The Scourge of God
The Huns were a fierce and warlike tribe who had come from Asia into Europe and settled on the lands lying north of the Danube river. Early in the fifth century they had a famous king named Attila. He was only twenty-one years old when he was made king of the wildest tribe of warriors that the world then knew.
The writers of that time described this savage chieftain as a monster in appearance, short, ill-formed, with a big head, flat nose and dark complexion. His shoulders were broad and square, and his body was very powerful. He had the habit of rolling his eyes as if to inspire terror in those who beheld him.
Near the place where Attila lived there was a cave in the mountain, in which dwelt a hermit, old and wrinkled, with long gray hair and beard, who mumbled to himself all the time. No one knew his name or where he came from.
Soon after Attila was chosen king of the Huns he went to the hermit and, desiring to know something of his own future, asked, "Oh, hermit, thou art wise and canst see into the future! Tell me what lies before me. Shall I be a great king and conqueror, or shall I die unknown and unhonored?"
The hermit gazed at the heavens awhile and then at the ground. Finally he said, "Oh, king, I see that thou shalt lead mighty hosts to many victories! Thou shalt defeat armies and destroy cities. The grass shall not grow where thy horse's feet have once trod. Women shall weep and children shudder when thy name is mentioned. Thou shalt be called 'The Scourge of God,' but in the midst of thy victories, and soon after thou hast married the woman thou lovest, the hand of death shall smite thee suddenly and without warning."
Attila fled from the cave in horror. He had not yet thought of his bloody career and was too young to consider death with any feeling but dread. But the more he thought of what the hermit had said, the more he was reconciled to his career. Walking with his attendant one day, he said, "I shall lead the Huns against the Romans in Gaul, and blood shall flow in the rivers. My name shall be a dread upon the earth, for so the gods have decreed. Send forth the order for the Huns to be prepared for war."
With this he set about gathering the best men from the various tribes and organizing them into an army. They were terrible men, grim, hairy, bloody, riding horses like demons, and brandishing spear, axe and sword with ruthless ferocity. Nothing they liked better than war and bloodshed, and so they hailed the order of Attila with joy. It was not long before their leader, fiercer now than any of his men, had them trained to do his bidding.
It so happened that one of the king's shepherds, noticing blood dripping from a wound in the foot of one of his cattle, followed the trail of blood that the animal had left in the grass. At last he saw the sharp point of a sword sticking out of the earth. Quickly he dug up the sword, carried it to Attila, and told him how he had come by it.
Attila was artful and seeing his advantage, said, "It is a gift of the gods, the sword of Tiew, who is the god of war. With it I shall never be defeated. No enemy can stand before it when I wave it over a field of battle."
The king assembled his followers and consecrated the heavenly gift by building a great fire and sacrificing sheep, oxen and probably the lives of some of his prisoners. All the while his own men circled the great blazing pile with hideous noises and war-like dances.
His army was now ready and he marched into the countries belonging to the Romans. The Rhine river was no obstacle to his advancing host of over a half million savage men. Attila rode a beautiful black horse, and at his side was the sword of Tiew. When he saw the Rhine before him he waved his sword, and cried out, " In with you, men and horses! Let those swim who can. Bridges and rafts must be built for the baggage," and so the great host passed over the Rhine in their invasion of France, which was then called Gaul.
Dismay prevailed everywhere. Long peace had made the people rich and forgetful of warlike deeds. They became an easy prey to the terrible Huns. Towns were attacked and destroyed and the inhabitants killed without mercy. "The Scourge of God is upon us!" cried the people and fled before the advance of the devastating hordes.
Twenty towns lay in ruins, and Attila was approaching Paris. The people were about to desert their city, when a young shepherd girl named Genevieve spoke to them, saying, "Forsake not your homes and your town. I have prayed for deliverance and God has answered my prayers. Attila will turn aside and Paris will be saved."
The people remained in the town, and strange to say, Attila let Paris alone on his march through Gaul. His hordes came to Metz and destroyed not only every house, but also all the women, children and the priests. The able-bodied men were reserved to be sold as slaves.
At last Attila reached Orleans, the city which he designed to make the capital of the domain he intended to establish in Gaul. Upon the fate of Orleans rested the success of his great invasion. Its walls had been strengthened, and behind them lay a body of soldiers determined to defend the city to the utmost. Besides, an army had now been formed in Gaul to meet the terrible Huns and drive them back, if possible.
This army was commanded by a Roman general, Aëtius, who was a skilled and valiant soldier. He gathered all the men he could, and started in pursuit of Attila. But it took time to assemble an army, and the siege of Orleans had begun by the time that Aëtius was ready to begin his march. In that city all was terror and dismay. It seemed doomed to fall before the assaults of the invaders.
The savage Huns were battering at the walls of the city. Day and night their awful battle cries rang out, with dire threats of what was in store for the people when the city fell into their hands. Inside the feeble garrison fought the best it could, and the women knelt in the chapels and in the streets, praying to the saints for deliverance.
In their prayers they were sustained by a valiant and wise churchman, Anianus, who kept up the courage of the people by his hopeful words. "The saints will hear your prayers, and Orleans will not fall into the hands of Attila," was his cry to the people every day.
The siege was fierce, the defence brave and obstinate. "If we can just hold out till the army of Aëtius comes we shall be saved," was the encouraging advice of Anianus. He counted the days, and hours with great anxiety. A sentinel was posted on the walls to watch for the advancing army, yet hours and days went by and no signs came of the army to help the besieged people.
Despair settled down on Orleans. The Huns were making inroads in the walls. The defences were giving way under the blows from the battering rams. The city could not hold out much longer. At last came a day when it deemed that all hope was at an end. In a few hours the walls would fall, or the gates be battered in, and the slaughter would begin.
Anianus sent the sentinel to the walls to look for the army of relief, but the man came back bearing no good tidings. "Go again," said the bishop, "and strain your eyes to catch the first gleam of spears and then cry out the news."
The sentinel stood motionless, watching the horizon, while arrows flew around him, and the battering rams hammered on the walls beneath him. At last he cried, "A mist! a cloud! it moves! it comes nearer! I see the gleam of steel and the color of banners! It is the host of Aëtius coming to our relief!" and he ran back crying the good news.
The people heard him and set up a mighty shout of relief and defiance. "God has not forsaken Orleans! He will take away the Scourge from our gates!" But at that moment the gates fell with a great crash. Attila and his men rushed in to begin the destruction of the city.
Houses were being broken into and the pillage had begun, when suddenly the cry arose, "The Romans! The Visigoths! They are behind us, and on our tracks!"
Attila heard the cry and sent a messenger to inquire its meaning. The messenger returned, saying that a mighty army was marching forward, and would soon be at the walls of the city.
"Sound the bugles for my men to assemble!" cried out the savage leader in great alarm.
The bugles sounded. The Huns ceased their plunder, and came in haste to inquire the cause of the assembly. Attila had already made up his mind to retreat, and at once ordered his army to abandon Orleans.
"Leave your plunder and your prisoners, and get beyond the walls at once, or we shall be caught like rats in a trap," was his order, and the Huns swarmed out of the city faster than they had swarmed in.
Hardly had they left before Aëtius and his army marched in through the very breaks in the walls that the invaders had made. Orleans was safe, and the people fell on their knees and gave thanks that they were spared the awful fate of falling into the merciless hands of Attila and his men.
The Romans now pursued Attila as he fled. When the Huns reached the plains of Chalons they made a stand. The battle that followed was one of the decisive battles of the world, for it decided the fate of Western Europe.
At first it seemed as if the Huns would win. Led by Attila and riding furiously on their wild horses, they broke through the center of the Roman army and slew Theodoric, the king of the Goths. But Torismond, the young and valiant son of the king, raised a terrible war cry and descended from a hill where his men were placed and fell like a thunderbolt on the Hun army.
The fortunes of the battle changed and the Huns were driven back, step by step. Night alone saved them from total extinction. It was said that nearly three hundred thousand men were slain in this great battle, but that is probably an exaggeration.
When darkness came on the fighting ceased. Attila ordered all the baggage, saddles and rich equipment of the army to be placed in one great funeral pile. "If they attack me on the morrow, I shall set fire to this pile and leap into the flames. They shall not take me alive."
The night was an anxious one for the savage chief. Aëtius was too exhausted to move against the Huns, and so the expected attack did not come. Attila retreated, crossed the Rhine, and Gaul was saved from the Scourge of God.