My horse Bess hates going to Udûn. I hate the stables I have to put her in. The upshot is that I go there by stagecoach whenever I have to.

Emerging from the forest in the northernmost tip of Ithilien, the road goes over a rise and gives you a glorious view of the Black Gate. It doesn’t look any better now than it did in Frodo’s day, but at least it’s been demilitarised. You descend a long gentle incline until you meet the road to Osgiliath as it emerges between the ruined Towers of the Teeth. It’s a busy thoroughfare: Udûn is the industrial heartland of the Kingdom. Horses, laden wains and dwarves puffing along with knobbly stangs and enormous backpacks are always to be seen pouring in and out of the Morannon.

The first stop the stagecoach makes is in the courtyard of the South Tower. There I got off. The iron gate and the rampart have long since been demolished. Nowadays a sprawl of mean housing is creeping slowly along the road to Osgiliath. I picked my way over the rubbish and called out to the gatekeeper in the guardroom. I showed the man the King’s seal and demanded to see Grishnakh son of Grishnakh.

“Nobody sees Grishnakh without an appointment.”

With infinite weariness I droned, “He’s expecting me.”

I’m not sure precisely how they communicate, but the gate-keeper got his instructions back pretty quick. “Commissary Grishnakh is coming to collect you himself in a quarter of an hour. You’re to wait here.”

“That’s fine by me,” I said. “Have you any refreshment for a weary traveller?” I knew what the answer would be, but I only said it to annoy him.

“You might try the street corner down there. There’s generally a seller of root beer standing around, taking the afternoon air.”

Clearly my credit was a little higher than the last time I’d seen Grishnakh. I fingered Glamdring beneath my cloak and went off in search of the beer seller. I came back with some beer in a disposable earthenware mug, which I suppose I was expected to smash on the hardcore of the courtyard when I’d finished. As I was enjoying a pipeful of weed, Grishnakh appeared and silently beckoned me to follow him.

We mounted the stairs of an ugly square yellow-brick building in the shadow of the ruined tower. In his office Grishnakh motioned to me to sit down in a greasy looking chair that creaked. The thing I like about visiting Grishnakh rather than Bergil is that the former never minds me smoking in his office.

We exchanged courtesies, as much as you do with an orc. Grishnakh picked his nose. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”

“King’s business. The King, by the way, sends his regards.”

“Very kind of him I’m sure,” drawled Grishnakh. “What does he want?”

“Information, as ever. I’m investigating the affairs of a certain Morfindel son of Gollum. I haven’t the slightest doubt you’ve heard of him…”

“I’ve been hearing some pretty strange things about him lately,” commented Grishnakh. “Has he fallen from grace?”

I was about to say: why do you ask that?—when I thought better of it. “He’s certainly fallen,” I said, “but whether from grace I’m not inclined to say.”

“Indeed? Then what are you doing here? The only person who’s in the habit of wandering in here on the King’s business is Pretty Boy himself. Why didn’t he come in person this time?”

I feigned surprise. “Haven’t you heard? I’m surprised if Bergil’s office hasn’t informed you…”

“Since when has the Tower of Guard kept the Mandate informed about anything?”

I ignored that. “Master Morfindel has had a nasty fall and is presently recovering in the Houses of Healing.”

“What does he want to go there for? Send him here—to Udûn. Doesn’t he trust orc medicine any more?”

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure he has every respect for orc medicine.” As indeed I had. Orc medicine is nasty, invasive, painful, humiliating and, above all, totally effective. A thought struck me. “Has he ever come to Udûn for an orc-cure before?”

“Haven’t the faintest idea! But we’re always kidding him to try. If he can screw himself to the pitch of taking his clothes off in front of an orc doctor, then I’m sure our boys know a trick or two to ring his bell.”

“Thank you,” I said evenly. “I shall pass on that information.”

Grishnakh laughed—a strangely melodious sound, like broken glass being trampled on. I thought to myself: from the way he’s talking, he doesn’t seem to have got wind yet of Morfindel’s death. But you can never tell with these GUB people.

I leaned back in the creaky chair and lit my pipe. Taking out my pouch of pipe-weed I offered Grishnakh some. To my surprise he produced an enormous curly monstrosity and smiled a big smile, revealing crooked yellow teeth. Presently the office was full of smoke and Grishnakh was chattering in a way which showed he was inclined to be a little more co-operative than he had been with me in the past.

“You know,” I said, “one of the things Captain Bergil always grouses about is how the sneak thieves do their jobs in Osgiliath and then hotfoot it into the wilds of Udûn.”

“Well, it goes both ways. How about the people who pull off enormous heists in Doom City and then retire out to the Pelennor on their ill-gotten gains, or even as far away as Isengard?”

I peered cautiously through the smoke from my pipe. “Such as…?”

“Grimwald Uruksson, for instance.”

Not a name I could easily forget. “What’s he up to now?”

“What’s he not up to! He’s got Doom City well and truly stitched up. Hardly a crime takes place there from which he doesn’t get a cut, in some form or other. Right now he’s cornering the used palantír market. In conjunction with your friend Morfindel, I might add.”

I pretended to be shocked. “Is that just a conjecture? Or do you have proof?”

“What d’you need to convince you? They consort together, money changes hands and Morfindel has been taking a close and unhealthy interest in palantíri too.”

“Why all this big interest in palantíri? They’re a commodity nowadays.”

“Oh, yes. The kids play fantasy games on them. No parents dare to be accused of depriving their child. They’re meant to be for homework, but precious little homework ever gets done on them.”

I knew all about palantíri. A lost technology during the Third Age, they’d recently opened a factory in Dale to mass-produce the things.

“So what’s the big deal? You can get a palantír for a few golden crowns. There’s not much second-hand value in them, I imagine.”

Grishnakh pointed the end of his curly monstrosity at me. “That’s just where you’re wrong! All new palantíri have a serial number, but the old ones don’t. Those fetch an enormous price at auctions. And change hands privately for even more!”

“That’s absurd. How many palantíri are we talking about? ‘Seven Stars, and Seven Stones, and One White Tree’,” I quoted.

“I know all that! So let’s just count them up, shall we? There’s the Orthanc stone, now in the possession of the King. There’s another stone nestling in the withered claws of Denethor, last of the Stewards of Gondor. But that one’s not worth very much, I’d guess. Not unless you fancy looking at flames all the time. That leaves five.”

“Which had all fallen into the hands of the Dark Lord if I remember. And all destroyed in the fall of Barad-Dûr.”

“Wrong again!” said Grishnakh. “One was destroyed, at most. The one the Dark Lord was supposed to have been holding when Barad-Dûr fell down. Though there’s a story that someone escaped with the thing in the nick of time. It’s quite likely to be the one that’s found its way into the possession of Grimwald Uruksson. GUB has made a study of the whereabouts of these things. Because of their enormous value, they’re all crimes just waiting to happen. And when they get stolen, where are they all going to get fenced? Right here—in the Royal Mandate of East Ithilien!”

Grishnakh counted on his knobbly yellow fingers. “There was one in Minas Ithil and another found its way here to the Black Gate—my father told me that. That leaves two: whereabouts unknown. Still in circulation maybe, or in various private collections more likely. A certain Guthmud son of Gothmog is known to be looking for one. And offering a staggeringly high price. Though it’s suspected he already owns one—the Ithil Stone.”

“Almost worth trying to erase the serial number from a new stone,” I remarked. Grishnakh made a scornful noise.

“It’s been tried. People do it all the time. But there’s no mistaking one of the classic stones. They don’t communicate with the new ones—and the content of what you see in them is something the new stones can’t even begin to replicate, even in your wildest, most diseased fantasies. They’re not the sort of thing one should idly go looking into—though you could say that of the new stones too. With a new stone you’ve no idea who you’re communicating with. It could be a masher, a rank villain, or the head of some vice ring. I certainly wouldn’t let my child go playing with one. Still, there is no accounting for what some collectors find it amusing to collect.”

“Do you suppose it’s something more than the glamour of owning one of these classic stones?”

“Oh I’m sure of it. All the old ones—they get used for serious purposes, even if it’s just trying to delve into ancient history. There are folk going around who’ll pay a sackful of gold crowns just for the privilege of looking into one of them for half-an-hour. So you can see how much a classic palantír might be worth.”

“What was Morfindel’s interest in all this?”

Grishnakh looked at me slyly. “Well… that’s his business, isn’t it?”

“It’s the King’s business now,” I replied. “My business. It’s a criminal investigation I’m engaged in.”

Grishnakh rounded his fat cracked lips into a sort of “O”. “So that’s the lie of the land is it? Have you got Morfindel put away somewhere safe, then?”

“It hasn’t come to that. But take my word for it—he’s out of circulation, and will remain so.”

Grishnakh and I stayed eyeball to eyeball for what seemed like an age. “If only I could believe that,” he breathed at last.

“Afraid of it getting back to him and him getting back at you?”

Grishnakh’s lips curled into a smile and he nodded slowly. “Such things have been known to happen…”

All the while I’d been wondering how much to tell him. He seemed to be genuinely unaware of the true state of affairs, to the credit of Bergil’s cover-up, which meant the same was true for the whole of the Mandate. Quite an achievement for the Tower of Guard, I grudgingly had to admit. But I’d come prepared for such an eventuality and I badly needed to pick the brains of the head of GUB.

“Well it so happens I’ve brought you a little present.” I reached back into my bulging backpack as it sat on the floor behind my chair. I pulled forth a sizeable glass jar, filled with absolute-strength spirit-of-wine. And something else. With a clunk I set it down on Grishnakh’s desk and turned it round to face him. Then I settled back to enjoy his expression.

“There. You can tell him yourself.”

…to be continued.