The outside stair on which he stood was undefended by any roof or even a railing. It curved three quarters of the way around the central tower, and at several points well above its curve, too high to be reached, were windows, indicating the presence of interior rooms. But there were no windows below the stair, or otherwise readily accessible from it. And not only were the windows high, but they were narrow, not much more than archers’ slits; perhaps a child or a very thin adult might have been able to squeeze through one of them. And not only were the windows high and narrow, but they were slightly overhanging the stair, each pair of them built out in a small projecting bartizan.
It was quite possible, of course, that some kind of trapdoor gave access to the roof from inside the tower. The impostor, who had been seen looking out of one of these tower windows, could have gone up to the roof from the inside and then pulled the outside ladder up. Wood could wish now that he had personally taken a more thorough inventory of the castle and its architecture during his brief peaceful tenure.
Only minutes ago, before starting up this outside stairway, he had detailed men to search the interior of the tower for a way to reach the roof, or at least the upper floors, whose existence was indicated by the windows. Those men were to report to Wood before they closed in on their quarry, but so far they had not reported any success in finding an interior way up.
He was being foiled for the moment, it seemed, by some more of the architectural whimsy of Honan-Fu.
Now the Ancient Master, with his Sword ready-truth to tell, he had never been much of a swordsman-and speaking in his most terrible amplified voice, called upon those who were above him to surrender.
“Ho, on the roof! Ho, there! This is the master of the castle speaking! Let the ladder down for us at once! You are trapped, and I will show you mercy if you come down now!”
There was only silence up above. His answer came in the form of a heavy, head-sized rock, dropped over the edge of the parapet by anonymous hands, hands that worked blindly but still managed to choose their aiming point with what would have been deadly accuracy had it not been for the Sword of Force. Shieldbreaker altered the rhythm of its monotonous thudding voice just slightly, putting mild emphasis upon a single syllable. The blade moved as if with its own volition, pulling Wood’s hand after it in a single economical movement. Shieldbreaker flashed in the sun, arcing above the wizard’s head. The rock, precisely intercepted in midair, shattered into a hundred screaming fragments, none of which touched Wood. The soldier who was just behind him on the stair muttered a low oath; one of those stone fragments had left a bloody track across his face.
The Sword of Force, the keenness of its edges undented by that blow, again was almost quiet, chanting its low rhythmic song of rage and barely suppressed violence as if it were singing to itself alone. And still the gentle echo of its counterfeit persisted, coming from somewhere nearby.
With a silent, emphatic gesture Wood ordered his squad back down the stair; even though his Sword would protect him personally against rocks or any other weapons, his escort was vulnerable here, and there was no point in wasting useful men.
The sound made by Shieldbreaker subsided as the Ancient Master carried it back down the stairs, and the echo of its imitation faded from his hearing also.
Once he had reentered the tower again, the wizard detailed a few of his men to make another ladder, or else bring one of the proper size over from another tower if that would be quicker. Of course, even if another ladder could be set in place atop that exposed stair and somehow kept there, the top of the central tower would still be very easy to defend. Undoubtedly there were more rocks up on the roof, and even when rocks were exhausted, still only one man would be able to come up a ladder at a time. And anyone standing on that last stone step, where it would be necessary to stand to set the ladder into place, would be an extremely vulnerable target to more stones dropped from above. A man carrying Shieldbreaker might win through, of course -depending on how much the defenders knew about the Sword. Wood did not intend to take unnecessary personal risks to get at them, nor did he mean to hand over the Sword of Force to any of his subordinates.
Remaining inside the tower himself, he led a quick exploration of the accessible levels, and confirmed what his people were telling him, that these ended one or two floors below the top. So it was possible, he supposed, that the only way to get into those upper levels without tearing part of the tower down might be from the roof. But yet Wood could not be absolutely sure of that-and suppose the impostor was able to get out some other way, and do more damage?
Still, every course of action had its risks. The Ancient Master decided to temporarily abandon his search for another way into the upper rooms, and started toward the highest tower of the castle, from whose top it ought to be possible to see the top of the central tower, and who was on it. Before he had even reached the base of that tower, a report was brought to him. A small flyer, carrying some object, had been seen to land on the roof of the central tower. One witness said that the thing the flyer carried had been a water bottle.
Wood swore oaths of great intensity. He yearned for his griffin, to be able to go and pluck the renegade water-carrying beast out of the sky. Draffut had somehow perverted Wood’s corps of winged scouts, or some of them at least, to the cause of his enemies.
But in a way the news about the water bottle was reassuring-if water was being sent by that means to the people on the rooftop, that suggested they were pretty effectively prevented from getting it any other way.
On the roof of the central tower, Mark, Ben, and Yambu rejoiced to receive the written note that the flyer had brought out to them from Triplicane, along with the unnecessary leather bottle of water.
The handwriting of the note was recognizably Zoltan’s. In it he assured them that Honan-Fu’s counterattack was going to be launched tonight.
From her small pouch of personal belongings, Lady Yambu got out a little metal mirror, and began an effort at heliographic signaling to some of the boats in the lake, and then to the people in green and gold uniforms who were now gathering on several of the small islands. There were a number of boats near those islands now, and enough constabulary troops in gold and green on boats and islands to make it unlikely that Wood would want to send out his own amphibious force, risking his own remaining fleet of lake-going craft, to challenge their possession. But her signaling drew no response.
When the three on the roof strained their eyes in the direction of distant Triplicane they thought they could discern another gathering of boats along the dockside there.
Their talk came back to their enemy, and the Sword he carried. The sound of Shieldbreaker had faded away very quickly after Yambu dropped that discouraging rock. And with Shieldbreaker withdrawn, its voice muted, the echo-sound presumably made by Sightblinder-er had faded too.
“Where is Sightblinder then?” Ben asked, scowling.
Yambu had a logical answer ready. “Well, if it was not on the stairs when we heard it, then it must have been in one of the rooms just below us.”
When the people on the rooftop at last peered cautiously over the parapet, they were just able to catch a glimpse of someone passing inside one of the projecting windows below them.
“Should we call out to them?” Mark asked his companions.
Before they could decide that question, a deadly distraction came from the direction of the castle’s highest tower, in the form of a desultory bombardment with rocks and arrows. Their tower was too far away from the other, more than a hundred meters distant, for this attack to be effective, and it was not pursued. But the three on the roof tended now to stay within the shelter of the lookout’s roofed shed.
Continuing to take a cautious inventory, they discovered a trapdoor in the approximate center of the roof. On the upper side of the trap there was no sign of any lock.
Mark asked: “What do we want to do about this? Open it and see what’s under us, or block it up?”