When we got back to our room I opened the shutters and stepped out onto the balcony. Neither of us spoke a word. The gibbous moon was three days from the full. He glared with a strange dim ferocity on the lava-smeared landscape. It was all rather beautiful, but it was a sinister beauty.

The air was flat. It wasn’t going to be as pleasant sitting out on the balcony as I’d hoped. Turning to go in I spotted two figures standing on a pier of rock, rapt in each others’ arms. Goldberry sidled up and slipped her hand around my shoulder.

“They don’t look like orcs to me,” I said. There was hardly need to point them out.

“Nor elves.”

“But don’t they make a pretty couple!”

“Oh!—to be young again,” said she.

I looked at Goldberry’s fair brow and chuckled. It had sounded so incongruous and yet it was perfectly apt. “Can you remember what the world looked like when you were young?” I asked.

“This hill of fire wasn’t here… nor were the grey fells of the Ered Lithui. Gorgoroth was a field of waving grass and in springtime a carpet of bright flowers. The Moon did not look so bruised and shattered when the world was young… and many were my sisters in this land.”

She slid her arm down to my waist and hugged me. “Tell me, in your turn… what the world looked like when you were young.”

“Burnt homesteads. Shattered windows. Broken gates a-swinging. Walls thrown down and grass growing through the stones. Vast mounds fresh-reared over fallen warriors. Trees cut down in leaf and left to wither. Yet the hope in men’s eyes gave promise of renewal—and such has come about. But in truth the light went out from the eyes of the elves. And they themselves… went out over the sea. And with them went my father and my mother… leaving me behind.”

I sighed painfully. “The light died in their eyes! Permanence and steady growth—nevermore to be in the earth’s gift. Speedy growth in its place, hasty, reckless—a handful of years of wild-rose beauty, a handful more of creeping decay. And then an age of silence, till the world’s end. That is the promise held out to those young folk we see down there.”

It was Goldberry’s turn to chuckle. “I’m sure they’d be pleased to hear that! Will you tell them?”

“Will I ever see them again? Namárië! Nai hiruvalyë Valimar…”

“But of course you will! Don’t you recognise them?”

I turned to stare at her. She said “The girl is Elandrine, I fancy. And her swain…”

I turned to look at them again. “…Is Imalad—or I’m a dwarf! What are they doing here?”

“Same as us. Relaxing in the spa! Enjoying themselves.”

“‘Same as us’—would mean combining pleasure with business! But what is their business here? That’s what I’d like to know!”

.

The following evening, Grimwald again extended an invitation to dinner. Goldberry begged to be excused, but as it happened the invitation was for me only. Some sort of council was evidently going to take place.

Grimwald had booked a private room. ‘Krax’ Restaurant was no place to go discussing confidential business and in any case we needed hush. The room was well-appointed, in keeping with the decor of the bath-houses—mock broken pillars dotted around, fountains, pebbles and pools, alcoves and concealed lighting. A plush table had been laid in the centre of the room for four people.

Grimwald was there waiting for us all and he offered me some of his pipe-weed. Next came Guthmud and the three of us chatted desultorily about the Mandate’s chances of winning the open falconry championship for the fourth year running. Then the door opened and the flunkey standing guard outside ushered in the fourth member of our little council.

My jaw dropped. It was Imalad!

He strode to the table and greeted the others by name. But before me he hesitated, then gave a short bow in silence. It was clear he was as surprised to see me as I was him. He turned to Grimwald, his eyes appealing for a formal introduction.

“Ah, yes, Imalad—you two won’t know each other. This is Mr Overdale, a merchant and traveller. He has not long returned from Haradwaith and has taken up residence, I’m given to understand, in Minas Ithil. Mr Overdale—this is Imalad, the son of Prince Imrahil, in the King’s service. He is a close friend of the good Morfindel, whom we know, and who, alas, cannot be here with us tonight.” Turning to Imalad he said, “And how is Master Morfindel faring?”

Keenly holding my gaze Imalad replied “As well as can be expected. He’s had a pretty nasty—er…”

“…Fall,” I prompted.

“Fall,” repeated Imalad. “They’re making him as comfortable as they can in the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith. He sends his regards by the way.”

“What’s your opinion, Imalad?” said Grimwald. “Will he be fit to take part in the Big Event?”

Still keeping his eye fixed firmly on mine Imalad slowly shook his head. “I fear that is out of the question, unless we postpone it, which none of us has any inclination to do.”

“Well,” said Grimwald, “as it happens I think we can go ahead without him. When he’s better he can then drop by and reap the benefit of it all. For which I’m sure he’ll be glad to reward us all a little bit more. I was however rather relying on him for an essential link in the chain, so to speak. Have you any news about that, Imalad?”

“No… at least—nothing positive to relate. It seems he has enjoyed little in the way of luck so far.”

“Then maybe we have a pleasant surprise for you. But first—dinner. A man cannot be expected to plot on an empty stomach.”

Grimwald rang a little silver bell and a feast was carried in. Dishes of food of all sorts, but I was thankful to notice no deep fried snapping fish.

Imalad eagerly fell on the food. You would have thought he hadn’t eaten for days. I too was quite hungry and we ate solidly and silently for several minutes, during which the orcs did little more than watch us.

From time to time Imalad’s eyes would rise from his plate to meet mine. I couldn’t decide whether the looks he gave me were of suspicion, complicity, puzzlement, interrogation, or sheer and utter desperation. Was he deciding when and how to denounce me as an impostor? Was he trying to decide whether I was in on the plot? Or was he, like me, a spy for the King? Somehow, I knew, he would have to resolve this issue. I wondered how he’d go about it.

I cast a quick glance at Grimwald. He was watching us both with veiled amusement. I wasn’t altogether sure just whom he thought the joke was on.

Imalad must have realised he wasn’t making a good job of hiding his discomposure because he blurted out, “Forgive me for saying, but when a new member is brought into a plot at a late stage, the others can’t help it if they feel a little in need of reassurance as to his bona fides.

Grimwald folded his fingers. “Mr Overdale’s credentials are impeccable. What is more he has rendered us a signal service.” He turned to me. “Now is the time, I think, to show our little conclave what you showed Guthmud the other day. You do have it on you, don’t you?”

“Most definitely,” I replied. “I thought you were never going to ask.” I took out the fake Angrennan and placed it on the table.

Imalad dropped his knife with a clatter. He looked from Guthmud to Grimwald to me and then round the three of us again.

…to be continued.