I get to see a lot of downtown Minas Ithil. It never looks any better. Just inside the city wall, off Whitebridgegate, there is a disreputable night-club called the Headless Horseman. Until that night I’d had little enough real business there. My business was mainly to do with the cheapskate shops round the city walls, the fences, the shady dealers, the traders in forbidden commodities. The Headless Horseman was just a place to drop off—to chill out. Perhaps to repair to after clinching a deal, to celebrate over a drink.
Night falls fast in Minas Ithil. Soon after sunset, darkness floods the streets as if the drains were overflowing. I pushed open the heavy oaken door studded with nails and walked into the greasy lobby. There was nobody and nothing there except a half-silvered mirror covering the whole of the opposite wall. I let the door go, which closed with a snick behind me.
“I’m a paying customer,” I announced to the hidden watcher. I received no answer, but another metallic snick told me that the door to the right was unlocked. I pushed it open and walked through into a smoky darkness lit at intervals with flickering purple fire.
Nobody looked at me as I wended my way to the bar. I ordered a flagon of the house brew and presently it arrived before me, frothing and wispy with vapour. I sipped it cautiously, dunking my moustache and nose in the yeasty foam.
A slightly built girl slid between me and the neighbouring bar stool, taking not the slightest care to avoid rubbing her body against my elbow and thigh. Without turning my head I glanced at her out of the corners of my narrowed eyes. She was poured into her black leather dress, which bulged and creased around the curves and cusps of her supple body, leaving nothing to the imagination. Silver rings were thrust through her nostrils, her eyebrows and the tops of her rounded ears. Rounded, not pointy, but I had to look to make sure. But I knew this was no daughter of men.
Her head was shorn of hair and shaven, but this did nothing to dim her fey beauty. It sharpened it, like chipping an obsidian blade.
“Hail, stranger,” she murmured without looking at me. “Just passing through? Or do you plan to stay the night in gorgeous Minas Ithil?”
“No stranger am I to this pale City of the Moon.”
“Then why have we not met before?”
“Well, we’ve met now.” I held out my hand. “I’m Mr Overdale.” It was an alias I sometimes used.
“Gee,” she replied, offering hers.
“Just Gee?” I said.
“You’re wise not to part with your full name and family in this city,” she observed. “Yet now that light has fallen on your face, methinks I recognise you. Are you not the son of a certain wandering wizard of old?”
“That I am.” I studied her. “So we have met before! Or perhaps you have seen me from afar. But it wasn’t in Minas Ithil, was it?”
“East of the sun, west of the moon…” she mused. “Yes, we have met before, Goss darling.” She had known perfectly well who I was, right from the word “go”.
“And do you come here often?” I said, allowing a little warmth to seep into my voice. She simpered, as if I’d said something silly.
“This is a fetish club and I’m the door-bitch. If that is what you’ve come for, when you’ve finished your beer I shall be pleased to escort you to a cabin, where you may lay aside your clothes and go partake of the delights within.”
I grinned. “I always try to combine pleasure with business, especially when invited to do so by one so alluring. But tell me, maiden, do you know of one Aelvsson who may be found in these parts?”
Her face grew grave. “Who sent you?”
“Nobody sent me. It was the Lady Éowyn, Mistress of Ithilien no less, who bade me go seek a man of that name in Minas Ithil.”
She sighed, though whether in relief or despair I could not tell. “There is no man of that name,” she said, looking cautiously round about her, eyelids drooping. “But there is a woman. It is she to whom you speak.”
“Aelvsson…” I said. “But you are no elf, or I’m a dwarf.”
“Aelv as in ‘river’, not as in ‘elf’,” she replied tartly. “I am the River daughter. Everyone has to take a surname nowadays for tax purposes. Most use their patronymic. I am no exception, though not so long ago it would have been rendered Aelvsdottir, not Aelvsson. Such is the way men mutilate their mother tongue.”
“You speak as one of the Wise, not as a common serving wench in a low night-club, in a city trying desperately to live down its appalling reputation.”
And then it struck me. River daughter! I gazed astounded into her face.
“Hush!” she hissed.
“What have you done with Tom…?”
She clapped her hand over my mouth, looking round in consternation. I quickly got the point.
“Is there somewhere to go where we can talk privately?” I murmured.
Clasping her sequinned purse to her bosom she slid off her stool and took hold of my fingertips. Threading her way round the bar she led me behind her like a child. A glance passed between her and the bar lady, a barely perceptible nod, and we were in a passageway with several doors off the side. Opening one, she hurriedly slipped inside and drew me in after her.
…to be continued.