One night they supped at an inn with the host, his family and servants, twelve folk in all, in seeming health. When they rose in the morning one old woman and a little child alone remained; the rest were dead or dying. One day they were surprised and taken by robbers, desperate outcasts of the mountains, who gave them twenty-four hours to “make their peace with heaven”—ere they hanged them because they had slain so many of the band before they were overpowered.
But when those twenty-four hours of grace had elapsed, it would have been easy for them to hang all who remained of those robbers themselves. So they took the best of their horses and their ill-gotten gold and rode on again, leaving the murderers murdered by a stronger power than man.
They went through desolate villages, where the crops rotted in the fields; they went through stricken towns whereof the moan and the stench rose in a foul incense to heaven; they crossed rivers where the very fish had died by thousands, poisoned of the dead that rolled seaward in their waters. The pleasant land had become a hell, and untouched, unharmed, they plodded onward through those deeps of hell. But a night or two before they had slept in a city whereof the population, or those who remained alive of them, seemed to have gone mad. In one place they danced and sang and made love in an open square. In another bands of naked creatures marched the streets singing hymns and flogging themselves till the blood ran down to their heels, while the passers-by prostrated themselves before them. These were the forerunners of the “Mad Dancers” of the following year.
In a field outside of this city they came upon even a more dreadful sight. Here forty or fifty frenzied people, most of them drunk, were engaged in burning a poor Jew, his wife and two children upon a great fire made of the staves of wine-casks, which they had plundered from some neighbouring cellars. When Hugh and his companions came upon the scene the Jew was already burned and this crowd of devils were preparing to cast his wife and children into the flames, which they had been forced to see devour their husband and father. Indeed, with yells of brutal laughter, they were thrusting the children into two great casks ere they rolled them into the heart of the fire, while the wretched mother stood by and shrieked.
“What do you, sirs?” asked Hugh, riding up to them.
“We burn wizards and their spawn, Sir Knight,” answered the ringleader. “Know that these accursed Jews have poisoned the wells of our town—we have witnesses who saw them do it—and thus brought the plague upon us. Moreover, she,” and he pointed to the woman—”was seen talking not fourteen days ago with the devil in a yellow cap, who appears everywhere before the Death begins. Now, roll them in, roll them in!”
Hugh drew his sword, for this sight was more than his English flesh and blood could bear. Dick also unsheathed the black bow, while young David produced a great knife which he carried.
“Free those children!” said Hugh to the man with whom he had spoken, a fat fellow, with rolling, bloodshot eyes.
“Get you to hell, stranger,” he answered, “or we’ll throw you on the fire also as a Jew in knight’s dress.”
“Free those children!” said Hugh again in a terrible voice, “or I send you before them. Be warned! I speak truth.”
“Be you warned, stranger, for I speak truth also,” replied the man, mimicking him. “Now friends,” he added, “tuck up the devil’s brats in their warm bed.”
They were his last words, for Hugh thrust with his sword and down he went.
Now a furious clamour arose. The mob snatched up burning staves, bludgeons, knives or whatever they had at a hand, and prepared to kill the three. Without waiting for orders, Dick began to shoot. David, a bold young man, rushed at one of the most violent and stabbed him, and Hugh, who had leapt from his horse, set himself back to back with the other two. Thrice Dick shot, and at the third deadly arrow these drunken fellows grew sober enough to understand that they wished no more of them.
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