In the southernmost sector of the Sixth Circle stand the Houses of Healing. Grass is a precious commodity in Minas Tirith and most of it seems to have ended up here, around the wards and the operating theatre, the surgeries, treatment rooms and the enormous smokestack. You pass notices saying “Pray Be Silent!” and “Horses May Not Pass This Point”, and you’re at the gate house of the complex, which serves also as the house of Lady Éowyn when she resides in Minas Tirith.

Which she does most of the time. For although she dwells with her husband, Lord Faramir, in a stately mansion within sight of Henneth Annûn, it’s rare that she can tear herself away for a day’s riding on the fair slopes of Ithilien, so absorbed she is in the work of being Matron of the Houses of Healing.

Her selfless devotion to the cause of tending the sick ensures that she is well beloved in the City, albeit in a respectful sort of way, because she is a mean woman to cross. I was dreading my interview with her.

I knocked on her office door and opened it diffidently at her peremptory “Come in!”

“Oh it’s you! What you want?”

It was going to be every bit as bad as I feared. “I came to pay my respects, Lady Éowyn, and to thank you for…”

“I wonder you have the gall to come within a mile of me, after your escapade of yesterday. What on earth do you think you’re playing at?”

“It was no escapade, Madam, but the King’s business, a matter of the highest importance…”

“You’re talking just like Morfindel! I would have expected you of all people to know better than to go running around at the beck and call of that—young fellow!” I guessed she was going to use another word, but checked herself. Even Lady Éowyn had to worry about what other people overheard her saying these days.

“My abject apologies, Madam. I came to offer you some explanation.”

“I’d be very surprised if you could! Not content with playing the most objectionable practical jokes on all and sundry, the son of Gollum now gets other people to play them for him! People you wouldn’t expect it of. You don’t suppose for a moment, do you, that the admission of a crude dummy of cords and wrapped cloths, masquerading as the person of Morfindel, wasn’t immediately brought to my attention? And as for ordering my staff, in the King’s name, to attend to the dummy in conditions of the utmost secrecy as if it were a real person—that indeed is something to take exception to!”

“Madam, I must request most respectfully that the order be carried out…”

“I shall get up and hit you in a minute! To start with I thought you were out of your senses! So I straightaway checked with Captain Bergil and was amazed when he backed you up to the hilt! My staff have indeed kept the matter to themselves—I personally shall vouch for that. But it hasn’t elevated either you or Bergil in my estimation, to go co-operating in one of Morfindel’s numerous outrages!”

It was not just the genuineness of her indignation which impressed me, but how she took it for granted that it was all Morfindel’s doing. I realised that in order to secure her co-operation I’d have to tell her the truth.

“Madam, I have something to tell you in the utmost confidence. May I… may I sit down?”

“Oh do!” she shouted. “Please do. I shall give you one minute of my precious time before I pitch you out on your ear!”

Leaning backwards I put my head out of the door and glanced up and down the corridor. No one was within earshot. I closed the door, came back and sat down. As I held the gaze of Lady Éowyn, or rather cringed beneath her glare, I felt I was on the rim of a volcano that at any moment would explode. I knew I had just four words to make my point—no circumlocutions, no beating about the bush. I chose my words carefully.

“Morfindel has been murdered.”

Lady Éowyn’s face flicked rapidly through a series of disparate expressions until finally, uncertain of which one to retain, it settled on reflecting my serious frown.

“His death is being kept a close secret, by order of the King, until we can find out who killed him. The only people who know besides the King are Captain Bergil, myself, and now you. Who know officially, I should add.” My thoughts strayed to the Inspector of Corpses. “To my shame I had to embroil you in a subterfuge. The story to be put about is this: Master Morfindel is gravely ill and is being cared for in strictest seclusion in the Houses of Healing.”

I emitted a sigh of relief, having got that off my chest. Lady Éowyn changed neither her expression nor her position. She looked like one of the gargoyles on the ramparts of the Sixth Circle.

“If you doubt me, and I would have every sympathy with you doing so, then you may check with Captain Bergil, or indeed the King himself, whose ear you have. If I don’t speak the absolute truth, you can have me flogged for the knave I am.”

Éowyn’s voice was quiet and low. “When did this happen?”

“On Thursday, some time in the evening. I’d say around eleven o’clock. Captain Bergil discovered the body at midnight. With great difficulty he and I prevented anyone finding out and at the same time we managed to deliver the body, rendered unrecognisable, to the Inspector of Corpses for his examination—and a dummy into your safekeeping, to give the story some verisimilitude that Morfindel was merely ill.”

“Well,” said Éowyn, “I doubt you’ve been altogether successful in that! In spite of what I can do, there’s no telling how much my staff have gossiped, or will gossip. Although I must say that what goes on here in the Houses of Healing is very rarely noised abroad beyond these walls.”

She sat upright and put her hands in her lap. “So he’s dead, you say? It is a shameful thing to speak ill of the dead, but really it was high time. You aren’t duping me now, are you?”

…to be continued.