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- The Young Carthaginian - 30/62 -
for any sudden outbreak which would tell that Nessus had been discovered. That the Numidian had followed on their traces and was somewhere in the neighbourhood Malchus had no doubt, but rescue in his present position was impossible, and he only hoped that his follower would find that this was so in time and would wait for a more favourable opportunity. The night passed off quietly, and in the morning the natives continued their march. After proceeding for three or four hours a sudden exclamation from one of them caused the others to turn, and in the distance a black mass of horsemen was seen approaching. At a rapid run the natives started off for the shelter of a wood half a mile distant. Malchus was forced to accompany them. He felt sure that the horsemen were a party of Hannibal's cavalry, and he wondered whether Nessus was near enough to see them, for if so he doubted not that he would manage to join them and lead them to his rescue.
Just before they reached the wood the natives suddenly stopped, for, coming from the opposite direction was another body of cavalry. It needed not the joyous shouts of the natives to tell Malchus that these were Romans, for they were coming from the south and could only be a party of Scipio's cavalry. The natives halted at the edge of the wood to watch the result of the conflict, for the parties evidently saw each other, and both continued to advance at full speed. The Roman trumpets were sounding, while the wild yells which came up on the breeze told Malchus that Hannibal's cavalry were a party of the Numidians.
The Romans were somewhat the most numerous; but, had the cavalry opposed to them consisted of the Carthaginian horse, Malchus would have had little doubt as to the result; he felt, however, by no means certain that the light armed Numidians were a match for the Roman cavalry. The party had stopped but a quarter of a mile from the spot where the rival bands met, and the crash of bodies driven violently against each other and the clash of steel on armour could be plainly heard.
For a few minutes it was a wild confused melee, neither party appearing to have any advantage. Riderless steeds galloped off from the throng, but neither party seemed to give way afoot. The whole mass seemed interlaced in conflict. It was a moving struggling throng of bodies with arms waving high and swords rising and falling. The Romans fought in silence, but the wild yells of the Numidians rose shrill and continuous.
At last there was a movement, and Malchus gave a groan while the natives around him shouted in triumph as the Numidians were seen to detach themselves from the throng and to gallop off at full speed, hotly followed by the Romans, both, however, in greatly diminished numbers, for the ground on which the conflict had taken place was thickly strewn with bodies; nearly half of those who had engaged in that short but desperate strife were lying there.
No sooner had the pursuers and pursued disappeared in the distance than the natives thronged down to the spot. Such of the Numidians as were found to be alive were instantly slaughtered, and all were despoiled of their clothes, arms, and ornaments. The Romans were left untouched, and those among them who were found to be only wounded were assisted by the natives, who unbuckled their armour, helped them into a sitting position, bound up their wounds, and gave them water.
Highly satisfied with the booty they obtained, and having no longer any fear of pursuit, the natives halted to await the return of the Romans. Malchus learned from their conversation that they had some little doubt whether the Romans would approve of their appropriating the spoils of the dead Numidians, and it was finally decided to hand over Malchus, whose rich armour proclaimed him to be a prisoner of importance, to the Roman commander.
The main body of the natives, with all the spoil which had been collected, moved away to the wood, while the chief, with four of his companions and Malchus, remained with the wounded Romans. It was late in the evening before the Romans returned, after having, as has been said, followed the Numidians right up to Hannibal's camp. There was some grumbling on the part of the Roman soldiers when they found that their allies had forestalled them with the spoil; but the officer in command was well pleased at finding that the wounded had been carefully attended to, and bade the men be content that they had rendered good service to the public, and that Scipio would be well satisfied with them. The native chief now exhibited the helmet and armour of Malchus, who was led forward by two of his men.
"Who are you?" the commander asked Malchus in Greek, a language which was understood by the educated both of Rome and Carthage.
"I am Malchus, and command the scouts of Hannibal's army."
"You are young for such a post," the officer said; "but in Carthage it is interest not valour which secures promotion. Doubtless you are related to Hannibal."
"I am his cousin," Malchus said quietly.
"Ah!" the Roman said sarcastically, "that accounts for one who is a mere lad being chosen for so important a post. However, I shall take you to Scipio, who will doubtless have questions to ask of you concerning Hannibal's army."
Many of the riderless horses on the plain came in on hearing the sound of the Roman trumpets and rejoined the troop. Malchus was placed on one of these. Such of the wounded Romans as were able to ride mounted others, and a small party being left behind to look after those unable to move, the troops started on their way.
They were unable, however, to proceed far; the horses had been travelling since morning and were now completely exhausted; therefore, after proceeding a few miles the troop halted. Strong guards were posted, and the men lay down by their horses, ready to mount at a moment's notice, for it was possible that Hannibal might have sent a large body of horsemen in pursuit. As on the night before, Malchus felt that even if Nessus had so far followed him he could do nothing while so strong a guard was kept up, and he therefore followed the example of the Roman soldiers around him and was soon fast asleep.
At daybreak next morning the troops mounted and again proceeded to the south. Late in the afternoon a cloud of dust was seen in the distance, and the party presently rode into the midst of the Roman army, who had made a day's march from their ships and were just halting for the night. The commander of the cavalry at once hastened to Scipio's tent to inform him of the surprising fact that Hannibal had already, in the face of the opposition of the tribes, forced the passage of the Rhone, and that, with the exception of the elephants, which had been seen still on the opposite bank, all the army were across.
Scipio was greatly mortified at the intelligence, for he had deemed it next to impossible that Hannibal could carry his army across so wide and rapid a river in the face of opposition. He had little doubt now that Hannibal's intention was to follow the Rhone down on its left bank to its mouth, and he prepared at once for a battle. Hearing that a prisoner of some importance had been captured, he ordered Malchus to be brought before him. As the lad, escorted by a Roman soldier on each side, was led in, Scipio, accustomed to estimate men, could not but admire the calm and haughty self possession of his young prisoner. His eye fell with approval upon his active sinewy figure, and the knotted muscles of his arms and legs.
"You are Malchus, a relation of Hannibal, and the commander of the scouts of his army, I hear," Scipio began.
Malchus bowed his head in assent.
"What force has he with him, and what are his intentions?"
"I know nothing of his intentions," Malchus replied quietly, "as to his force, it were better that you inquired of your allies, who saw us pass the river. One of them was brought hither with me, and can tell you what he saw."
"Know you not," Scipio said, "that I can order you to instant execution if you refuse to answer my questions?"
"Of that I am perfectly well aware," Malchus replied; "but I nevertheless refuse absolutely to answer any questions."
"I will give you until tomorrow morning to think the matter over, and if by that time you have not made up your mind to give me the information I require, you die."
So saying he waved his hand to the soldiers, who at once removed Malchus from his presence. He was taken to a small tent a short distance away, food was given to him, and at nightfall chains were attached to his ankles, and from these to the legs of two Roman soldiers appointed to guard him during the night, while a sentry was placed at the entrance. The chains were strong, and fitted so tightly round the ankles that escape was altogether impossible. Even had he possessed arms and could noiselessly have slain the two soldiers, he would be no nearer getting away, for the chains were fastened as securely round their limbs as round his own. Malchus, therefore, at once abandoned any idea of escape, and lying quietly down meditated on his fate in the morning.
CHAPTER XII: AMONG THE PASSES
It was not until long after the guards to whom he was chained had fallen asleep that Malchus followed their example. It seemed to him he had been asleep a long time when a pressure by a hand on his shoulder woke him; at the same moment another hand was placed over his mouth.
"Hush, my lord!" a voice said. It was Nessus. "Arise and let us go. There is no time to be lost, for it is nigh morning. I have been the whole night in discovering where you were."
"But the guards, Nessus?"
"I have killed them," Nessus said in a tone of indifference.
"But I am chained to them by the ankles."
Nessus gave a little exclamation of impatience, and then in the darkness felt the irons to discover the nature of the fastenings. In a minute there was a sound of a dull crashing blow, then Nessus moved to the other side and the sound was repeated. With two blows
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