Before leaving the Citadel I penned a brief note, to be delivered to Bergil in person, warning him that the Inspector of Corpses knew our little secret, having guessed it for himself. Then I walked back along Rath Celerdain in the First Circle to the kiosk at the foot of Seventeenth Stair to refill my pouch with pipe weed.
I was vaguely aware of somebody standing close to the doorway as I came out. Somebody who was waiting for me. From the way she was dressed I took her for a scullery maid of one of the rich merchants and avoided looking her in the eye. But she thrust a note into my hand. Then, averting her face and gathering her skirts, she hurried away up the Stair.
As I glanced after her I saw her thrusting past a pair of unsavoury characters whom I took for Dunlendings. There are all sorts roaming the streets of Minas Tirith these days. One of the men caught hold of the maiden’s sleeve just below the armpit, jerking her backwards to fall into his arms.
“Hey, young filly, not so fast! Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
I expected to see her struggle and hear her cry out, but she silently stood her ground, returning his ribald leer with a stern gaze. Imagining she could do with some help I paced up the steps two at a time. Throwing me a glance of panic, she gave a deft flick of her wrist, caught the man’s elbow and, without troubling to use her other hand, sent him pitching and tumbling down the steps to sprawl at my feet.
I knelt down beside him. “Go about your business,” shouted the other man, hurrying down the Stair. “We don’t need your help.” Clearly he had been humiliated to witness his strapping friend worsted by a mere girl. Dismissed so ungraciously I got to my feet and turned my back on the scene. An old man squatting in a doorway waved the stem of his pipe at the two ruffians, one kneeling, one lying, on the Stair.
“Heh-heh! Serves him right—to go standing in the way of that young wench!”
“Do you know her?”
“What? Do you mean to say you don’t recognise the Queen’s bodyguard?”
I couldn’t help raising my eyebrows as I nodded to him and went slowly on my way. I took a swift look at what the maiden had given me. It was a small scroll of the silvery vegetable vellum once popular with the High Elves and it was sealed with the Beechleaf, the sigil of the Royal House of Lórien. I put it straight in my pocket. I didn’t want to be seen reading that in the streets.
A mile out of the city on the road towards Osgiliath I dismounted, took a sip from my flask and broke the seal of the scroll. I knew then as I read it that I would have to return to the City forthwith.
“Back so soon, Master Goswedriol?” said the ostler as I handed my horse back into his charge.
“I forgot my camomile tea,” I muttered over my shoulder as I hurried out into the street. The reputation for absent-mindedness did me no harm at all. It justified my erratic movements to those who would go seeking other explanations in idle chatter.
I checked into the Grey Wanderer in the First Circle. The note had invited me to a tryst in the Mallorn. But I knew better than to check-in at the same inn. I climbed the stairway to the grassy terrace around the great spur of sharp rock that juts out east from Mount Mindolluin and cleaves the city like a dragon’s chine. There I sat on the stone balustrade beside a skeletal gargoyle, lit my pipe and pondered.
When I had first accepted the commission from Bergil, I had thought to myself that it wasn’t going to be that hard a task. There would be at most seven suspects, all courtiers, and I’d spend a pleasant time in the opulence of the White Tower, calling them into my ornate study for a brief but meaningful chat.
Fool that I was!
At the rate my preliminary investigations were going, I could end up with 200 suspects or more, each of which would require meticulous investigation to eliminate. If witchcraft had been recognised as a criminal offence, and merely to wish Morfindel dead had been the touchstone of guilt, then I might round up those 200 suspects and put them all to the stake, and still let the culprit escape.
I thought of my recent interview with the King. He had made a supreme effort to be open and impartial with me, but it was clear he’d have loved to steer my investigations away from certain sensitive areas. I had thought at the time that these mostly concerned the Queen, but now I wasn’t so sure. Of this however I was certain: Aragorn was shielding somebody. Or else he was sitting on some secret he didn’t want uncovered, even by me. And I don’t just mean the nature of his relationship with the deceased – which was common knowledge anyway. Indeed that very relationship may have been part of the smokescreen.
Not that Aragon believed, or even suspected, he was shielding the murderer of Morfindel: more likely it was some unrelated issue which I might well blunder into in the course of my investigations. Since these involved exploring the seamy side of a royal household, I was sure there were many interesting things I might uncover which had no bearing on the present matter.
It was a tribute to the greatness of the man that he had set his face firmly against warning me off certain territory. This made me want to extend him considerable discretion: I would endeavour to discharge my duties without prying too deeply into his private business. But a warning voice told me that to start out with that aim in mind would be to cloud my judgement and predispose me to ignore some vital clue.
200 suspects, I just said. Maybe it would be 2,000! At any rate I was certain that I was all set to explore some very murky undercurrents in the restored Kingdom of Gondor, and its uneasy Mandate. Bergil had hinted at such when he suggested that my investigations were highly unlikely to involve people in the city.
But what did he mean by that? People close to the King, who as yet did not reside in court? Prince Faramir, the steward of Gondor, fell into that category, as did his lady wife Éowyn.
I must confess I’d been overawed by Éowyn in the brief interview I had had with her. I was inclined to discount her from my investigations altogether. But there remained the possibility I was being duped. Concerning Morfindel’s demise, both she and the Inspector of Corpses had reached the correct conclusion remarkably quickly. Her explanation of that had been plausible, but not conclusive. I had a gut feeling–and it was only a gut feeling–that in some profound and sinister way Éowyn held the key to the whole affair.
She may not be aware of this, of course. The key in question might not be a key, but some other artefact. One that functioned as a key–and maybe only in this particular context. And of all the people she could have pointed me at, she had chosen nobody at the Royal Court, but a resident (supposedly) of Minas Ithil: the former Minas Morgul of dismal fame. That was fully in line with Bergil’s conjecture: that the provenance of my investigations did not lie in the Royal Court but in the Kingdom at large.
I began to have the feeling that Minas Ithil would act like a vortex to my investigations. And not just because of the mysterious Aelvsson whom Éowyn had advised me to track down. I think I mentioned that I had once done work for GUB: the orc secret police of the Royal Mandate of East Ithilien. The shady descendants of the terrible state police of the Dark Lord, they served King Elessar Telcontar these days–and although the men of Gondor were not disposed to believe this, their loyalty was never in question.
Absolute obedience to the will of the man in charge was the one thing that could be counted on with them. I knew the head of GUB–and that was one more person I needed to interview.
But maybe it was an orc, not a courtier, who’d turn out to be the perpetrator? It was an orcish thing to do. But to think along those lines was potentially to derail my investigation, not to say succumb to the temptation of racism. It may indeed have been an orcish thing to do, in the popular mind, but orcish things, alas, are not the monopoly of orcs.
Nevertheless, to the courtly enemies of Morfindel–and it seemed there were many–an orc would make a suitable catspaw. At one time it would have been unthinkable to let an orc within a dozen leagues of the White Tower. But nowadays, it was rumoured, orcs were known to have been welcomed inside (if “welcomed” was a suitable way of putting it), as traders and building contractors. How times change!
But there was someone else I needed to see when I paid my visit to Minas Ithil–a visit I could not avoid–and that was Tom Bombadil.
Yes, rumour had it that the unthinkable had happened: Tom Bombadil has forsaken his home in the old Forest and gone to live in Minas Ithil! To the casual observer it might have been a source of wonder why Tom Bombadil would go anywhere near Minas Ithil. Surely there couldn’t have been the slightest connection between good old Tom and the evil King of Angmar?
But I knew better.
I had read the Red Book of Westmarch–and I had read it most carefully, especially where it told of Frodo’s sojourn in the House of Tom Bombadil. There were strange and sinister bonds between the jolly buffoon and his dark counterpart: his Evil Twin – his Shadow. Bonds of deepest hatred – and (unless I was hopelessly mistaken) an even deeper love!
The One Ring had not had the slightest effect on Tom. This couldn’t have been a coincidence. It was as if some full and final act of magic had released Tom from its power, if he had ever fallen under it. The King of Angmar, I recalled, had been a mighty magician: a master of Morgul. But even he had not been strong enough to liberate himself from Sauron’s domination, a miserable condition brought about by the gift of a Ring of Power.
Or had he? Maybe not all of himself: just a part…
Both Tom and his wife Goldberry possessed extraordinary powers to protect Frodo and his hobbit companions from the Black Riders: powers which not even my father, Gandalf the Grey, could summon. Tom had the power to break the Barrow which the king of Angmar had raised over the men of Cardolan whom he had massacred.
Take note of this: the King of Angmar, who in latter days was to become the High Nazgul: leader of the dreaded Black Riders, had not treated his fallen foes with ignominy. Just the opposite: he had raised over them a barrow filled with riches. One indeed that was haunted by undead wights. But little could be guessed from that alone: it was the tradition in those bygone days to guard a lavish burial with the most terrible spirits one could enlist.
And Tom Bombadil had broken that same barrow to release Frodo and his companions as easily as if he had been digging out slugs from a compost heap in his garden. Could anybody possibly have had such authority, save the King of Angmar himself?
And then Tom had selected a short sword of Westernesse from the broken barrow and gifted it to Merry Brandybuck, one of Frodo’s companions. The very sword that was to put an end to the High Nazgul!
Had Tom known what he was doing? Of that I hadn’t the slightest doubt. But what exactly had he been doing? Destroying an enemy? Or releasing from Sauron’s subjugation a friend: a twin-brother indeed – his own shadow?
And who was the King of Cardolan that, with his lady fair, lay beneath the barrow? This royal couple, for whom Tom and his mistress had such deep regard? Tom had spoken of the king and queen to Frodo as if he and Goldberry had been close to them.
How close? Intimately close? Inextricably so?
My mind ran riot. If the King of Angmar could come back to walk the earth as the High Nazgul, why not the King of Cardolan, his polar opposite? Could one of them go anywhere, do anything, be anybody, without the other?
And now Tom had left his house, on the very borders of the ancient realm of Angmar, and gone to dwell in Minas Ithil: another seat of his mighty adversary. Far from raising my eyebrows in puzzlement, it raised the hackles on my back with a sense of nameless terror.
It was a question I’d have to ask this Aelvsson fellow, if I did not ask it of Tom himself. Eowyn was certain that this mysterious person knew something I needed to know: and I would have been surprised if it wasn’t the very same thing she knew herself, but had been unwilling to reveal back then, in the Houses of Healing.
Tom Bombadil, Eowyn, a dead Nazgul and a dead Halfelven! All bound together in a fateful ring: a circle of shadows. And as soon as I’d put it to myself in those terms I wonder if I didn’t know back then, what it was they all had in common.
…to be continued.