Ullsaard looked at the legion, noticing that many of the companies had suffered heavy casualties. Those that had been fighting from the onset were at half strength or worse. It was with weary eyes and tired limbs that the legionnaires reformed on the general and king.
Ullsaard called for Blackfang and mounted. Spear in hand, he rode along the line.
"Congratulations on winning the warm-up!" he shouted to his men. He pointed over the river with his spear. "The real battle's over there. You're tired. Many of you are hurt. It would be easy to stop now. I can't let you do that. You're the Thirteenth. You're my Thirteenth, and that means you don't stand around while others do the fighting."
Ullsaard turned Blackfang around and rode back in the other direction.
"The Fifth and the Seventh are over there, trying to make a good show of things," he continued. "Looks like they're outnumbered by two-to-one at least. They're Askhans, so they're going to win anyway. But people will wonder what the Thirteenth were doing while the Fifth and Seventh earned such glory. Do the Thirteenth want to be known as the legion that were spectators at Askh's great victory?"
"No!" The shouted reply was a bit ragged. Taking a breath, Ullsaard pitched his voice even louder.
"Are the Thirteenth going to be remembered as the legion that won two battles in a single day?"
"Yes!" came the cry, stronger than before.
"Which legion is going to kill these annoying Salphorian bitchfuckers for me and march me to Carantathi?
"Thirteen!" The cheer was accompanied by the crashing of spears on shields and the stamping of feet.
With a shout, Ullsaard urged Blackfang into a run and headed like an arrow for the river. Excited by the blood and mayhem, she plunged into the water without hesitation as the Thirteenth quickly filed after at a trot, forming column company by company.
Ullsaard did not look back as Blackfang splashed over the ford. His eyes were fixed on the battle ahead. It would be easy to join the line where it was closest to the river, but the companies fighting there seemed to be doing well against relatively light opposition. The real danger lay at the far flank, where the Salphors were threatening to overlap or break through at any time. All of the reserves from the Fifth and Seventh had been committed, and still the Salphors were pushing them back.
Angling Blackfang for the further extent of the Askhan line, Ullsaard slowed her to a fast walk. Behind him, the Thirteenth followed at a swift march, hidden from the enemy by the fighting. Looking over his shoulder, Ullsaard checked the far side of the river and was reassured to see that the Salphors had all but disappeared. That problem had been solved for good.
When he was a few hundred yards from the fighting, he urged Blackfang on again. He waved his spear forwards and grinned as behind him the trumpets of the Thirteenth signalled the attack. It had been a long while since he had fought from Black fang's back, but he felt he owed it to the ailur after neglecting her for so long.
A gap opened up between two companies ahead and, reins in his shield hand, Ullsaard directed her into the opening, spear at the ready.
"Get ready, my beauty," he said to Blackfang, bracing himself as they hurtled towards a group of Salphors.
Just a dozen paces from the enemy, Ullsaard used the rim of his shield to knock loose the catch on the ailur's blinker-chamfron. The spring-loaded plates over her eyes snapped open, and Blackfang looked upon her prey for the first time in years.
The Salphors looked around in shock as a piercing snarl split the air. They turned to see a golden-speared warrior charging at them, upon the back of a spitting mass of claws and fangs with red flames for eyes.
Before the tribesmen realised their peril, Ullsaard and Blackfang were upon them, spear flashing, teeth and claws rending and tearing. Ullsaard clung to reins and saddle horn with an iron grip as the ailur pounced and ripped. With his spear held overhand, the king lanced its point into any foe he could reach, plunging his weapon into chests and backs, splitting faces and piercing limbs. He snarled and roared with his mount, spittle flying from his mouth as blood sprayed from Blackfang's jaws.
Just as they were recovering from the shock of Ullsaard's charge, the Salphors were confronted by the first company of the Thirteenth. Golden face of Askhos held aloft, the legionnaires plunged into the fray, chanting the name of their king.
This fresh assault smashed into the Salphor line, company after company poured into the fray, driving deep into the tribesmen whilst behind them the men of the Seventh surged forwards with renewed strength.
Ullsaard's heart hammered in his chest and the Blood rushed through his body, lending its strength to every blow he landed. He kicked aside the shield of a Salphorian warrior and drove his spear into the man's gut. Blackfang leapt, crushing the helm of another with a swipe of a paw.
Something approached at speed from Ullsaard's right. Blackfang reacted quicker than the king, turning with a strangely disturbing shriek to leap directly at the lupus chariot. Ullsaard gripped tightly to the reins as feline and lupine collided, the ailur spitting, slashing with her claws, the lupus lunging at her throat with jaws wide. The king's eyes met with those of a charioteer, both of them slightly startled by the encounter.
The Salphor recovered and lifted up his arm, a javelin in hand. Ullsaard swayed to his right as the missile left the man's grip, the sharp tip passing just a hand's breadth over the king's shoulder. A feral roar from Blackfang warned Ullsaard to centre himself. He swung back into position just as the ailur leapt across the lupus's back, one paw raking its shoulder, her jaw latching on to the back of the other beast's neck.
Traces parted and the yoke snapped under the lunging attack, pitching the chariot into the muddied earth. Ullsaard jabbed out with his spear, catching the javelin-thrower in the shoulder, pitching him from the side of the light chariot. The driver had been half-pulled over the front and floundered to throw down the reins and regain his balance. Ullsaard's spear tip caught him full in the side of the face, punching through jaw and cheek.
With a plaintive howl, the lupus died, Blackfang's dagger-like teeth clamped into its spine. The enemy close at hand were running away, many dropping shields and weapons as too cumbersome. Through his battle-fever, Ullsaard remembered to close Blackfang's war-mask; almost immediately she calmed, contenting herself with mauling and chewing on the dead lupus.
Through a haze of excitement, Ullsaard tried to see what was happening. The Salphors had been thrown back by the arrival of the Thirteenth, but were by no means broken by it. Already, the fleeing warriors were mustering around their chieftains and returning to the battle.
"For victory!" bellowed the king, waving his legions forward with his shield. "For Askhor!"
Autumn, 213th year of Askh
The road was wide, but treacherous, in places the rock split by wide cracks and crumbling where the mountainside dropped down to a sheer cliff on the right. The base of the cliff was hidden in the white murk of a thick mist. The upper towers of the Salphorian capital could be seen ahead over the shoulder of the mountain, grey tiled roofs shining with rain. The downpour sent rivulets across the roadway and rattled on the armour of the legionnaires.
Rounding a sharp outcrop, Ullsaard found himself almost bumping into the back of a group of legionnaires. The road was packed with soldiers, who pressed against the rock away from the edge, fearful of the drop.
"What's the delay?" he demanded. "The Salphors?"