At sundown I made my way to the Mallorn. It is the trysting place of rich burghers, who were chatting easily to each other. They offered me barely a glance as I wended my way between the tables. To them I was no more than a shabby wanderer. I sat down in a high-backed pew to the right of the fireplace, as the note had bidden me, and ordered a beer.
But no beer came. For almost immediately the maiden who had slipped me the note that afternoon stood close by, looking down upon me without expression. I motioned to her to sit down in the seat opposite. I wondered if it was this girl I had been invited to meet, but I quickly dismissed the idea. She was so evidently the servant of someone higher. A comely wench, but not altogether Gondorian. There was something hobbitish about her face, although in stature she was no halfling.
She would not sit down and tugged at my sleeve to rise up and follow her. I did so and we went up a narrow stairway and I found myself in a room with dark, rich furnishings of indigo velvet. A freshly made fire blazed in the grate. The room was lit only by the fire and by two tall candles, which stood on a finely carved table and flung their light uselessly to the dark walls. Their flames gleamed from the polished wood and from the glistening surface of silverware bearing fruits and meats from distant lands.
As I gazed at the table, a exquisitely manicured hand lifted a silver ewer and poured dark wine into two goblets. The lady had been sitting in such gloom that I’d failed to remark her presence.
I sat down opposite her and raised one of the goblets. “Hail, your Majesty,” I said.
In a quiet voice the Queen returned my greeting.
“Please call me Arwen,” she said. “Here we are alone beyond the White Tower, with only my lady-in-waiting within call. There is no need to stand on ceremony.”
As I sipped the wine she continued, “I imagine you can guess why I wanted to speak to you, out of the sight of watchful eyes and the hearing of prying ears.”
I stiffened. Was she referring to the scandalous tattle about the son of Gollum? Or was she party to the “secret” which was supposed to be known only to Bergil, myself, and the King? And of course, to the Inspector of Corpses and Lady Éowyn, though that could be put down to their own diligence. I decided to proceed with circumspection.
“A sorry business, my Lady. A sorry business. But rest assured…”
“Rest the rest of fools,” she snapped. “That’s the sort of thing Captain Bergil says. He’s going to absurd lengths to hush it all up. As well try to carry water in a spider’s web. In a day or two it will be out and all over the City. And I will hardly dare to show my face in public for the shame of it.”
“My royal Lady! Surely this matter impinges upon your honour not one tiny bit!”
“You know, Goss,” she said, “for someone of your intelligence, you do say the stupidest things. My Lord’s honour is my honour too. Can you imagine what people are going to say?”
I splayed my hands. “The kings of old had catamites. Dynastically it is the safest thing to do.”
“You’ve been talking to Aragorn,” she said, with weariness in her voice.
“I shall have to talk to everyone concerned, sooner or later,” It was clear she knew the truth. “It is the King’s business I’m on now. Wherever my own sympathies might lie (and I am but a lowly commoner) the perpetrators must be caught and punished.”
She nodded slowly, then she clutched her goblet to her breast in passion. “And where do your sympathies lie in this matter, Goss? With the victim? With the King? Or with the genuinely injured party? Could they possibly come to lie with… me?”
“I was not acquainted with Master Morfindel,” I replied hesitantly, “although his acquaintances were many. His friends were fewer… and his enemies were legion.”
“Well, they’ve got him. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.”
I leaned back in my chair, struggling in my mind for the right words to say.
“Nice guys rarely get murdered,” I said at last. “When they do, it generally has little to do with them in themselves. Usually more to do with a bungled attempt to relieve them of their property. But the Law is the Law. The punishment is not my business. In this matter, above all, it will be a chore reserved to the King himself. But the hunting and catching of the murderer is my business, at the King’s behest. Why, what would you have me do, my Lady?”
“Arwen,” she corrected me again. “Oh yes, the Law is the Law. But you are no Bergil, no man of brass, heedlessly carrying out your master’s will. Indeed the King himself appointed you because he was sure you would handle the matter with sympathy and discretion. Sympathy with everyone concerned… but trusting no-one.”
She fixed me with her queenly gaze. “No-one!” she repeated.
She inquired then about my wanderings. Especially she wanted to hear about the people of the Shire. I happened to remark that I saw a lot of them in my travels and she smiled.
“Methinks they have a special place in your heart, am I not right?” When I nodded she said, “Just like your father.”
“In former times they used to keep themselves to themselves. But now, since the exploits of Frodo Ninefingers, I imagine I see their cheery faces everywhere I go. Why, even your maidservant…”
Her chuckle was low and melodious. “Well spotted, son of Gandalf the Wise,” she said. “Her mother is indeed a perian, albeit her father is a lord among men. You can see the perian in her face, but she is anything but a halfling in physique.”
“Then that must be the Lady Elandrine!” I exclaimed. “Daughter of Elanor the Fairbairn and Fastred of the Western Towers! How rude of me! Yet she was attired as a humble serving girl and it didn’t cross my mind to greet her courteously.”
Arwen laughed merrily and called out her name. “Come, Mistress Elandrine, your disguise wasn’t good enough to fool Master Goswedriol.” Elandrine, lady-in-waiting to Queen Arwen, as her mother before her had been, stepped out of the darkness and laughingly refilled my goblet.
“I thought we were alone,” I said.
“We are. You may speak freely in front of Elandrine.” Arwen smiled a wicked smile. “You may even speak to her!”
I looked up into Elandrine’s eyes and saw there warmth for the first time. I said, “I admired the way you handled… er, things, this noontide. Did you tell your mistress about it?”
“Very briefly. It’s all in a day’s work.”
“Where did you learn to handle… men like that?”
“In Edoras, among the fighting folk of King Éomer.” Turning from the table with a coquettish swish of her skirt and a defiant toss of her black hair she remarked, “I’m a shieldmaiden, you know, hardened in battle.”
“Elandrine has my total confidence and I rely on her for my personal safety. The Queen goes nowhere these days unless it be with a trusted handmaiden. Not even to a secret tryst.”
“That is very good counsel, Mistress,” I said. “In the troubled times that are upon us, the Great may walk in danger. I have the feeling that this isn’t just a family affair, a palace plot. Rather it is a matter which strikes at the very heart of the Realm. Intrigue seems to cluster round the late and scarce lamented son of Gollum, like wasps round a honey pot.”
“That I know full well,” she replied, as Elandrine retired into the darkness. “The son of Gollum had ambitions. High ambitions. Can you guess just how high?”
“No, my Lady?”
…to be continued.