He strode out onto a high balcony, overlooking the assembled troops, hundreds of faces squinting up into the noon sun.
“Hear me!” he roared in his amplified voice. “I know what bothers you, and in a way I cannot blame you, because in your ignorance you cannot help yourselves. Let me instead enlighten you.
“To begin with, you have all heard rumors about what happened to the garrison at Triplicane. The truth is that they relaxed their vigilance when I was not there to protect them, and a powerful magician struck them down. He fled the field afterward, not daring to face me directly. I am here, and as long as I am your leader he is not going to come back. Enough on that subject.
“The next most popular subject of rumors is yonder monster out in the lake. He’s fierce enough against boats, and, I grant you, against demons too, as some of you have been able to see for yourselves this morning,
“But, as those of you who had to swim last night can testify, he is too tenderhearted to so much as scratch the skin of any human being. Did we lose a single man to him last night, for all his pranks and bellowing?”
There had indeed been, as Wood well knew, at least one man reported drowned among the occupants of the
capsized boats. But one man, among the dozens who had been tipped into the lake, might well have been sheer accident. At least no one was brave enough to raise the subject of that one man now.
“No, we did not!” Into the uncertain silence Wood shouted his own answer to his own question. “And we’ll lose none to the great dog, today or ever!”
For some time he continued in this vein, and when at last he paused to consider the temper of his audience, he thought that they had been considerably encouraged.
In a somewhat lower voice their master went on: “No, we can hold these walls against him. One sword or one pike or one arrow may not be able to do him much damage-but let him stand within our reach, and we can hew the flesh from his bones eventually, so he’ll have to back away or die. The walls here are at least twice as tall as he is, and he cannot climb them as long as we are alert and ready to discourage him in the attempt. And, let me say it again, he cannot, I repeat he cannot, ever do any one of us the least harm!”
It was as rousing a climax for his speech as any Wood was able to conceive at the moment, and he let it end there. The troops, at a signal from their officers, managed to produce a cheer that had some energy and some flavor of spontaneity about it. Marching rank by rank out of the courtyard, they seemed to their Ancient Master to be moving with new determination.
When he came in from the balcony, officers were waiting for him with more good news for the defense. There was plenty of stored food on hand, provisions prudently stockpiled by the castle’s previous owner, against the possibility of a siege that had never come. And there would of course be no difficulty about fresh water, even supposing that Honan-Fu and his allies could really manage to mount and maintain a siege.
All in all, Wood foresaw no real problems in his defense of this castle, unless an attack should be made with sudden, overwhelming force. And there was no reason to anticipate anything of the kind.
He had business outside these walls that he was anxious to get on with. But that business would require that he travel a considerable distance, and he did not want to leave the castle while there was a possibility of a successful impostor still lurking within.
Once more Wood summoned General Amintor, and when the limping old soldier had arrived, discussed with him the friendly reinforcements that were supposedly on their way. Some of Amintor’s lieutenants ought now to be leading those troops-perhaps five thousand men in all-here from the west. This force was to form the nucleus of a large army that in time would move into the north, challenging Tasavalta and the other powers of that region for supremacy.
Wood announced his intention of sending Amintor out now, riding the griffin. The general was to meet this army of reinforcements, which was still probably a two week march away, and survey its size, condition, and rate of advance. Then Amintor was to report back to Wood, within twenty-four hours.
Amintor, experienced warrior that he was, could not entirely conceal his dismay when he heard about the means of transportation that he was to use. Wood had noticed in the past that the general preferred not to get too close to the griffin.
“The griffin,” Wood assured him, “is very fast and reliable. It should be able to manage the distance in that time without any trouble. Well, what do you say?”
The general thought briefly, then asked: “Will the creature obey my orders, sire?”
“It will obey all the orders that you may need to give it. However, it will come back to me here tomorrow, whatever you may say to it in the meantime. See that you are on it when it begins its return flight.”
Amintor bowed. If the thought of flying on a griffin terrified him, he was at least not trying to shirk the duty, and that was all that Wood could ask of him.
The two men climbed to the aerie-Amintor getting up stairs and ladders slowly on his bad leg-and Wood gave the necessary magical commands. A moment later, squinting into the afternoon sun, he had seen the griffin and its somewhat reluctant rider off.
Naturally Wood had remembered to inform the officers conducting the search of the fact that he was leaving his headquarters room, and of his destination. One of these officers met him on his way down from the high tower, with word that the impostor had been spotted. Someone looking exactly like Wood himself -in which of the two modes of his appearance the informant did not say-had been glimpsed by several people, looking out of one of the higher windows in the little-used central tower of the castle. As yet no attempt had been made to close in on the offender.
“That is good. I myself will lead the way.” Resting his hand on the hilt of Shieldbreaker, Wood smiled grimly and set out to deal with the impostor.
ZOLTAN too had managed to get some rest and nourishment. After rowing Mark and Honan-Fu out to Draffut, he had waited in the small boat until the Lord of Healing had healed the damage done by the Ancient Master’s magic, had restored the two men by holding them in his hands, and set them on an island. By that time some people from shore, members of the constabulary, were beginning to come out to Draffut, emboldened by whatever conversation the Emperor had held with them. Eventually Zoltan had gone back with some of these people to the docks at Triplicane.
Meanwhile Mark, as soon as he was healed and had rested enough to feel nearly recovered, insisted on returning to the castle, where Ben and Yambu were still in peril. But Honan-Fu declined to go with him, deciding instead to stay for the time being on the small island where he had been placed by Draffut. This afforded the old wizard an advanced position from which he would be able to command the amphibious assault he was already planning in order to retake the castle.
The town of Triplicane, like the rest of the territory surrounding Lake Alk-maar, was now free land once more. The only effective troops in the area still loyal to the Ancient One were now confined within the castle walls. The people who welcomed Zoltan ashore were rejoicing over this state of affairs, but by this time he was almost too tired to care. He talked briefly with some of the leaders of the constabulary in town, enjoyed a good meal, and then stretched out on a borrowed bedroll inside a shed.
Zoltan did not awake until midafternoon. When he came out of the shed, he discovered that preparations for an amphibious counterattack against the castle were farther advanced than he supposed, and the attack was to be launched during the coming night.
Already a surprising number of boats had been gathered from around the lake. Some of these were craft that had been successfully concealed from the invaders; and some were the very boats that the soldiers of the Ancient One had used in their invasion. These craft had been seized at the town docks after the destruction of the garrison, and were now to be turned against the enemy. Also included in the invasion fleet were two large rowboats that Draffut had overturned during the night, then righted and emptied so they could be easily rowed ashore.