“I am ready to go,” Malchus said, “and will start today. What force shall I take with me, and which of the chiefs shall I first see?”
“You had best go first to Ostragarth. He is the most powerful of the chiefs on this side of the Apennines. You can select from the treasury such presents as you may choose for him and the others. You can promise them large grants of the land of the tribes aiding the Romans, together with a share in the plunder of the cities. I leave you quite free. In those respects you will be guided by what you see they want; but any promises you may make I will ratify. As to men I should not take a large escort. Force will, of course, be of no avail, and the appearance of a large number of troops might alarm them at once. Twenty men will be sufficient for dignity, and as a protection against any small bodies of the hostile tribesmen you may meet on your way; but have no frays if you can avoid it. The mission is an important one, and its success should not be risked merely to defeat a body of tribesmen. Go in your handsomest armour, and make as brave a show as you can, as my ambassador and kinsman. Take twenty of the Carthaginian horse; they will impose more upon the barbarians than would the Libyans or Numidians. Take your friend Trebon as their commander and a companion for yourself.”
In two hours Malchus and his escort were ready to start. As their journey would be rapid they carried no stores with them, save three days’ provisions, which each man carried at his saddlebow, and a bag containing a few feeds of corn for the horse. They took with them, however, two baggage horses laden with arms, armour, garments, and other presents for the chiefs.
They passed rapidly across the country, meeting with no hostile parties, for the raids of Hannibal’s light armed horse had so terrified the people that the villages were for the most part deserted, the inhabitants having sought refuge in the fortified towns. After two days’ brisk riding they arrived at the foot of the hills, and their progress was now slower. The village of Ostragarth lay far up among them, and, being ignorant of the direction, Malchus broke the troop up into parties of four, and sent them up different valleys with orders to capture the first native they came across, and oblige him either by threats or promises to act as a guide to the stronghold of the chief.
“I sincerely trust that this barbarian is friendly, Malchus, for the country looks wild and difficult in the extreme, and the forests which clothe these hills are thick and tangled. On the plain we can laugh at the natives, however numerous, and with twenty men I would charge a thousand of them; but among these hills it is different, one cannot find a level spot for a charge, and, if it comes to running, the mountaineers are as fleet as a horse on the broken ground of their hills.”
“I agree with you, Trebon, that it would go hard with us, and that the utmost we could hope for would be a visit to Rome as captives. Still, these chiefs all offered alliance to Hannibal as he went south, and the success which has attended us should surely bind them to our interests. They are ever willing to join the winning side, and so far fortune has been wholly with us.”