"Can't move forward," answered someone from the tightly packed men. "Everyone ahead has stopped."
Ullsaard turned around and shouted to the captain of the following company.
"Call the halt! Pass on the order! Call the halt!" He returned his attention to the throng of men in front. "Make way for your king."
The legionnaires did the best they could, opening a gap just about wide enough for Ullsaard to squeeze through sideways. The situation got no better the further he went, several hundred men all cramped together. He spied the crest of a captain and pushed his way to the officer.
"What is holding everybody up?" said the king. "Is it the Salphors?"
"Don't think so, king," said the third captain. "I heard someone shout that the road ended."
"Road ended?" Ullsaard frowned and shoved his way onwards, pushing men aside to find out what was going on.
After some time, he finally reached the front of the halted column. Men stepped aside at his approach and he immediately saw the problem.
A few paces ahead, the road did indeed end. With an edge as clean as a cut, the mountainside dropped away sharply, at least ten times the height of a man, down to a swift river and jagged rocks. Seventy or eighty paces ahead, the road resumed. A mass of ropes and timbers hung to one side; a bridge of some kind the king assumed. On the opposite side of the gorge stood a small knot of men.
"You must be Ullsaard," one of them called out, hands cupped to his mouth. He wore heavy plates of bronze armour and a shining warhelm decorated with a gem at its brow. His beard was thick and braided and his hair hung past his shoulders.
"You must be Aegenuis!" Ullsaard shouted back.
The man raised a hand in acknowledgement.
"You should know that I did not send those tribes to attack you," said the Salphorian king. "That was my son. I thought I had him under control, but some of my chieftains helped him escape. I have not broken my word."
Ullsaard considered this but was not sure whether he believed the man or not.
"Your Askhan is very good," he said.
"I thought it wise to practise more, considering the future."
Ullsaard could not help but smile. The Salphorian king seemed to be the sort of man he could deal with.
"Now you have to keep your word," yelled Aegenuis. "If I give you the city and my crown, you must swear there will be no looting, no rape, no burning."
"And if I don't?" Ullsaard replied.
"Enjoy finding another way in," said Aegenuis. Laughter echoed from the walls of the canyon.
"This?" said Ullsaard, waving a hand at the ravine. "I'll be across that in ten days at the most."
"I think not! We have engines and archers above you. It would be bloody work."
"All right, twenty days. My engineers will dam the river and build a new bridge. I have men from Ersua and Anrair; men that grew up in the mountains. They'll take care of your engines and archers easily enough."
"And then? This is but the first of many obstacles. Carantathi has strong defences."
"So did Magilnada and I took that city in four days!"
This silenced Aegenuis for a while and he conferred with the chieftains around him. Eventually he stepped out from the group.
"It seems like a waste of time and blood to not have to give your word," declared the Salphorian leader. "Why not promise me what I want, and I'll walk you through the gate myself. You'll have me as hostage, and I you."
Looking back at the soldiers clustered behind him, Ullsaard saw shadowed eyes and haggard faces. They had marched and fought for nearly two thousand miles. Soon the rain would become snow, and the road treacherous with ice. He certainly couldn't starve out the Salphors over the winter.
"You have my word," he called out. "With the brave men of the Thirteenth as my witnesses, I swear that there will be no violence unless provoked by you."
Again the Salphors huddled together in discussion. Evidently they agreed to the terms. More men hurried to the bridge contraption. They heaved on ropes and laboured at wheels, swinging the mass of wood around to the gap in the road. Rain drummed on timbers as the bridge extended, heavily hinged sections straightening across the gorge. Ullsaard and the foremost legionnaires were forced to retreat a short distance as the bridge thumped down.
"Wait here," he told his soldiers. "If these bastards kill me, slaughter the lot of them."
There were savage growls of assent from those close by.
Aegenuis walked to the middle of the bridge and waited. Taking a breath, Ullsaard set out. He was taking a considerable risk, he realised. The Salphors could probably raise the bridge before two dozen men had got onto the span. He stopped a few paces onto the thick boards, wondering whether it might not be better to dismiss any deal and take the city by force. He scrutinised Aegenuis as best he could, but could see little of the man's face behind the silver visage of a wolf.
"Fuck it," the king muttered. "If you're dead, you're not going to care what happens next."
He strode across the bridge with more confidence, stopping just in front of Aegenuis. The other king was a little shorter, and nowhere near as broad. The scabbard at his hip was empty and Ullsaard saw no knife in his belt.
"I am unarmed," said the Salphor.
"Nice hat," said Ullsaard, nodding towards Aegenuis's helm.
"It will be yours soon," said the Salphorian king.
Ullsaard shook his head and extended his hand.
"I think not," said the Askhan. "I have enough troubles with the crown I've already got."
Ullsaard bit back a laugh as he saw bemusement in the eyes of the other man. Aegenuis grabbed Ullsaard's forearm and squeezed tight, the king of Greater Askhor returning the gesture. They parted and Ullsaard turned around and raised his fist, eliciting a cheer from the legionnaires that could see him. The Salphors were understandably less jubilant.
"I think I still have some of your wine somewhere," said Aegenuis, putting his hand on Ullsaard's shoulder as the king turned back from his soldiers. "We should share it."
"How did you get my wine?"
Aegenuis laughed and slapped Ullsaard on the back.
"I'll tell you on the way to Carantathi," he replied.
With a smile, Ullsaard drained the last of the wine from the cup and placed it on the table beside the bed. He stripped off his armour and flopped on the woollen bed covers in kilt and jerkin and boots, exhausted. He listened to the clink and pad of the legionnaires on the other side of the chamber door and closed his eyes.
He had deigned to allow Aegenuis to stay in the king's hall; some unfortunate chieftain had been turfed from his house to make way for Ullsaard and his officers. Billets had been found for the Thirteenth in the city, which was half-empty. Aegenuis had bluffed well; less than two thousand warriors protected Carantathi, nowhere near enough to defend against Ullsaard's army. The rest of the Askhan army was returning to camp at the base of the mountain.
He did not begrudge Aegenuis the peaceful resolution he had wanted. Over the course of a somewhat frugal banquet, Ullsaard had come to the conclusion that he liked the Salphorian king, though not enough to let him stay king, he had pointed out.
Tomorrow Aegenuis would formally hand over power to Ullsaard. It was not the end of the Salphorian campaign, the king knew, but it was the start of the next stage of conquest. Ullsaard thought he would feel triumphant at this moment, but from the swirl of emotions going through him, it was relief that felt strongest. Once again his vision had been vindicated. Perhaps even more than when he had wrested the Crown from Lutaar, he had many times wondered whether he would be victorious.
Feeling sleep tugging at his eyelids, he divested himself of his boots and kilt, flinging them to the bare wooden floor. Certainly Carantathi could benefit from a few Askhan improvements, such as carpets and baths. All of that would come in time.