It was getting dusk as I left Guthmud and made my way towards the Headless Horseman. When I got back to the inn I enquired after Goldberry.
The bar lady told me she wasn’t there. She had gone to Minas Tirith for the day to see her girlfriend. An empty evening stretched ahead of me. Moodily I wandered back out into the gloaming and decided to take a stroll round the city walls.
Minas Ithil is one of the spookiest places I know to walk round at night. The ruins of the old Morgul Tower glimmered pale in the light of the waxing Moon. Like reflected like, I thought to myself. In the warm summer evenings the local lads made beer-money out of taking tourists on ghost walks. But it’s not a thing you’d want to do out-of-season.
I was careful to walk the walls widdershins. Going round the other way you never know what you might wind up. As I was strolling south along the westerly wall, not far from Guthmud’s workshops, I heard a piercing scream echoing in the darkness. Making a dash for the nearest steps I hurried down and plunged into the maze of narrow streets, heading in the approximate direction of the scream.
I saw a little knot of people standing in the middle of the road. A single street lamp lit the scene with a sickly glimmer. Hurrying up I pushed aside the idle bystanders’ shoulders and glanced down.
A little orc lad was lying stretched out in the gutter, his eyes open and staring at nothing. In his lap, still clutched in his hands, knuckles showing white, lay a palantír. I thought I saw something nasty glimmering in the centre for a moment, but as I looked it vanished and the stone went dark.
Picking up the palantír I stuffed it into one of the deep pockets in my cloak. Then I knelt down to see what I could do for the lad.
“Do you know him?” said one old codger.
“No,” I said, “but I think I know what he’s been doing.
“Ee!” exclaimed an old crone. “I wouldn’t let my grandchildren play with one of them things.” The others growled in agreement and began to drift off in twos and threes.
I chafed the boy’s hands and gave his cheeks a light slapping. He looked for all the world as if he was dead. I knew I had to get him somewhere warm and cheerful. Slinging his limp form over my shoulder I struck out away from the walls in a direction which would take me to the town centre. Soon I came upon a little street cafe, with green slatted chairs and chequered tablecloths on the tables. I set the boy down in a chair near the brazier, where he slumped until he began to stir.
“What’s the matter with him?” said the waiter.
“He’s had a nasty fright, that’s all. Something hot and sweet, please. And an ice-cream.”
Well, terrible things have been known to happen to people looking into strange palantíri, but there’s nothing it does to a kid which an ice-cream doesn’t cure, provided it’s applied promptly. Soon the little lad was tucking into a pile of chocolate ice surrounded with apricots and sprinkled with hundreds-and-thousands. I couldn’t get him to speak until he’d finished, so I gave up trying.
“What’s your name, son?” I eventually asked.
“Snargfrid son of Guthmud,” he replied. “Everyone calls me Snargy.”
“You had a bad turn back there, Snargy,” I said.
He looked at me as if he couldn’t remember a thing.
“Where did you get the palantír?”
“Is it your dad’s?”
Since the little lad would say neither “yes” nor “no” I took it for “yes”. “We’ll have to get it back to him,” I said. “Leave it with me.”
He made no objection to that. I think it had exhausted its appeal for him.
“Do you want me to take you home?”
“No. I can find my own way back.”
“You’d better go straight home now. Won’t your mum be worried?”
“Haven’t got no mum.” He got up as if to go.
“Stick around, my lad,” I said. “Let’s talk a little.” I was so disappointed at not finding Goldberry in that even chatting to a diminutive orc urchin in a street cafe was better than doing nothing all evening. It didn’t cross my mind to go to the fetish club. I knew nobody there and didn’t have any gear anyway.
“What happened to your mum then?” It’s a complete myth, made up by the elves, that orcs are spawned in the ground. They have mothers like anyone else. Though they do go in for cloning.
“Got killed,” he said miserably.
With a little probing it emerged that his mother was out travelling one day when she was set upon by Elladan’s and Elrohir’s ruffians and hacked to death. It’s impossible for an elf to tell a male orc from a female, but I shook my head sadly. I know they’ve got a grievance against orcs, but they could really do with being a little more discriminating in whom they targeted.
It seemed that Guthmud was fond enough of the little lad, as much as any busy father can be, and took him around the place with him. Snargy had quickly learned to be seen and not heard, and most of the time not to be seen, if he could contrive it.
When I got back to my room in the Headless Horseman I took a good look at my acquisition. I looked for a serial number—there was none. I knew I had a classic palantír. I put the thing in my lap and began to gaze into it.
But not for long.
Soon I had it well wrapped up in a towel and was invoking every banishing spell I could think of. It was the Ithil Stone! One of the original Seven Stones set up by the Numenórean kings in the marches of their kingdom. When the Ringwraiths captured Minas Ithil all those years ago, it had fallen into their hands. It had been used by the High Nazgûl to communicate with his master, the Dark Lord. It was not a thing to go lightly looking into.
I wondered what I could possibly do with it. It was quite obviously Guthmud’s. If I tried to sell it, it could easily be traced back to him. He must have inherited it from his father Gothmog, who became master of Minas Ithil when the High Nazgûl fell in battle. Sooner or later Guthmud would miss it. And there again he might not!
Early next morning I penned a note to Guthmud and sent the thing round to his office, well wrapped up. In the note I asked him to give me what he thought it was worth. That should reassure him, I thought, that I hadn’t stolen it from his premises and was holding it for ransom. Rather I had recovered it on his behalf and was returning it promptly. I needed his goodwill, not his money. But since he might have been suspicious had I simply given it back as a favour I decided to make myself out to be venal and mercenary and expect some sort of reward. But I was careful not to mention Snargy. In the note I reminded him I was staying at the Headless Horseman and to address his reply to me there.
Then I mounted my horse and rode in haste to Minas Tirith. I had no expectation of encountering Goldberry there—I didn’t know her whereabouts in the City—but I needed to make a further examination of the scene of crime. I was sure the bedroom held more secrets than it had hitherto yielded up.
…to be continued.