Back in Morfindel’s bedroom I began a careful examination of the woodwork, tapping panels and prying into cracks. I also tried a few opening spells for good measure. Before conducting my search I had checked the secret passage by which Imalad had come at our first meeting.

It led down by a spiral staircase to the ground floor, where it emerged beneath the main staircase. Nobody pursuing a normal path along the Grand Hallway or mounting the staircase would be able to see the exit. Indeed, a person coming out that way could wait and listen until it was safe to issue forth into the corridor beside the stairs, which led to servants’ quarters and offices in a choice of directions. Once in the open corridor, you could have been coming from simply anywhere.

The entrances to the secret passage appeared to have no lock, relying on concealment for their privacy. Once you knew their position, you simply had to grasp the woodwork and pull. I hoped the same would be true for any other passages I might discover.

It didn’t take me long to find a second passage. It was in the corner beneath a shelf on which stood a bust of a former Steward of Gondor. The corner panelling opened inwards like a double-door. Once you knew it was there, it looked for all the world like a doorway. I didn’t think it was well-concealed at all. Behind the double-door was another spiral staircase. I began to creep up it.

At the top, in darkness, I wondered to myself where I was going to emerge. Since it was likely to be somewhere private I felt it politic to rap on the woodwork before pushing, then trust to my ready tongue and the fact that I was on the King’s business to talk my way out of trouble.

I pushed and the hidden door swung open. I found myself face-to-face with the King.

He was sitting at his writing desk, regarding me with amusement. “Well, Goss, like I always said—leave you alone and you’ll eventually find out everything there is to find.”

“I do apologise for intruding, Sire. I deemed it necessary to explore all aspects of the victim’s bedroom.”

The King was sitting to my right. To my left was the fireplace. There was a poker in the grate.

“That’s all right, Goss. I do understand. Feel free to nose around here too, if you like.”

There was no fire in the grate. I knelt down in front of the fireplace and picked up the poker. I was careful not to stand up with it—it’s not a good idea to go brandishing a weapon in the king’s presence, whoever you are.

The handle of the poker was substantial—you could easily grasp it with both hands. The shank was of square cross section, swelling out at the tip to a shape rather like a carrot. My bottom tingled. I put it down again without a word.

Aragorn must have read my mind. “There are matching pokers in every bedroom in the White Tower,” he observed.

The King had not been present when the Inspector of Corpses had given his report. I supposed however that Bergil could have told him what sort of murder weapon was used.

“I was just curious, Sire. The poker in Morfindel’s bedroom appears to be missing.”

“You’d better tell Bergil that. I don’t think he knows. He ought to make a search for it. However I imagine it only has to be used once subsequently for its proper purpose and all trace of it being the murder weapon would disappear.”

“That’s what I’d imagine too, Sire. But the Inspector of Corpses might know something we don’t.”

“You’ll have to ask him. Do you want to take the poker?”

“Not at this moment, Sire.” I was certain that that line of investigation was pointless. Even if a particular poker could have been identified as the murder weapon, which was unlikely, its whereabouts would tell us nothing. There had been ample time for the perpetrator to go swapping them around.

“When I was last speaking to Imalad son of Imrahil, Sire, he told me that Captain Bergil had arrested the Inspector of Corpses.”

The King laughed. “On your recommendation he has let him free again. You could never accuse Bergil of sitting on his hands. But perhaps it is better that way. Rather do the thing you shouldn’t, provided the damage can be reversed, rather than leave undone the thing you should.”

I rose to my feet. “I have a question to ask, Sire. I hope you won’t consider it impertinent…”

“Even if it is?”

“I am merely taking the advice you just uttered, Sire. But I have a mind to ask—what if one of your courtiers was annoying you, or blackmailing you, or you simply grew tired of having him around? How would you get rid of him?”

The King answered immediately—he needed no time to consider his reply. “I’m able to send men to their deaths, you know,” he said. “I don’t need to murder them myself, in my own palace.”

It was a fair answer. Yet I persisted. “But suppose, for the sake of argument, that you did. Maybe in haste, out of anger or fear, without first considering the alternatives. What remedy does the Ancient Law of Gondor prescribe for that?”

This time the King did hesitate before replying. “When the Law was formulated I don’t think the possibility was even conjectured! It would be up to the judge to make a pronouncement, having considered all aspects of the case. Speaking for myself I would argue in my own defence that my personally killing a Ward of the King de-facto withdraws the royal protection from him.”

“So it is possible, once granted, for the royal protection to be withdrawn?”

“Oh, yes! Although it is sometimes difficult, and usually inadvisable, there is nothing I can do which I cannot undo. Except bring a dead man back to life again.”

“In view of all the complaints, Sire, which you must have received about the son of Gollum, were you ever of a mind to withdraw the royal protection?”

“Never for a moment. I had of course no idea some of the things he would get up to. But when I took him into my—er—close confidence I knew I was taking a man with creative capacities far beyond those of normal men. So right from the start you could say I implicitly assented to all the things he might do.”

“Even if some of those things turned out to be criminal?”

…to be continued.