoner by a band of freebooters, but had managed to get away from them, and had drawn them into an ambush by peasants, where they had been slain, by which means he had obtained a horse and ridden straight to the army.
Gustavus asked many questions, and elicited many more details than Malcolm had deemed it necessary to give in his first recital.
"You have shown great prudence and forethought," the king said when he had finished, "such as would not be looked for in so young a soldier."
"And he behaved, sire, with distinguished gallantry and coolness at Schiefelbrune, and in the destructive fight outside Colberg," Colonel Munro put in. "By the slaughter on the latter day he would naturally have obtained his promotion, but he begged to be passed over, asserting that it was best that at his age he should remain for a time an ensign."
"Such modesty is unusual," the king said, "and pleases me; see the next time a step is vacant, colonel, that he has it. Whatever his age, he has shown himself fit to do man's work, and years are of no great value in a soldier; why, among all my Scottish regiments I have scarcely a colonel who is yet thirty years old."
Malcolm now returned with Colonel Munro to the regiment, and there had to give a full and minute account of his adventures, and was warmly congratulated by his fellow officers on his good fortune in escaping from the dangers which had beset him. The suit of armour was a handsome one, and had been doubtless stripped off from the body of some knight or noble murdered by the freebooters. The leg pieces Malcolm laid aside, retaining only a cuirass, back piece, and helmet, as the full armour was too heavy for service on foot.
Two days later the king gave orders that the assault upon Landsberg was to be made that night. The place was extremely strong, and Gustavus had in his previous campaign twice failed in attempts to capture it. Since that time the Imperialists had been busy in strengthening the fortification, and all the peasantry for ten miles round had been employed in throwing up earthworks; but its principal defence was in the marsh which surrounded it, and which rendered the construction of approaches by besiegers almost impossible. Its importance consisted in the fact that from its great strength its garrison dominated the whole district known as the Marc of Brandenburg. It was the key to Silesia, and guarded the approaches to Pomerania, and its possession was therefore of supreme importance to Gustavus. The garrison consisted of five thousand Imperialist infantry and twelve troops of horse, the whole commanded by Count Gratz. The principal approach to the town was guarded by a strong redoubt armed with numerous artillery.
Colonel Munro had advanced his trenches to within a short distance of this redoubt, and had mounted the twelve pieces of cannon to play upon it, but so solid was the masonry of the fort that their fire produced but little visible effect. Gustavus had brought from Frankfort as guide on the march a blacksmith who was a native of Landsberg, and this man had informed him of a postern gate into the town which would not be likely to be defended, as to reach it it would be necessary to cross a swamp flanked by the advanced redoubt and covered with water.
For two days previous to the assault the troops had been at work cutting bushes and trees, and preparing the materials for constructing a floating causeway across the mud and water. As soon as night fell the men were set to work laying down the causeway, and when this was finished the column advanced to the attack. It consisted of 250 pikemen under Colonel Munro, and the same number of the dragoons under Colonel Deubattel. Hepburn with 1000 musketeers followed a short distance behind them.
The pikemen led the way, and passed along the floating causeway without difficulty, but the causeway swayed and often sank under the feet of the cavalry behind them. These, however, also managed to get across. Their approach was entirely unobserved, and they effected an entrance into the town.
Scarcely had they done so when they came upon a body of three hundred Imperialists who were about to make a sally under Colonel Gratz, son of the governor. The pikemen at once fell upon them. Taken by surprise the Imperialists fought nevertheless stoutly, and eighty of the Scots fell under the fire of their musketry. But the pikemen charged home; Colonel Gratz was killed, with many of his men, and the rest taken prisoners. Hepburn marching on behind heard the din of musketry and pressed forward; before reaching the town he found a place in the swamp sufficiently firm to enable his men to march across it, and, turning off, he led his troops between the town and the redoubt, and then attacked the latter in the rear where its defences were weak, and after three minutes' fighting with its surprised and disheartened garrison the latter surrendered.
The redoubt having fallen, and Munro's men having effected a lodgment in the town, while the retreat on one side was cut off by the force of Gustavus, and on the other by a strong body of cavalry under Marshal Horn, the governor sent a drummer to Colonel Munro to say that he was ready to surrender, and to ask for terms. The drummer was sent to Gustavus, who agreed that the garrison should be allowed to march away with the honours of war, taking their baggage and effects with them. Accordingly at eight o'clock the Count of Gratz at the head of his soldiers marched out with colours flying and drums beating, and retired into Silesia. A garrison was placed in Landsberg, and the blacksmith appointed burgomaster of the town. Landsberg fell on the 15th of April, and on the 18th the force marched back to Frankfort.