Bergil flushed in confusion. “I would never shirk my duty, no matter how distasteful, much less fob it off onto somebody else. Particularly onto you.” He paused to let that sink in. “But in matters concerning the King’s own household, the men under my command are too well known in the City. It would be impossible to secure the silence of every one, much less the people they come into contact with.”

He sighed, like a man surrounded by one fool too many. “No, what has occurred demands that as few people as possible know about it. Just you and I—and the King himself.”

“That considerably limits my power of investigation,” I observed dryly. “If I’m not to divulge the nature of the crime, how can I go making inquiries in the City, without tongues wagging beneath every arch?”

“It is most unlikely that anyone in the City will be able to assist you. The provenance of your mission, should you accept it, might well embrace the whole of Middle Earth. That in itself would disqualify the agents of the Tower of Guard, who are forbidden to depart the City without the gravest reason. It confines the matter to the attention of someone like yourself: well-travelled, well-connected, and possessed of the widest knowledge and experience.”

“In other words, steeped in every sort of muck known to elf and man.”

“Will you do it?”

“I’d better see the body first, assuming the agents of the Tower of Guard haven’t poked it around too much. I need to know how the victim died.”

“Of course,” said Bergil. “But first I must swear you to secrecy. Place your hand on this mace and repeat after me…”

“Cut the crap,” I said. “I have already signed dozens of documents lodged with the Steward of Gondor, vowing on pain of death never to disclose the secrets of the Realm. None of them bear any expiry date—all are operative till the King bids otherwise, or death takes me, or the world ends. Why don’t your blasted bureaucrats collate some of these things and have them handy for when I come?”

“I am sorry,” said Bergil. “It’s a lot easier to get you to sign a new one than persuade the clerks in the registry to rummage for one that may already exist.”

I threw up my hands in disgust. The pipe fell from my lap, strewing ashes over Bergil’s magnificent black and silver rug. To his credit, he said not a word. Grave matters do indeed “sharpen the counsels of men”.

We crossed the white-paved courtyard of the Citadel, past the silver fountain and the White Tree, making for the magnificent Tower of Ecthelion and the bedchambers of the King’s household. A guard of honour formed up around us, tall men draped in long black cloaks emblazoned with the Tree in silver thread and bearing on their brows the tall winged mithril helmets of the Tower of Guard.

The guy was dead.

Very dead.

As dead as a decapitated ringwraith—and that’s doubly dead.

His spare lithe body lay twisted amid sweaty rumpled sheets on a king-sized bed with brass bed-knobs, having clearly expired in the last extremes of unspeakable passion. There was a faint barbecued smell lingering on the stuffy air, as if someone had been trying to make mulled wine out of pig’s guts. His eyes protruded from his purple face. I looked for a mark on his naked skin, for any sign of ligatures around his wrists or neck. But there was none.

How could a man look as if he had been hanged without any mark on his neck? Drawing on kid gloves I carefully probed the body, trying to determine the nature of the abuse he had suffered. Under Bergil’s watchful eye I felt it wise to stay as far as possible within the bounds of decency. Which is why I missed the vital clue. In the end I decided it was a job for the Inspector of Corpses.

“We cannot take into our confidence any official of the City itself!” declared Bergil.

“The cause of death is something of which I must be absolutely certain!” I cried. “Bring me a sword.”

Bergil held back in astonishment, then drew his own and presented the hilt to me. I snatched it and, whirling it around my head, I struck downwards with all my might. At one blow the victim’s head was severed completely from his shoulders. I wrapped it in a pillowcase and gave it to the astonished Bergil to hold. I watched as the dark congealing blood oozed from the severed neck. I had a purpose in doing this, for it gave me no pleasure to observe, as it might have given some people. In my mind I uttered a secret charge and when the pool had reached the size of a dinner platter I stopped reciting and noted the last word I had said. This told me that the victim had been dead for eight-and-three-quarter hours.

Wiping the sword on the bed sheet I handed it back to Bergil. Then I got him to help me roll the body up in the remaining sheets. Opening the lid of a chest of bed linen I threw out the contents, then Bergil and I dragged the shrouded body over to the chest and crammed it inside.

“Why in the name of the White Tree are we doing this?” pleaded Bergil.

“Do you want secrecy or don’t you?” I snapped. “If you do, then there are certain things we must do all by ourselves, before we enlist the help of others.” Then I pulled on the bell rope to summon a servant.

The man who came was stopped outside the door by the guards, who had themselves been strictly forbidden to look inside. Instead one rapped on the door with the hilt of his drawn sword.

“What is the victim’s name?” I hissed. Bergil replied: “Morfindel”. I put my head round the door and said to the servant “Master Morfindel lies indisposed within and wants no coming and going. Fetch two bearers for a heavy burden.” Turning back to Bergil I asked him to name a collection point. Then putting my head out of the door again I called after the servant, demanding him to bring me pen and parchment.

“What is your counsel now, Master Goswedriol?” I could see Bergil was nigh at his wits’ end. I replied, “I’m writing a message to the Inspector of Corpses, to send bearers to your nominated collection point to take charge of an unknown corpse. Without the head he will not be able to identify the body. At least we hope not. Nor will anybody know where it was found, save us two. But the Inspector of Corpses will readily ascertain the cause of death. I know him: he is a man not short of wits. It will be apparent to him that the head was taken from the body many hours after death. You know, and I know, that the victim’s neck bore not the slightest mark. The cause of death lies elsewhere.”

I dreaded to think where. But I guess I already knew.

…to be continued.