“Morfindel son of Gollum was responsible to me alone. And he knew it. Whatever I asked him to do he’d do it. Whatever I told him to undo he’d undo it. Never once did he disobey me. I must confess that some of the things that came to my ears afforded me considerable amusement. Life was getting so boring.”

“Nevertheless it might have been, Sire, that he was planning a fatal blow against you. He would have been a fool to plan for anything less than fatal.”

Aragorn cast his eyes downwards and toyed with the quill pen on his blotter. “That is exactly what I fear. And were one of my loyal subjects to discover such a plot, they might well have taken the administration of justice into their own hands, particularly if it was a matter of urgency. I would not like to have my hands tied when it comes to dealing with such a person. Do you have your suspicions?”

“Most decidedly, Sire. But for the present they are merely suspicions. And now, by your leave, I’d like to have words with Megastir, now that he has been released. And I was in such haste to continue my investigation of the bedroom that I failed to report my presence here to Captain Bergil.”

“Forget Bergil. I should find Megastir first, if I were you. On his release he happened to express his disappointment that you had not visited him in prison.”

With a pang of shame I recalled just who it was I’d visited instead – and what it was we’d done together. “I—I was busy. It never occurred to me that the Inspector of Corpses would have welcomed a visit from me.”

“He spoke less out a sense of personal slight than out of a desire to tell you something important. In private. At least that was the impression I formed when Bergil told me about it.”

Taking leave of the King I hastened south along the Sixth Circle to the mortuary. I hadn’t the slightest doubt I’d find Megastir there. But for some reason I didn’t stop. Instead I walked past the entrance and kept on walking until I got to the gate in the back wall of the City. There’s a watchman there, but he doesn’t stop anyone these days—you can just go through and tiptoe down the rick-rack path to Rath Dínen, the Street of Silence, stretched out beneath the louring cliff of Mount Mindolluin.

Soon I found myself wandering among the tombs of the Kings of Gondor, brooding in perpetuity within that dim strait. The House of the Stewards loomed before me, still stained and streaked with fire. The memory of the terrible end of the Last of the Ruling Stewards was still painful to the City. It was not so much out of neglect, as in tribute to the enduring pain, that the edifice had been left unwashed, unscraped, the cracks and crazes wrought by the pyre of Denethor weathering into the stone’s heart.

I peered in through the shattered crystal of a side window. There had been no movement to draw my eye, but it came to rest on the still figure of a woman. She was draped in a thin black shawl which hid her face and she sat beside Denethor’s charred skeleton as he lay on his marble slab, still clad in the black armour he had worn without respite through those last dismal days of his life.

The woman was Goldberry!

I saw her reach forth and take the blackened palantír from Denethor’s withered hands. Rubbing the soot from a spot with the heel of her hand to make a window into its depths, she peered within. I stood stricken, my temples throbbing, unable to move or even breathe. I fully expected to see her fall back with a cry, just as Snargy had done when he ventured to scry the Ithil Stone in his childish curiosity.

But no such thing happened. Presently she sighed and shook her head. Then, stretching forth her hand once more, she replaced the palantír in Denethor’s sooted claws. With head bowed, she remained withdrawn in the dark of her own depths, sitting hunched over the old warrior as he lay in the last extremity of defeat.

Suddenly I knew I didn’t want her to see me there, spying on her. Slowly I eased my face away from the broken window and crept back the way I’d come. Should I have called out to her?—spoken her name? Called her back to the world of light and life? But I knew that even if I’d shrieked aloud to her, she wouldn’t have heard me. She would have stayed sitting wrapped in cobwebs of grief, veiled in black like a gaunt crow, steeped in the futility of an old man’s despair.

Soon I was back at the mortuary. The door was unlocked, so I pushed my way in and called out Megastir’s name. There was no answer. I was just turning to go out again when it occurred to me that, now at liberty, he was unlikely to leave the door unlocked when he was elsewhere. I began to make a search of the various rooms of the mortuary.

The last room I came upon was windowless and cavernous. Taking a cresset from the wall and lighting it with my tinderbox I crept in beneath the black stone archway, carved with skulls and long-bones, yew-berries and lilies of the night.

Along the walls on either side were tanks for corpses, each like a marble bath filled with preserving fluid. A subtle mix of pungent herbs banished the fearful reek of death, with which I was all too familiar, but it could not restore life to the stagnant air. Out of little more than curiosity I peered into each bath as I passed. Some were empty, but a few contained corpses in various stages of dissection. A headless trunk was there, of the right stature to be that of the son of Gollum. If so, it had been pared down considerably since last I had set eyes upon it. Eviscerated and devoid of skin and muscle, it looked like nothing so much as a cast-off suit of elvish armour.

It was only after I had pried into each tank and was about to tiptoe out again, that I thought to take a closer look at the black plinth on a dais at the end of the room. There on the slab of shiny marble, pale smoky wisps on deepest black, beneath a sable drape embroidered with the arms of the City, was a corpse dissected down to the skeleton.

It was the body of a tall thin man with prominent ribs. Ribs to set shirt buttons buzzing as he laughed his booming laugh. Which he would never do again.

…to be continued.