He paused and his eyes phrased a silent question. I smiled and shook my head. “I have already formed my opinion about that. If I really thought it was you, Lord Faramir, or your well-regarded wife, I wouldn’t be talking to you now like this.”

Faramir picked his pipe up and lit it once more. “No, I imagine not.” He blew out a cloud of smoke. “Can you blow smoke rings, like your father?”

“Nobody can blow smoke rings like my father,” I said. “But please—don’t let me stop you. I won’t pour scorn upon your efforts.”

“And, in talking to me, is this the King’s business you’re on now? There are many people you will have to talk to. I’m relieved you don’t think it was I who did it. But I’m sure you feel there is much I can tell you all the same.”

“There’s much I have heard, from people at court with much to say. But it is the quality of the words, not the quantity, that counts with me,” I replied and we both laughed. Quietly he murmured, “And what choice words should I let fall?”

We had come to the point, I knew it. “Rings,” I breathed. “What have you to say about Morfindel’s interest in rings?”

It was only then that he appeared to notice my elf-rings. “A lore-master, did you call me? Versed in the lore of rings? Well, I’d say this. Morfindel would have been very interested in the rings you wear on your own hands.”

We exchanged a knowing smile. “I’m quite sure he would,” I said. “But do you think he would have noticed them?”

“That’s a good question. Let me ask you one in return. Do you think that the rings hide themselves? Do they ever hide you?”

“In answer to the first, they are always there when I look at them, and they are always very obvious to me. But as for the second question, I must answer—how would I know?”

“Well, right at this moment, I can see you clearly. But that might be because you choose to be seen by me. Were you possessed of a lesser intellect, the rings might serve merely to make you invisible, whether you willed it or no.”

“Do the rings still have the power to do that? Even after the unmaking of the Ruling Ring?”

“I don’t know the answer to that. Not even your father knew the answer to that. Not even your…” Faramir checked himself. He gazed at me like a child who had just been caught out saying something forbidden. But I smiled in reassurance. “Your father… and your mother,” he continued, “might have said that although they may have lost their bodily power, there is still some power they exert over the mind. Over the imagination. I see you—yes—but I do not see where you’re coming from, nor where you are going to. Not unless it’s your own good pleasure to reveal it to me. Such can rarely be said of lesser men.”

He paused to knock the ash out of his pipe and to fill it afresh. Silently he offered the jar of rich pipe-weed smelling to me of cherry and almonds. I took it and filled my pipe, then we lit up and stared at each other through curls of blue smoke.

Presently Faramir spoke again. “Such could not be said of the son of Gollum. For a thief and a cheat and a liar he was as crystal clear as a mountain stream. In view of all that, it was amazing the success he had. Though perhaps only over weaker minds. A magic ring would have made him totally transparent.”

I puffed thoughtfully upon my pipe. “That’s a remarkably profound statement,” I said. “And was it magic rings—rings of Power, he was on the lookout for?”

“Oh, definitely.”

I started forward in my seat. “How come? There must be few enough rings of that nature to be had. How can you speak with such assurance?”

“Why, you yourself called me a lore-master, well versed in ring-lore. Well then, hear what I have to say. Recite the Lay of the Rings…”

I began:

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky, …

“And what has become of the Three?”

I carefully made no answer. He didn’t need me to. It was a rhetorical question. “One of the Three is almost certainly on the hand of Queen Arwen. I have never seen it there, but nor would I, unless she herself were to reveal it to me.”

I nodded, recalling my meeting with her.

“And as of tonight I know the whereabouts of the other two.”

I made my face into stone, but he kept his eyes cast downwards. “Please carry on reciting,” he said.

Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone, …

“Alas, we don’t know what became of the Seven. All of them were said to have fallen into the hands of the Dark Lord and were in all likelihood destroyed in the wreck of Barad-Dûr. But we don’t know. They may be in circulation. The dwarves almost certainly would hunt them down, buy then back, and never let them out of their possession again. But what goes on in the Mandate is something I can’t vouch for. Pray continue…”

Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for …

“Never mind about the One, we know what happened to that.”

“And we know what happened to the Nine. They too perished in the fire of Mount Doom when the One was destroyed.”

Faramir slowly raised his eyes to mine in a burning stare. His voice was so quiet I nearly didn’t catch what he said.

“All nine?”

I breathed in sharply and my hand went up to grasp my beard. “By Elbereth! I was forgetting! And in the company of you, of all people! How thoughtless of me!”

Faramir shut his eyes and pursed his lips in a wry smile. “No—it’s very easy to forget. Everybody forgets. My wife and I don’t want it remembered particularly. In fact, that may be the heart of the trouble…”

In a voice low and trembling I asked, “What… really happened, that day?”

“What really happened? Oh, for that you need to ask a certain hobbit called Meriadoc Brandybuck. The Lady Éowyn, bless her, was lying senseless at the time. Merry remembers nothing of it either. But Prince Imrahil, who came upon her lying there, was certain that he saw Merry pick the thing up as he stooped to retrieve his pack.”

…to be continued.