The lush green of the eastern grasslands was a distant memory by the time Meiyo had reached the top of the high ridge mountains. The air had grown colder and the landscape starker with almost every step. With the soldiers having to occasionally push the cart up the steeper hills as the ox began to falter, eventually they had to slaughter the beast which provided a welcome meal for everyone after the hard climb.
The two younger crossbowmen had to carry the remainder of the supplies between them, and even Meiyo was lumbered with a barrel of ale which she half carried half dragged. Even Mychel's horse lost its footing a couple of times, and eventually he had to dismount and lead it by the reins in case he fell.
As the path narrowed even further, the tops of the famous dwarven walls came into sight. "At last!", Mychel exclaimed, and the small group surged forward with the last of their strength knowing the climb was almost at an end. Mychel stopped his horse up within sight of the gate.
"I'd suggest we leave the soldiers here and you and I ascend to the gate together lord. That way, the dwarves are less likely to see us as an invasion force.", Meiyo opened.
Mychel placed the reins in her hand. "No, Meiyo, it's better I go alone.", he said, and raised his hand to ward off the inevitable protest. "As you say, the fewer armed soldiers they see the more likely they are to grant us passage. No doubt they will drive a hard bargain, and swords rarely help."
Meiyo did not protest. This was the less defended side of the mountain, the dwarves concentrating their strongest men and stoutest walls on the western approach which led down the wastelands. Surely Mychel would be safe? She tied up the horse and climbed atop a small rock so she could keep an eye on him at all times.
Mychel climbed the final steps slowly and calmly and hammered the wooden door beneath the arched gate. After a pause the door opened and out slinked a bearded dwarf. He looked Mychel up and down yet said nothing.
"We wish to travel to the wastelands and require safe passage through your lands my friend.", Mychel said with as much confidence as he could muster.
"Mmmhmm.", came the reply.
"I can assure you that my men and I wish you no ill will and will adhere to whatever demands you require of us.", Mychel continued. Another mmmhmm. Clearly the bond between the eastern Varlyrians and their dwarven neighbours was weaker than they thought. We could rush the gatekeeper, kill him even, thought Meiyo, but without siege equipment they had no hope of breaching the gate. They could try to find an alternate route but that could add days or weeks onto their journey. There had to be a way.
Meiyo could see Mychel carefully considering his options. "We have bread and ale and a little beef we could share..."
The dwarf's eyes suddenly lit up. "Well why didn't you say so?!", he said with a cheerfulness that took the travellers by surprise. "Thrain, open her up!"
"Consider it a gift...from the queen.", said Mychel nervously. He gestured down to Meiyo. The crossbowmen lifted the crate of bread up the steps under the watchful eye of their new owner. This would make their journey in the wastelands much harder thought Meiyo, but there was no real choice. Without the passage provided by the dwarves the wastelands would only be a dream anyway.