The Headless Horseman still being out of action, our little group sat in the bistro I’d discovered the night I’d confiscated the palantír from Snargy. Goldberry came up and joined us.

“Well I must say you guys made a hell of a mess back there. The whole town’s buzzing! Was it necessary to go in with such a bang?”

“In hindsight—no,” said Grishnakh, sitting slumped over a beer. “But we had no idea what to expect. Better to go in with too big a force than too little.”

Goldberry sat down beside a subdued Snargy, giving him a hug and stroking his greasy hair. The little lad was ploughing manfully through a giant ice-cream smothered in raspberries. Clearly it was going to take a lot longer this time for him to get over his bad experience.

“We weren’t planning on taking any prisoners…” muttered Grishnakh.

“Well, I’m glad you made an exception for one tiny one,” replied Goldberry. “How did he end up in there?”

“He never strays far from where his father is,” I said. “He’s not saying anything yet, but it’s my guess he was hiding under the desk when it all happened. He probably saw everything. Imalad, as I know to my cost, is a lot stronger than he looks.”

“But to pick up Guthmud bodily and impale him on his own hat-stand like a butterfly on a pin—that takes some doing!” said Grishnakh.

Glancing meaningfully down at the child I screwed up my eyes and held my finger to my lips. But Snargy, taking a breath between two mouthfuls, said unmistakably, “that’s just what he did.”

Goldberry gave him another hug. I tried probing him with questions, now he’d started talking, but the ice-cream had once more claimed his whole attention. I gave it up as a bad job.

I turned to Grishnakh. “What have your orcs found so far?”

He shook his head. “No sign of the wain which the kidnappers were supposed to be planning to use. There’s Guthmud’s fire horse still in the garage downstairs. You’d have thought he’d have had it outside and waiting if he was going to Minas Tirith with the kidnappers. Or perhaps he was planning to travel in the wain? …Odd, that. Guthmud liked his comfort. And a wain’s no fun to go far in, as you’ll agree.”

“I suppose the fire horse is cooked to a crisp?”

“No. My orcs missed doing that somehow. Why?”

“I don’t know. It may come in handy.”

By nightfall GUB had made a meticulous search of the ashes of Guthmud’s headquarters, turning up precisely nothing. Grishnakh and I sat in Guthmud’s office, the only room still habitable. The corpse on the hat-stand had been taken away for forensic analysis.

I said, “It looks very much to me as if Imalad has single-handedly wiped out the entire kidnap team. He did say he was planning something.”

Grishnakh sucked at his curly pipe. “Well, I suspect treachery, pure and simple. He’d never have got out of here alive if he’d killed Guthmud, unless it was done in secret.” He sighed in exasperation. “But where’s the wain? That’s what I want to know.”

“Halfway to Minas Tirith,” said a little voice under the desk. I peered down to take a look.

“Snargy!—I was just wondering where you’d got to!” Not having a great deal of presence he’d slipped into the office with us unnoticed and had taken up his familiar station beneath his father’s huge desk. “So the kidnap is underway after all, is it?”

“Oh yes. Dad thought it was just some last minute arrangements when Imalad asked to speak to him alone. They didn’t quarrel. Imalad broke the stand and just picked dad up…” His voice tailed off.

“Then I suppose he made excuses for Guthmud to the others and calmly went off to command the wain? When did it all happen?”

“Last night after supper. The wain’s on its way. They were going to stop over in Osgiliath and stay in bed all today sleeping. Then they’re going to ride the wain all through the night, to get to Minas Tirith by tomorrow morning bright and early.”

I leapt to my feet. “Then what am I doing here, just sitting around?”

“Snargy,” said Grishnakh, “who’s in the wain? Your dad’s gang… and Imalad?”

“Yes. The gang don’t know dad’s dead yet. They’ve taken the palantíri with them—and the black ring.”

My mind was in a whirl. What on earth was Imalad planning to do? Why take the palantíri and the ring? Just for appearance’s sake? Imalad knew the ring was a fake—I’d told him so. Or didn’t he believe me?

Perhaps he never believed me… or perhaps he had at the time, but Guthmud subsequently persuaded him that the ring actually worked? After all—Guthmud had seen me vanish before his very eyes!

I passed my hand across my brow. The whole notion was absurd. If either Imalad or Guthmud had doubted the ring for one moment, they could have done a simple test. They could have put it on!

Unless neither of them wanted to be seen putting it on—and disappearing? Or not disappearing, as the case may be? I was pretty sure they hadn’t trusted each other one bit. And for good reason, it had transpired. But might Imalad have murdered Guthmud simply to get hold of the Angrennan? …To hell with the kidnap plan—it was the perfect opportunity?

And then another thought struck me. One with such stunning implications that I had to grasp the desk to steady myself.

What if Faramir had given me the real Angrennan? What if he’d known that? Or what if he didn’t—but Lady Éowyn did? Might they just have simply made a silly mistake at some time or other, and got the rings mixed up? What if they’d been duped into swapping the rings around? …But by whom? And how?

Morfindel? Or… or…

I knelt down on one knee in front of Snargy. “Look—go and find Gee and tell her she’s to follow behind me to Minas Tirith however she can and to bring you along with her. I’m going to take your dad’s fire horse and try and catch the wain up.”

He was weeping now. Silent tears streamed down his cheeks. “Take me with you! Don’t leave me here…!”

“No. Too dangerous. Gee will look after you.” I struck my clenched fist into my open palm. “There’s something I’ve got to know…!”

As I stumbled to my feet I saw Grishnakh staring at me open-mouthed, as if I’d gone quite mad.

…to be continued.