“It would not be possible, Malchus, to place the parties at equal distances over such broken ground. Nor are the lions likely to discover the gaps in the line; they will be far too much terrified by the uproar and sudden blaze of light to approach the troops. Hark, how they are roaring! Truly it is a majestic and terrible sound, and I do not wonder that the wild natives of these mountains regard the animals with something of the respect which we pay to the gods. And now do you keep a sharp eye along the foot of the hills. There is no saying how soon the beasts may break cover.”
Slowly the semicircle of light was seen to contract as the soldiers who formed it moved forward towards the foot of the hill; but although Malchus kept his eyes strained upon the fringe of trees at its foot, he could see no signs of movement.
The roaring still continued at intervals, and it was evident that the beasts inclosed in the arc had descended to the lower slopes of the hill.
“They may be upon us sooner than you expect, Malchus. Their colour well nigh matches with that of the sand, and you may not see them until they are close upon us.”
Presently a Nubian soldier standing behind Malchus touched him on the shoulder and said in a whisper: “There they are!” pointing at the same time across the plain.
Malchus could for a time see nothing; then he made out some indistinct forms.
“There are six of them,” the general said, “and they are making for this grove. Get your bows ready.”
Malchus could now clearly see the lions approaching. They were advancing slowly, turning occasionally to look back as if reluctant to quit the shelter of the hills; and Malchus could hardly resist a start of uneasiness as one of them suddenly gave vent to a deep, threatening roar, so menacing and terrible that the very leaves of the trees seemed to quiver in the light of the moon under its vibrations. The lions seemed of huge dimensions, especially the leader of the troop, who stalked with a steady and majestic step at their head. When within fifty yards of the grove the lions suddenly paused; their leader apparently scented danger. Again the deep terrible roar rose in the air, answered by an angry snarling noise on the part of the females.
“Aim at the leader,” the general whispered, “and have your brands in readiness.”
Immediately behind the party a fire was burning; it had been suffered to die down until it was a mere pile of glowing embers, and in this the ends of a dozen stakes of dried wood were laid. The glow of the fire was carefully hidden by a circle of sticks on which thick cloths had been hung. The fire had been prepared in readiness in case the lions should appear in numbers too formidable to be coped with. The leading lion was within twenty-five paces of the spot where the party was standing when Hamilcar gave the word, and a volley of arrows shot forth from their hiding place.