“Merry!” I gasped.

“Yes, Merry. But of this you can be quite sure. Somebody would have picked it up. We can only be grateful that it didn’t fall into lesser hands.”

“What did Merry do with it?”

“Can you imagine? Three years later, when we were enjoying the fruits of peace, a fine young knight of the Mark, albeit a diminutive one, came riding out to us here in Ithilien. He begged to speak to me in private and as you can imagine I was mighty glad to see him. But it wasn’t a social call he was intending, although in later years he was to make many of those, as one of our most welcome guests. But on that occasion there was a stark urgency in his face. He had a gift for me. Or rather for the Lady Éowyn, but he thought it were better coming from me.”

Faramir topped up his pipe before he would continue. This time I refused the jar.

“It was a trophy of battle. Black forgetfulness had been upon him, he said, and for nigh on two years he had given no heed to it. It was only in reminiscence with King Éomer that it had come to mind again.

“As you can imagine I felt greatly honoured by the trouble Merry had taken to bring that trophy to me and I felt bound to show nothing but gratitude, to his face. But it was a gift I was utterly horrified to receive! Once upon a time… in another age…” (and here Faramir’s voice grew faint) “…Frodo himself came to Henneth Annûn, as you probably know, and for one night he was my guest, a brief respite from his cruel journey. I could have had the One Ring for the taking! But as I told him then, had I come across the thing lying in the street—I would have passed it by.”

In the light of the log fire, Faramir’s face grew haggard as his thoughts sank back into the shadows of fifty years ago.

“Can you imagine how I felt, Goss? Having resisted that terrible trial over Frodo and the One Ring, and been touched myself by the Black Breath, another hobbit comes along and places into my hand another ring of Power—the last of the Nine!”

A horrid fascination overcame me. I leaned forward. “What was it like—to hold?”

“Do you mean—did it tingle, did it feel tainted by the Black Breath? Strange to say, no. At least you wouldn’t say so in the cold light of day. Not to start with. When the One was destroyed, the rings lost all their power. Or nearly all. It was just a ring. Just a piece of jewellery, albeit antique and venerable to the last degree. The rings, after all, were once benign. Even when they fell under the Shadow they didn’t change their shape. It was, to my eyes, exactly as it must have looked to the High King of Angmar, when it was first placed on his finger.”

“What did you do with it?”

“What could I do with it? It had been presented to me by a splendid young hero I didn’t want to offend, as a gift for my darling wife. I did indeed present it to her—and touched she was to receive it! She wore it proudly on several social occasions. But no-one can face down such terrible memories. Whether it was a vestige of the Black Breath, or just a shadow of its memory in the mind, Éowyn took to wearing it less and less, and finally put it away altogether.

“To escape the feeling of dread that it started to emanate, I had a copy made—and it is this she wears to royal functions, whenever there’s a need to do so. Afterwards she always gives it back into my safekeeping. Whenever she needs it for such occasions (not for a long time now) she asks me for it.”

Faramir rose to his feet and went to his writing desk. He slid tenons and bevels to and fro until a secret compartment was revealed. Coming back, he held out his hand and placed something in my open palm.

As I looked at it I felt myself beginning to tremble with horror.

There, nestling in the palm of my hand, was a ring of Power. The last of the Nine. Or it might be truer to say: the First of the Nine—the ring from the hand of the High Nazgûl, leader of the Ringwraiths. He who had met his end in battle against no man, as had long ago been prophesied… but a woman! Éowyn, sister-daughter of Théoden King. Inert though it was, its dread memory darkened my mind with long shadows.

It was a silver ring, bearing a polished black stone with a metallic sheen, which I knew to be haematite. The silver-work was delicate, consisting of intertwined brambles wrought in the finest detail, through which at intervals tiny roses peered. Only when I looked closer, the brambles turned to spiked chains, and the roses to skulls.

Imalad could not have described it to me more exactly.

Next morning, bright and early, Faramir himself roused me with breakfast in bed and when I’d got dressed we rode out hunting. We didn’t shoot anything. Since Lady Éowyn disapproved of killing animals just for sport, when they were not needed for food, we reminded ourselves that we’d feasted well on venison the night before and simply got as close as we could to the beasts, drawing beads on their graceful necks.

Back at the house by lunchtime, it was Faramir who broached the subject of the ring once more.

“We spoke of many things last night, but in the hours of darkness there are some matters it is wise to leave till daylight. I couldn’t help but notice the light of recognition in your eyes when you beheld the copy I’d had made of the Angrennan.”

“What did you call it? Angrennan? Sounds like something made of iron!”

Faramir explained the Sindarin derivation to me.

“It’s The Angrennan.” He stressed the definite article. “Ang-ren-adan. Iron—wrought—man. The Ironman. The foremost of the Nine.”

“I never imagined it had a name!”

“All the rings had names. Even the One. Though nobody dared utter that.”

“And—copy, did you say?”

“Yes, I told you I’d had a copy made.”

“What was it you showed me last night?”

Faramir rose to his feet, went to his writing desk and extracted the ring again. “It is only a copy,” he declared. “The original is kept concealed by my dear wife in the Houses of Healing—and don’t ask me where.”

He gazed down at the ring in his hand. “Just as surgeons and other healers have sharp blades to cleave the flesh and apothecaries have violent poisons to strike a man dead, so the Houses of Healing keep safe this deadly thing, as a palladian against the dreadful ailments of man. Particularly those of gnawing regret, despair and loss of heart. For, as you know, a tiny dose of what induces a malady is sovereign against that same malady. Opposites inflame each other, but like disarms like. That fell ring of Power, in Éowyn’s hands, has healed many a poor soul.”

He shook his head as if emerging from a reverie. “But tell me. Have you perchance seen it before?”

“No, not exactly… but I’ve had it accurately described to me. In circumstances so suspicious that I have a mind to go back and ask Lady Éowyn if she still has the original in her possession. Or whether, unbeknownst, somebody might not have stolen it.”

Faramir stared at me open-mouthed. “That is an astounding thing to say! Who might have stooped to such a deed?”

“I’m not altogether sure. But let us say, for the sake of argument… Morfindel. I’m in the course of enquiries which are shedding a very strange light on the matter.”

I said it would help me enormously in my investigation if I could purchase his copy from him, but without a word he placed it in my hand and folded my fingers over it. He would take no payment, declaring that the object in itself was of scant value and he could always get another copy made.

That afternoon I returned to Minas Ithil with this ominous thing in my possession. As I approached the City so long associated with it and its monstrous bearer I felt as though it were growing heavier and heavier in my pocket, fake though I knew it to be.

Or to be cruelly precise—supposed it to be.

…to be continued.