I followed a few steps behind the ancient equerry as we trudged up the worn stone flags of the spiral staircase. When we reached the highest balcony of the White Tower of Ecthelion the breeze was chill and keen enough to make the banners snap briskly above us. The equerry bowed to the unheeding back of the man who stood looking over the plains of the Pelennor, then he turned and left us alone together.
The man had not moved, nor given any sign that he was aware of my presence. He and I were the only two people on that high balcony. He had his back to me and his dark hair hung down over the ample collar of his black woollen cloak. But there was no mistaking the man wherever you might have come across him. The broad shoulders, the imposing stance, of Aragorn son of Arathorn, who for fifty years had reigned as King Elessar Telcontar in Minas Tirith.
“At your service, Sire,” I said. The figure turned smartly to face me. I was shocked at how grey and gaunt he had become since we last met. How deeply the passage of time had etched lines of care in bruised niello on his brow.
“Goss!” he laughed. It was like the sun breaking through storm-clouds. “What a long time it’s been since last I saw you.” He grasped my hand, placing his other hand on my elbow. For a fleeting moment I thought how such powerful sinews could twist my arm off like the leg of a cooked chicken. But the smile was a smile of an old friend. A much-loved uncle indeed, who still hadn’t got over the surprise of finding himself King.
He studied my face keenly. “Ai!—how much older you look! But I suppose we all do.”
He sighed and let go of my arm, giving my shoulder a pat. “I miss your face at court,” he said. “As the years lay their wrinkled fingers on you, you grow to look more like your revered father.”
He turned to gaze towards the West, as if his narrowed eyes could penetrate the mountain which stood in his way.
“I miss him so much since he departed from the Grey Havens. I never truly appreciated how much I’d come to rely on his advice. How much we all had! I was hoping you might grow to take his place. But for all the lines on your brow, you have many years ahead of you before you would match your father in age and experience. Why haven’t you become a wizard?”
I shrugged in embarrassment. “The life of a bounty hunter satisfies my ambitions. Old Radagast was very kind. He said he’d be happy to have me in the Order at any time. But somehow it doesn’t seem to be me.”
“Radagast—ah, yes. Radagast the Brown—as was. Who’d ever have thought he’d ascend to be leader of the White Council. He goes around saying that they couldn’t find anyone else, bless him—everyone’s sailed away into the West.” Aragorn smiled wanly and shook his head. “But I suppose there was a time when nobody would ever have thought I’d become King!”
I wondered when he’d get to the point. “It was there all along in the stars, Sire.”
He glanced at me sharply. I realised he had read my thoughts. The standard phrase—the routine flattery. I had given myself away.
“You cut through the crap as ever,” he said. “Well, what progress? Have you had a chance to examine the boy’s bedroom?”
“I was doing so when I answered your summons, Sire.”
“Well, I won’t keep you long and then you can get back to it. But questions are bound to arise in your mind. It seemed as good an opportunity as any to clear them up, insofar as I am able to.”
“Very well, Sire. Yes, there are a number of things that puzzle me. First and foremost, why did you not entrust the matter to your own Captain of the Guard?”
Aragorn came over and put his face close to mine. “Sometimes an outsider can bring a breath of fresh air. For outsider you are, in spite of how well you and I personally know each other. Sheer passage of time has made you into that. You and my court grew up together—you were both born in the very same year. But people have departed, and new people have arrived, since those breezy days when you grew to manhood in my court.”
I said, “And one of those but recently arrived is the late son of Gollum. I never met him, so I shall have to rely on other people’s reminiscences to form an impression of him in life.”
Aragorn’s brow darkened. I had expected it to. “Young Morfindel was not to everybody’s taste.” He sighed slowly.
I suppressed a smile at the idea of the King calling him ‘young’. Morfindel, conceived in the early days of the Ringwars, was a year or two older than I was. Yet, being halfelven, he doubtless looked much younger than his 52 years! I wished the years, passing as swift draughts of mead, had been as kind to me.
“Nevertheless,” I said, “these are matters into which I must delve…”
“I know, I know,” said Aragorn testily. “I wish I could tell you all you needed to know myself. But the very fact that this terrible thing has happened makes it abundantly clear that my own knowledge is imperfect. Else—would I not have been able to prevent it?”
He turned and thrust his hands under his armpits. “Yes—ask around, for all you’re worth. Captain Bergil tells me that you have seen and heard much in your fifty years. He says there is little that can shock you.”
“Nevertheless, Sire, there is much that can distress me. Treachery is always distressing…”
Aragorn rounded on me. “Treachery? Isn’t it a little early to be saying that? This might be nothing but personal animosity between otherwise loyal subjects. Are you certain that it is not so?”
I fidgeted. “No, Sire, I haven’t had time to eliminate that possibility yet. But when somebody so close to the King is struck down, a crime of passion, pure and simple, seems less likely than a blow aimed at the very throne itself.”
Aragorn’s smile was bleak. “Yes, that’s just what I suspect too. But care for the kingdom, mixed with a measure of fear and suspicion of those around me, might be what disposes me to think so. The same cannot be said of you.”
“Are you prepared, Sire, for what I might uncover?”
Aragorn strutted to and fro before replying. “No,” he snapped. “How can one ever be prepared? But the question you really want to ask is this, is it not? Am I prepared to take it from you?”
He looked me full in the face and jerked his eyebrows slightly, inviting me to make some response, even a token response, before he would continue. But I quickly decided that a token response would not do.
“That is exactly what worries me, Sire. Captain Bergil laid the commission on me and I accepted it. Not as a friend, but as a mercenary, an outsider. I’m truly grateful that you did not ask me yourself. For it enabled me to be businesslike, to insist on the payment I wanted, to explain carefully the conditions under which I was prepared to work. Had you asked me yourself, I should have felt obliged to respond as to my liege—nay, as to an old friend. Almost—if I may humbly dare to say so—as one of the family.”
Aragorn’s face softened. “And those are exactly the conditions under which I don’t want you to work. I’d rather you came to the job as a dispassionate outsider. One of the reasons I don’t want Bergil investigating it is because we who dwell within the White Tower are enmeshed in a web of kinship, loyalties, alliances, jealousies and, I’m loath to say, ambitions. No, I can’t guarantee to you that I will not be angry. I hope you have set your price high enough to offset the risk of that?” He permitted himself the ghost of a smile.
“I did indeed, Sire.” I permitted myself the ghost of a smile in return. “But I also made it clear to Captain Bergil that it was not to him personally I was reporting (though I would of course keep him up-to-date), but my service was ultimately to your Majesty alone.”
Aragorn smiled broadly in satisfaction. “You’ve anticipated me, Goss,” he said. “I won’t insult you by insisting on your absolute discretion.”
“And I won’t insult you, Sire, by insisting on absolute veracity in what we say to each other. It may at times be necessary to call things by their real names, without wondering how the other person is going to take it.”
The old Aragorn I knew and loved burst forth in a hearty laugh. “I always thought there was something of the hobbit in you, Goss,” he said. “I haven’t heard the like since Mayor Samwise came to stay. Perhaps it’s because you knock around with the little people so much. So utterly different from the courtly etiquette of this venerable, constipated old City.”
“Then by your leave, Sire, I will continue with my questions.” The smile faded from Aragorn’s face and a wariness stole over it. He drew himself up, as if readying himself for a blow.
“How did the Queen take to the installation of a catamite?”
…to be continued