As you go into Minas Ithil across the bridge you find yourself heading up Whitebridgegate towards the marketplace and the ruins of the Tower of the Moon. Take a left and soon you’re back on the city walls, gazing out over tumbling slopes of pine and cedar far below you. You have to be careful on a windy day because it’s a sheer drop of 500 ft into the gorge. There’s a short row of weavers’ cottages at the head of the steps winding down to the Old Mill. That was where Guthmud had his headquarters. The cottages were now nothing but a facade. Behind them he’d built extensive modern premises.

“Mr Overdale to see Guthmud son of Gothmog,” I said to the girl behind the hatch.

“Master Guthmud says you’re to go right in,” she replied cheerily.

This was Guthmud’s palantír-recycling plant. They came in by the cartload, packed in straw, although why the straw I didn’t know then—you could drop a palantír off the city walls and it would just smash a few rocks. Though they do say the newer ones scratch easily.

I saw orcs, in row upon row of benches, working away unpacking the things, examining them for damage, tuning them, conditioning them, proving them, feeding in a few commercials and then packing them in bright gift boxes for the markets of Dale and Minas Tirith.

Guthmud came out of the side office and raised his hands expansively.

“Impressive operation you have here,” I observed.

“It’s a nice little earner,” he agreed. “It started as a hobby but it’s just grown and grown. The trouble is, parents buy these things, but after a month or two the children lose interest. We buy them up cheap and sell ‘em dear. Which is the way to make money of course.”

“Why isn’t everybody cashing in?”

“Nobody else has the skills, me boy. This place isn’t called Dûshgoi—Sorcery City—for nothing. It just takes a nasty wight to get into one and you’re reduced to using it as a garden ornament—and sometimes it has to be a pretty remote part of the garden! Well—all these chaps are able to get them out, see?”

“I should have thought their skills were much in demand all over Middle Earth and they wouldn’t have to remain here in Minas Ithil.”

“Don’t you believe it! Doing this sort of work you get so much noise in the head, you just want to go off at the end of the day and smash something. The boys in here drift out to the local bars and they get in fights and they smash the place up… the sorts of things that would only be tolerated in Minas Ithil.”

“So they really get the wights out, do they?”

Guthmud gave me a sly look. “Well let’s just say they put them to sleep. The kids get a month or so of solid play out of them, which is all they have the attention span for these days, then the stones come rolling back to us again. ‘Take it away! Please!’” He chuckled.

“I can see how it could be quite a lucrative business. Is this the sum total of it here?”

He looked at me wide-eyed. “What? Geddaway! You don’t think I could make a living out of this do you?”

“I’m impressed. All crammed into one street in the purlieus of Minas Ithil!”

“Well I wouldn’t say that. Minas Ithil is the showroom. It’s nice around these parts. Trees… pretty birds singing songs…” Guthmud had a slight lisp as well as a wheezy chest, so the way he said it nearly gave me an attack of the giggles. “Most of the operation’s in Udûn. It’s not a proper fire horse if it isn’t from Udûn.”

“Fire horses? You assemble them here too?”

“No… Minas Ithil is the showroom, like I said. A bit of repair, a bit of maintenance… here—come and look at this!”

He led me downstairs through extensive cellars. I call them cellars although the street sloped so much that they came out at ground level at one end, where there were big double doors. I thought—what a marvellous place for dark deeds. They’d stand comparison with the dungeons of Dol Guldur.

In a stall by itself in the corner was a single fire horse. It stood as still as a statue. In place of the head it had an empty skull. Otherwise the creature was sleek and well groomed.

“There! Isn’t she a beauty!”

I’d never been this close to a fire horse before. I looked at it with horrid fascination.

“I suppose it doesn’t get lonely?”

“Nah! You’ve got to keep them in stalls by themselves. Not in a stable with natural horses because the other beasts go wild with terror. Now this one’s bred from the best Rohan stock—mostly.”

“So you actually breed them as fire horses, do you?”

Guthmud gaped at me in amazement. “How would you do that? No—you take a normal horse, keep it in the dark for two years, except when you’re exercising it (best done at night) and flame it all over frequently. This induces the muscles to respond to stimulation with the old amber and cat-skin. Then you give it the Treatment.”

“Where do you get the horses from?”

“I buy ‘em. People know I buy ‘em, so they come in with them, whenever they’ve got one or two to spare.”

“Do you buy them from the Rohirrim? I know they’ve been grousing about how the new-fangled fire horses have been killing their trade.”

“Not directly from them. They’re a bit cagey about selling their beloved hacks to make fire horses out of. But most of the breeds I see look pretty familiar, if you’ve travelled in that part of the world.”

“You don’t suppose people are rustling them and selling them on to you, do you?”

Guthmud put his wide grinning face close to mine. “Frankly I don’t ask questions, unless the price is too high. It’s none of my business, I tell my dealers! And they respect me for that.”

Taking a torch out of a bracket in the wall, Guthmud waved it across the empty eye-sockets of the pale white skull. There was a “whumpf!” and flames appeared behind the eyes.

“There! Care for a canter?”

“Not around here, I don’t think,” I replied cautiously. “I’m not at all happy guiding my own horse around the City. And I wouldn’t know how to ride it.”

“You ride it just like a normal horse,” said Guthmud, “except it’s more obedient. The better ones learn to read your mind, so you don’t have to go controlling them with reins and spurs. You can’t anyway—it doesn’t feel pain. Some say it’s in so much pain already a little more makes no difference. You can also have the geography of the district burnt into their minds, although ‘mind’ is a figurative term with these beasts, you understand. Then you just have to think where you want to go and it goes there.”

“That’s neat!”

“The stamina is phenomenal! It doesn’t tire in the normal sense. But you do have to watch it doesn’t overheat. See?—the red light here on the control panel.”

I had noticed the tablet with pins and glowing gems set in the skull between the ears—which were really chimneys bent out of sheet steel as far as I could tell. Inscribed on the tablet I could see the words in the Black Speech for ‘whoa’ and ‘giddy-up’. I was sure it wasn’t as easy to handle as Guthmud made out.

“What does it run on?”

“Well—it doesn’t eat grass any more!” He sniffed. “Neat spirit, poured in here. Plus a little flesh now and then. Alive or dead, any condition. In Udûn it’ll forage for itself.”

“Very nice,” I nodded, trying to appear appreciative.

“How’re you getting on with your own horse?”

“Bess? Had her for years. Very fond of her—wouldn’t want to part with her. But she’s been getting a bit wilful recently.”

“Well, bring her in—we’ll give her the Treatment.”

…to be continued.