We were just making ready to stop in the courtyard of the South Tower when a long-armed orc, shrouded in a cloak that hid his features, caught hold of the side of the wain and clambered up beside me. It was Grishnakh—he had been waiting for us. Goldberry, sitting the other side of me, shrank back instinctively.

“Excuse the lack of ceremony,” he said, “but you’re being watched! It wouldn’t do to be seen reporting in at the Tower. Pull round to the Teeth Inn. You know it—we’ve been there. Turn left at the blockhouse. At the crossroads I’ll get off. Follow me as inconspicuously as you can. And, er, Miss Gee…”

Goldberry flinched at this sudden transfer of attention. “Oh yes… I know who you are,” said Grishnakh. “I think you’d better stay in the wain. It’s not a good idea to leave anything unattended around these parts. Especially so valuable a cargo…” His laugh was like a brick going through a window.

At the crossroads he dropped to the ground running, not waiting for us to halt. I did as he said and pulled into the courtyard of the inn. I handed the reins to Goldberry and gave her a hug and a peck on the cheek.

“Chin up, pet, I won’t be long. Put your hood up so that nobody can see who you are. Or what you are. If there’s any trouble, hit the triangle behind you. We’ll drop everything and come running.”

I got down from the wain and followed after Grishnakh. He was walking slowly towards the yellow blockhouse, deliberately not looking back. I was careful not to catch him up, or even appear to walk after him. I reached the blockhouse by a roundabout route and mounted the creaky stairs.

There was someone else beside Grishnakh in his office, a young orc who smiled at me nervously. “Come in, Goss,” said Grishnakh. “I want you to meet Ratbog. One of my best men. He’ll be at Hotel Doom with you to keep an eye on you and make sure nothing untoward happens.”

“Thank you,” I said doubtfully, “but isn’t it going to look a little suspicious if he’s with us when we meet up with Grimwald?”

“No, he’s not going to do that. He’s going to remain very much in the background, aren’t you Ratbog? In fact you are both going to act as if you don’t know each other.”

I didn’t know whether to be grateful or not, but I felt it politic to give the impression of being so. “Pleased to meet you, Ratbog,” I said and held out my hand. He didn’t take it, but did a short stiff bow, breaking into a wide grin.

“What happens if there is trouble and Ratbog’s not able to handle it on his own? How is he going to summon help?”

“Ratbog is stronger than he looks,” maintained Grishnakh. “He was junior champion of the Dirty Fighting League, two years ago now, wasn’t it?” The young orc nodded rapidly. “But you’re both going to summon help like this.”

Grishnakh dropped two small objects into our hands. I looked closely at mine. It was a functional finger-ring of leaden metal, with a clear hemisphere on top. Something was twinkling in the heart of it.

“Mobile palantíri,” said Grishnakh. “Latest thing out of Dale. Don’t lose them—they’re expensive.” He raised his eyebrows and grinned. “But not half as expensive as a classic palantír, eh? Ha-ha.”

“So it’s a palantír—and a ring too? This is going to get me frightfully confused…”

“Yes it’s a ring too. A pretty powerful toy, eh? But it won’t make you invisible.” He gave me a knowing leer. Ratbog pretended not to listen. He was obviously used to his superiors making in-jokes to each other.

“Of course you can’t be sure who else is watching-in. So maintain palantír silence—unless it’s an emergency.”

“I really appreciate this, Grishnakh,” I said, and this time I meant it. But he waved his hand. “If we can nail the Grimwald Gang over this business, it’ll be a feather in our collective cap.”

I put the ring on my right hand. I wondered how Narya would get on with it. I had my answer quick enough—badly! Both rings started getting hotter and hotter, not to mention setting up an unbearable itching in my finger. Quickly I pulled off the mobile palantír and put it on the other hand. I was wearing Nenya round my neck. I had reasoned that wearing both elf-rings doubled the chance of them being noticed.

“Is Ratbog going to come with us in the wain? If so he’d better stay out of sight.”

“It might be better if Miss Gee stays out of sight instead and Ratbog drives the cart. He does at least know the way. Do you?”

“To the summit of Mount Doom? It’s pretty hard to miss.”

“But the correct road to get there across the lava field is not hard to miss. I’d advise you to let Ratbog drive. Well chaps, best of luck.” Grishnakh held out a hand to each of us, but Ratbog gave the orc-salute and turned smartly on his heel. “And, er… Gâkh bûbi narkû gimbubut lat! As we say: may the bastards never rumble you!”

As Ratbog strode on ahead through the doorway and his feet started stomping heavily down the stairs, Grishnakh pulled me towards him and muttered in my ear.

“Keep an eye on that girl you’ve brought along. She’s not what she seems!”

“Gee? She’s all right. I know her from way back.” I scanned Grishnakh’s features, thinking it was just a matter of orcish suspicion of forest nymphs, but he seemed genuinely and explicitly concerned.

“I know who she is,” he replied. “We’ve been watching Miss Gee Aelvsson in Minas Ithil for some time now. Or should I say Mistress Bombadil?”

“Weren’t you going a bit outside your territory? I mean, Minas Ithil is not within the Mandate.”

“I know. But there’s still a lot of orcs living there. We’re looking after our own people, if you like to think of it that way.”

“Why? Surely Faramir’s rangers can do that?”

“Since when did an orc ever get fair treatment from a tark?”

“Now look here. I know Faramir well and…”

“Never mind about that. It’s what the orcs believe that’s important.”

I was annoyed that Grishnakh had been watching Goldberry, not to mention straying outside his jurisdiction to do it. “If you’ve got anything on Goldberry—Gee, I mean—you’d better come out with it. What do you know about her that I don’t?”

“Consorting with your late friend and mine? Isn’t that enough? …For starters?”

“She told me about it.”

All about it?”

I was beginning to get hot under the collar. It occurred to me the story of her ill-treatment at the hands of Morfindel and his pals might have circulated a fair bit. “All I want to know, thank you.”

“It’s you I’m thinking of. It doesn’t escape notice that you’re keen on her.” He suddenly became aware that his lion breath was oppressing me and he lengthened his arm with a small grim smile.

“So what?” I retorted. “I don’t expect you to understand, not for one moment.” That made him laugh. But he still didn’t let go my hand. I added, “Do you think it’s clouding my judgement? Me—one of the most cynical of men?”

But he gripped my hand all the firmer and shook my shoulder slowly. “I don’t want to look as if I’m interfering,” he said. “But you just watch that girl—eh? I’d hate anything to happen to you.”

He forced a cut-glass chuckle and let go of my hand. “We narks ought to stick together,” he added.

…to be continued.