They could see the smoke from the city walls, staining the northern horizon a dirty brown. Camp fires, cook fires, so many that they could not be counted by their individual plumes, even if a man were patient enough to sit and stare at them for hours. A pall had fallen over Varrock, every activity in the city suddenly furtive, every feeling dampened. Fear hung in the air like a miasma mirroring the filth marring the northern sky.
Still, Varrock pressed on, militia recruits drilling in emptied market squares as men from the southern fiefdoms trickled into the city. Dull sounds echoed through deserted streets in the northern quarters of the city as siege engineers plied their trade, reinforcing wooden hoardings, setting up ballistae and catapults to repulse the impending assault. Those soldiers not pressed into training duties patrolled the walls, glancing at the darkness to the north only occasionally, as if they did not want to believe their eyes. In the three days that they had been training, the recruits had repulsed perhaps fifty attacks by their wooden foes. Many, like Bors, were beginning to wear the bruises and other injuries they received as marks of honour to show the other young men, as though they were real battle scars. Lach had laughed when his blond friend showed off his bruises to some young ladies at the tavern, although he made no attempt to hide his own. The instructors from the regular army were working them hard, but many were grateful for the opportunity to serve. For many, indeed, it was less strenuous work than what they normally did for a living, and service guaranteed three hot meals a day and a roof over their heads.
Lach was restless. He tried watching the crossbowmen at target practice a few times to while away their free hours, but always found himself wanting to be back in formation, a pike in his hands. Some deep part of him hoped that the army of the north would arrive soon, if only so that they could all have something tangible to focus their energies on. 'Waiting's the worst part,' a soldier said as he sat beside Lach on an empty barrel. His coarsely bearded face was weathered and worn, and he wore a blue-and-white checked tabard over his mail. There was a shield slung over his back, and a sword at his side. He grinned reassuringly. 'I know how it is, lad. I felt the same back when I started.'
'Who are you?' Lach asked. The soldier was far friendlier than the other soldiers he'd met in the city.
'Pardon me,' the soldier smiled. 'Artur Genswick, first Lumbridge foot. I'm one of the first to reach Varrock, and the Duke should be coming in soon.'
'Lumbridge? That's a long way you've come.' Genswick barked out a short laugh. 'Yeah, lad, what of it? The king calls, we come. There's a war on, haven't they told you?'
The palace's infirmary was a long stone hall lined with drape-shrouded cots. Tall windows with gently arched tops lined one wall. The curtains were drawn back, and pale sunlight bathed the chamber. For now, the infirmary was blessedly empty.
Almost empty, Lord Prysin corrected himself. There was one patient, presently being attended to by a nurse in palace livery. There was something about the man's appearance, quite apart from his grievous injuries, that marked him as unusual.
'You say the gate guards found him?' he asked.
'Yes,' Valkin replied, 'at the western gate. Two days ago.'
'And I was not informed?'
'With respect, he has been unconscious until this morning. He could not identify himself, and the guards only brought him to the palace because of the object he carries.'
'Surely, I should have been told, Valkin.'
'Captain Rovin thought it best not to disturb you,' Valkin explained, 'what with the others matters you're dealing with. He'd been keeping it under wraps until the man asked to speak with you. Besides us, nobody knows he's here except the good Captain and the king.'
Lord Prysin nodded slowly. 'Let us see what he wants, then.'
Lach watched the soldiers march into the city. There were several thousand in all in this group. He hadn't counted them himself, of course; Genswick had explained that each banner marked a company of fifty men. There were men with spears and pikes, wearing piecemeal armour and broad-brimmed iron helmets, and crossbowmen attired in much the same fashion. Those were the levies, Genswick told him, taken from the farms and small towns that fell under the Duke of Lumbridge's control, either as volunteers or as conscripts. Then there were swordsmen just like Artur, all professional soldiers from the Al Kharid border. These men moved with an easy stride and carried themselves much differently from the levies. Here and there were mounted men in mail or plate armour, and a group of these rode near the front of the column with the Duke himself.
Lach smiled to himself. Surely, with these men to help them, Varrock could not possibly fall.
Genswick caught his expression, and clapped him on the shoulder. 'Don't stop praying on account of us, lad.'
It was late afternoon by the time Lord Prysin finished speaking to the man in the infirmary. He'd said his name was Jax. Prysin vowed to remember that name if the Kandarin man never recovered. The seal he had brought with him had given Misthalin the chance it so sorely needed.
Before the sun had set, a company of riders were armoured and horsed, ready to render assistance to the beleaguered Kandarin loyalists, and hopefully secure their aid for the war. They had precious little time left to make the journey there and back.
'This is our darkest hour,' Lord Prysin said as he handed the golden seal to the rider. 'With my son missing, that seal may well be the last glimmer of light for our kingdom. Let's hope that this gamble is worth it.'
'Don't worry,' the rider said, turning his horse to follow the others out of the palace gate. He lifted his visor and smiled. 'We won't fail.'
Prysin saluted him with a fist against his chest. 'For all our sakes, Valkin, you can't.'