'Peace?' Lord Prysin mused, wiping the blade of his longsword down with an oiled cloth. The window was open, allowing the cool evening air to waft in.
'With Kandarin?' Valkin scoffed. 'Not likely. Word has it the rebels have the royalists on the run. We can't expect any support from them unless we help them first. Strong as the loyal men of Ardougne are, not even they can fight a war on two fronts, especially given the distance.'
'We can help,' Lord Prysin offered. 'I can speak to King Roald and have our border armies mustered by morning. Misthalin is nothing if not mighty in war.'
'Not without Asgarnia's permission, I am afraid,' Valkin said. 'The White Knights know our prowess well, and fear it. I doubt that they will agree with us moving our armies through their lands, allegedly to support Kandarin, without some kind of token from the loyalists to verify that claim.'
Lord Prysin paused halfway through oiling his sword's crossguard. 'It's not likely that we will receive such a token in the next few days, is it, Valkin?'
'It is unlikely.'
His assailants had left their horses in a clearing just off the main road. Jax could smell them long before he saw the picket line. There were six animals, and two men to guard them. Four others were in the woods somewhere behind Jax, searching. The men he could see were wearing worn leather jerkins and tattered surcoats. They bore no insignia of any sort, but from his hidden vantage point, Jax could see the patches where the sigils of the Ardougne militia had been removed. The two guards were talking quietly, their eyes watching the trees, their hands resting easily on the pommels of the swords at their belts. Jax weighed his chances. He doubted that he could make it to Varrock on foot and on time, especially with these men in pursuit. He would be ridden down long before he reached the gates, and trekking through the woods, off the road, could delay him long enough for his message to become inconsequential. On the other hand, he risked great injury or death if he tried to steal one of his pursuer's mounts. The two guards they had left with the horses had crossbows slung over their shoulders, and he had no doubt that they could use them. If he died here, the trinket in his pocket would be as worthless as if he tarried.
The snap of a branch in the woods behind him forced Jax's decision. He could not avoid the men in the woods for very much longer. At least one of them could track, judging by the closeness of their voices and the crackle of leaf litter and twigs underfoot.
Before sense could overtake his sudden burst of courage, Jax was moving along the edge of the clearing, trying to put the horses between him and the two guards. He gripped his dagger tightly, his breathing shallow as he crept through the trees.
'Going somewhere?' snarled a voice behind him, and he tucked and rolled without thinking, the blade of a Kandarin broadsword slicing the air above him. The man had been quieter than he, and the blood pounding in Jax's ears probably helped masked the sound of his approach.
He leapt to his feet, stepping quickly to the side as a thrust from his opponent almost spilled his guts. He had to end this quickly, or the man might have the sense to call for his comrades.
'Here! He's here!' the man yelled, aiming a cut that would have removed Jax's jaw had he not deflected it with his dagger at the last instant.
Well, so much for that.
Jax stepped into the man's guard, now heedless of the sound of dry leaves cracking under his boot. He tried to ward off the man's sword arm as he pressed in with his dagger, but the swordsman was too canny for his clumsy attack. Jax grunted as the man's free hand slammed into his ribs. Blindly, he thrust upward with his dagger as the man tried to shove him away. He was rewarded with a sickening sound and a scream, and he looked down to see his hand and dagger covered in blood. The man stumbled away, dropping his sword, clutching his groin.
Jax had no time to finish him off. He turned to run for the horses, and dropped to the ground on instinct just before a crossbow bolt smashed into the tree behind him, ripping off a branch and showering him with splinters. His side ached. The first man's punch had been far stronger than he'd felt in the heat of the moment. He scrambled back to the dying man's writhing form, noting with some detachment that his assailant's steel gauntlets probably contributed a little to his pain. He relieved the man of his crossbow with some difficulty, rummaging through his person to find some bolts. Satisfied with the six iron darts he managed to salvage, he leaned back against a tree, set his foot in the crossbow's stirrup and pulled the string back with an effort that made his injured ribs burn with agony. Slotting a bolt into the groove, he listened for his attackers.
If that was the way they want to play it...