“There’s something I’ve wanted to ask you. When you addressed the Council of Elrond all those years ago, did you know that Gollum had had inside help to escape?”

Down between us, out of sight, Goldberry’s fingers felt for mine. I’d had no idea how my friends were going to take it when I turned up at the Oliphaunt with Goldberry on my arm. I needn’t have fretted. Gimli was instantly captivated by her. And Legolas, though he’d never met her in person, knew all about her. Long known to the Elves of Mirkwood down the ages, before ever she’d met Tom, she was held amongst them in the highest regard, like an elf-queen. Nymphs are more ancient even than Elves.

Legolas, toying with his flagon of mead, responded to my question with a frank stare. “I found out soon enough when I discovered from the Galadhrim that Gladlas was in prison. The news came as a complete shock. Gladlas was one of the kindest, sweetest elves I knew in Mirkwood. I wondered then whether my father King Thranduil had deluded me, for I had learnt the news of Gollum’s escape from him and no other, and he had said to me not a word about Gladlas. But you must remember that I was despatched on my mission to Imladris immediately after Gollum’s escape, because of the extreme gravity of the matter. It was before the full facts had come to light.”

“Were the guards attacked by orcs?”

“Oh, yes. And all were killed. If Bergil says differently then he’s got his story wrong. Somehow Gollum must have got word to the orcs—I suspect wargs were involved—but whether Gladlas was implicated is something I have never been able to find out. My father the King was strongly of the opinion she knew all about it. After the Ringwars I tried to intercede with the King on behalf of the hapless maiden, but he wouldn’t listen to me. He said that conspiring in the escape of Gollum merited a heavy punishment in itself, if only because of the damage she had done. But then to go betraying her own people unto death was worthy of death in itself—and in keeping her in prison until she died he was yet showing her mercy.”

“That could have been a long time,” I mused. “I thought elves were immortal.”

“Not when they are denied the light of day,” said Goldberry. “True, Legolas?”

“True, my Lady. Just as orcs cannot bear it long in broad daylight, so elves cannot bear to be underground for any length of time. In the woods they do not fear the dark. They feast on starlight.”

“Dwarves need neither the light of sun, moon nor stars to remain in perfect health,” said Gimli, draining the last of his beer and smacking the mug down on the counter. “Not that they hate these things like orcs do, but they are happier with depictions of them, lit by wondrous lights in their deep halls, than to go marching abroad under the hot sun.”

“It sounds to me, then,” I said, “that King Thranduil (with all due respect, Legolas) was anything but merciful. And in less than fifty years Gladlas was dead. It is a short lifespan for an elf. I suppose she did die naturally?”

“They say she died of poison,” Goldberry murmured.

“That I can neither confirm nor deny,” said Legolas. “She had visitors. Morfindel went often to see his mother. She could have sent out for poison by him, if she’d had a mind to. If she was poisoned, then it was not by the hands of her captors. I would swear to it, even if they were not my own people.”

“What was Morfindel’s opinion of his mother’s treatment?”

“He deplored it! But he was not alone in that. Had she not died, I can well believe that he would have prevailed upon King Elessar to intercede with my father for her release. But then again, had she not died, King Elessar might never have heard about it—and so been prompted to send for the pitiable orphan.”

“How did Morfindel himself fare in earlier years?”

“Oh, as a baby he was pampered and cosseted. Nobody felt he deserved any sort of punishment and he was such a beautiful child he was an instant favourite at court. He had his own elf nursemaid and enjoyed the upbringing of a prince. When he was young, too young perhaps to understand, he seemed to have shown little regard for his mother, whom he was taken regularly to visit. These visits must have seemed to him dismal and tedious.”

Legolas sighed. “To be dragged from the bright woods deep underground, to see a sad lady in a room bereft of courtly furnishings, is not something to appeal to a child. He was said to dread those visits. But as he grew to manhood he began to take his mother’s part. Maybe she was able to tell him how he came to be, and sundry other things about his father. Things which nobody else knew, nor cared to.”

“What was his opinion of his father?”

“Oh, we used often to talk about it here in the Oliphaunt, didn’t we, Gimli? He would go on at great length about how ill-judged his father was. He, Gollum, had been the true Ring-bearer! When it came to the final test, Gollum it was who had achieved that which Frodo ultimately proved unable to carry out.”

“It sounds to me as if he inherited his father’s snivelling attitude to life!”

“Not at all! It was the father whom he had never met he was sorry for, not himself. It was hard not to like Morfindel. Self-pity was the last thing you could accuse him of. He was always extremely pleased with himself, finding nothing there to pity. Apart from King Elessar, Gladlas, Bilbo, Frodo and Sam, and of course the elf guards, all dead, nobody I know ever got that close to Gollum—certainly not to live with him, day-in, day-out. Those who have done so report it to have been a most disagreeable experience. But we knew Morfindel well, Gimli and I. And to judge from Gollum’s repute, Morfindel seems to have been the exact opposite of his deeply despised father. As I’ve said, it was impossible not to like him.”

“I must disagree. I have met many people these last few days who disliked him intensely. From the things they’ve had to tell me—they had good reason!” I glanced aside at Goldberry, who said nothing.

Legolas prodded my arm with his finger. “They tell you that, now he’s gone! But when they were face-to-face with him, I’ll wager they were charmed by him. Even those who had their misgivings. And maybe when Morfindel went away again, they hated themselves for being so compliant.”

“Grishnakh detested him cordially.”

“Oh, that I can believe! The King often employed Morfindel as an emissary to East Ithilien, on account of his capacity to soothe the savage breast. He used to order the officials of the Mandate around something shocking. And the company he kept over there in East Ithilien would have quickly brought him to the unfavourable attention of GUB.”

…to be continued.