Wood for the moment could only wonder whether Mark was in fact his prisoner still.
And if conceivably Mark was free, what then of Honan-Fu?
The Ancient One determined to investigate, and quickly. But now, with the morning mist beginning to blow away, and the sun coming into its full powers, Wood saw that Draffut was deliberately approaching the castle. Coming closer in full sunlight, the shaggy head and shoulders of the wading giant loomed above the last tendrils of the fading mist. An impressive figure, certainly, but small seen from this height. In fact it seemed to Wood that the God of Beasts was somewhat diminished from the creature he had been thousands of years ago.
Using a touch of magic to amplify his voice, Wood shouted out a taunt to that effect.
Draffut heard him, and paused to look up toward him. The Lord of Beasts needed no magic to amplify his voice when he chose to use it at something like full power.
“Whatever the centuries may have done to me, small man, I think they have done worse to you. For you are sadly changed.”
“Changed? Yes, you animal, changed indeed! But stronger now, I assure you, than ever I was then!”
STARTING the long climb down from the griffin’s aerie where he had been standing as he watched his demons routed, the Ancient Master took note again of the absence of small flyers, and reminded himself grimly that for the time being at least he was going to have to rely upon human eyes and ears, stationed in these high towers and elsewhere, to gather intelligence about what was happening on the lake and along its shores. He would of course use magical methods of observation when they seemed appropriate. And if a desperate need arose he could always mount his griffin again and ride out to see for himself.
But for the time being the problems of gathering intelligence outside the castle could wait. There was another question for which he had to find the answer as soon as possible: What had happened to his demons? Who, what power, had been able to sweep them out of the sky like so many drifting cobwebs?
Having descended the ladder that led immediately down from the tower’s top, he started down the stairs, meanwhile casting about him with his own magical powers for an answer. But Wood was unable to confirm anything about the event he had just witnessed except that the demons were definitely gone. Whatever force had banished them had left no trace of itself behind.
As soon as he reached a level of the tower where there were soldiers within easy call, Wood summoned several, then hurriedly sent them scurrying on ahead of him, bearing his orders in different directions.
First of all he wanted to make sure that his important prisoners were secure. Particularly the one named Mark-Prince of Tasavalta, said to be the adopted son of a blacksmith named Jord. And the natural son-if the stories Wood had heard were true-of the enigmatic magician now called the Emperor.
Could it really be true that this child of the Emperor, or anyone else, innately possessed such powers? Wood doubted that, but so far he had been unable to discover any other clue to an explanation for his demons’ disappearance.
Mark had shown no sign of magical ability during his first brief confrontation with the Ancient Master. But if Mark was now shouting demons out of the sky, it could be assumed with a fair degree of certainty that he was no longer bound under the water by Wood’s enchantment.
Reaching the lower levels of the castle, Wood now passed from the base of the aerie tower into the central keep. In a moment he had reached the room that he ordinarily used as his headquarters. On entering this chamber, his first act was to call for General Amintor.
Before the general had arrived, a messenger came running to the wizard with information on the prisoners. The two men who last night had been sunken in the well were missing this morning. Not only that, but Lady Yambu was gone from what had seemed a secure cell in a tower.
There was additional unlikely news. Lady Ninazu, who had arrived in a small boat last night and had been put into a waiting room to await her lord’s pleasure, had also disappeared along with her strange attendant. The bars on a window had been forced-
“She came out here, to the castle, last night?” It was on the tip of the wizard’s tongue to demand to know
why he had not been told last night of her arrival; but he, of course, had spent much of the night over on the mainland.
A subordinate said nervously: “Your Lordship, if you will allow me to remind you, I informed you of the lady’s presence shortly after she arrived.”
“You informed me? When was this? Where?”
The officer quailed. “In the central courtyard, last night, sire. It was about an hour after midnight.”
The man who made this statement now to Wood had not, in the past, impressed the magician as being more than ordinarily stupid. And he appeared to be currently in full possession of his faculties.
Wood looked at him steadily. “Are you completely sure of this?” he asked.
“It was last night, Your Lordship. Just as Your Lordship was entering the grotto with Lady Yambu. When I-”
“Wait. Wait. Start over. Tell me all the circumstances of this supposed encounter between us.”
The soldier he was questioning grew increasingly nervous, but Wood was patient. As the story came out it forced all of his other problems temporarily out of his mind. Someone, as recently as last night, had been successfully impersonating him within the castle. So successfully, indeed, that the idea of an impostor had never entered the minds of even his close associates.
General Amintor had entered the room during the course of this questioning, had quickly grasped the situation, and now had a suggestion to make.
“Sire, this strongly suggests one thing to me-that the Sword of Stealth has been introduced into your castle by one of your enemies. In fact I know of no other way such an impersonation could be accomplished.”
Wood could think of at least two other possibilities in the realm of advanced magic for achieving such an effect. Using one of these himself, he was accustomed to being able to alter his own appearance between two modes, more or less at will. But he had to admit that Amintor was very likely right about the Sword.
The Ancient One’s next step was to order a full alert of all his troops, and then a thorough search of the castle, and the fringe of island surrounding it, for the escapees.
Then Wood informed his chief subordinates of where he himself intended to be during the next few hours while the search was in progress. If they believed that they saw him anywhere else during that time, they would be looking at an impostor. In that event they were to keep the masquerader under surveillance and bring word to their real master at once.
Having issued these and a few other orders, Wood turned his attention to the castle’s garrison and the other components of its defenses. In what other way might they have been undermined without his knowledge?
But here, at least, the reports he got were reassuring. Just under four hundred troops were present, well armed and ready for duty, within the castle walls. The morale of the men had reportedly been somewhat shaken by the events of the past few hours, and the Ancient One decided that his next step ought to be to address that problem.
He commanded a general muster of all the troops except a few sentries who were to continue manning the walls. He intended to speak to his soldiers and reassure them.
Certainly, he thought, the garrison ought to be more than adequate to defend these formidable walls against the strongest attack that the ragged followers of Honan-Fu could mount-assuming the old wizard had any followers left, and assuming he had indeed managed to make good his escape to the mainland. Now that a search for the prisoners had started, reports were coming in to Wood of the chance discovery of secret passages within the castle, and that kind of an escape no longer appeared such a remote possibility.
Particularly with Draffut roaming the surrounding lake…
Mustering almost all his men in a formation to hear their commander speak meant necessarily delaying the search for the escapees, but Wood determined to take that risk.
From what the officers and the sergeants could tell him, it was not the doubtful capabilities of Honan-Fu that worried his troops. It was the mysterious fate of their mainland garrison, and, even more than that, it was Draffut.
Wood could understand that last apprehension, because in a way he shared it. But he was not going to allow any kind of fear to demoralize his men.