Back in his office, Guthmud set two small glasses on the table and poured some tarry stuff into each. I sniffed mine cautiously. It smelt as disgusting as it looked and if you’d brought so much as a spark near it I’m sure it would have gone up with a whoosh. We drank a toast to the palantír business and another to the fire horse business. I must admit the second drink went down a lot easier than the first.

“Been travelling abroad a lot?”

“That’s all I’ve been doing this last twenty years,” I replied. “I was brought up in Gondor, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the place. Minas Tirith I hardly recognise. Nor Minas Ithil, come to that.”

“Yes, we’ve made great strides. And the place across the river has mellowed down a bit. There’s some good bars there now, if you go with a group of lads. You don’t want to go alone—not if you’re an orc.”

Guthmud sat down and folded his fingers. “So tell me, young man. What’s your line of business? Are you into palantíri yourself?”

“Not especially. I’m a merchant of happy faces. Whenever I see a sad face I tried to think what I’ve seen in my travels which would turn it into a happy face.”

Guthmud beamed at me. The idea obviously appealed to him. “Well,” he said, “sell me a happy face. I’m a connoisseur of them.”

“You’re looking pretty happy already,” I said. “But I think I know what might turn up the corners of your mouth a bit more.”

I reached into my pocket and pulled out the fake Angrennan which Faramir had given me. I put it on my finger, clenched my fist, and with arm outstretched held it under Guthmud’s nose.

The expression on his face was everything I’d hoped for. His father Gothmog, of course, would have been perfectly familiar with the ring, assuming he was the same Gothmog who’d been the Castellan of the Tower of the Moon, something I had no reason to doubt. I had wondered, of course, how familiar the son would have been with the father’s affairs.

I needn’t have worried. He recognised the ring all right.

His heavy eyebrows lifted and his bulbous eyes stared. Then his mouth dropped open and his head craned forward. “Ma-thrakug, tark-ash, Krithob nazg, agh?!” he muttered before he could stop himself. (Brings-he, man-of-Gondor-this, of-the-Nine a-ring, eh?!) A cunning look passed over his face. “Know a bit of the local lingo, do you?”

“I know so many languages I’ve lost count. Though I wouldn’t like to go buying and selling in most of them. Let’s just keep to the Westron, shall we? I know the price of things in that tongue.”

Guthmud chuckled. “And can you rattle off the top of your head the price of that ring?”

“How much do you think a ring like this changes hands for? That’s if you’ve ever seen anything like it changing hands?”

“No,” said Guthmud slowly. “I don’t believe I have. Not changing hands.”

“Well let me tell you—it’s very expensive. I don’t suppose for a moment you’ve got enough in your back pocket.”

Guthmud grinned up at me, a big wide toothy grin. It was like staring a wolf in the mouth. He was about to suggest a figure, then he held back, flinching slightly, as if he knew I was going to laugh in his face.

“Let’s start the bidding seriously,” he said. “Twenty thousand crowns.”

Wow! I thought to myself, he was serious! I kept my half-smile fixed in-place. “Keep going,” I said. “A few more noughts.”

He had been holding his breath, but now he snapped back in his chair and let out an explosive gasp. “Ha! It’s a collector’s item of course. But there aren’t many collectors who’d aspire to owning that! Well, don’t let me kid you I can afford it. You are going to have to carry that heavy burden around a bit longer.”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” I said quietly. “I’ve barely begun to exhibit it. I’m only the agent, of course. Not the owner, who prefers to remain anonymous. But I can produce good authority to sell it, if called upon to do so. I fancy I know one or two folk who’d be interested in taking a look at it, at the very least. A collector’s item, did you say? I think it takes a collector who’s also interested in palantíri really to appreciate its value.”

It was a dangerous thing to say, but I thought I’d give it a try.

As if coming to a decision Guthmud slapped his hands on the desk. “I think I could find you a buyer,” he said. “There’d be a small commission for the introduction. Let us say… 10 per cent. Are you going to be around for the next few days?”

“On and off,” I said. “I’ve booked rooms in the Headless Horseman for use while I’m in the City. I’m not going to be here all the time—far from it. But if you want to leave a message for me, that’s the place to leave it.”

I didn’t want him to know my precise movements. Already I fancied he was scheming away in his ugly bonce how to lay his hands on the ring for nothing.

…to be continued.