Down in the cellar Grishnakh was still eyeing me doubtfully. “Have you actually ridden a fire horse before?”
“It’s all right. Guthmud showed me over this one and explained it to me, the very first time I met him. He said it was just like riding a normal horse.”
“Well… it is and it isn’t. It’s certainly fast enough to catch up the wain. But don’t let it overheat.”
“Guthmud told me about that.”
I picked the cresset off the wall and lit the flame inside the skull.
“Well, I see you know how to start it. But do you know how to stop it?”
“Blow it out. Like this…?” I took a deep breath. Grishnakh screwed up his face and twitched his head from side to side.
“Well how, then?”
“Button on the dashboard, marked ghâsh.”
“Fine! But it can’t be too different from a live horse. It’s not as if I want to look after it properly…”
“No but you want to get there, don’t you?”
Two GUB agents opened the big double-doors. I mounted up on the saddle. “Any other last hints?” I snapped impatiently.
“Be careful going downhill. Keep it in canter all the way—don’t be tempted to switch to gallop.” He smacked the horse’s rump. It didn’t even quiver.
I flicked the reins and the fire horse took off like an arrow.
I was so intent on catching up with the wain that I totally forgot to keep an eye on the red light on the dashboard. The first sign of trouble was when the horse stopped dead and refused to budge. I nearly went head-first over the flaming skull.
I looked down. The red light was winking furiously. Beneath the saddle I could feel a rumbling, as if I was sitting on the lid of a cauldron. Suddenly yellow-green smoke started pouring from the horse’s ears. I knew I had no more than a second to get off. With one foot in the stirrup I swung my other leg over and in a single motion hurled myself face down onto the grassy bank.
With a roar like a sick child belching up its dinner the fire horse flew to shreds. I looked up. Steaming horsemeat lay strewn about. Entrails festooned the trees. I was covered in blood and filth.
I picked myself up and cursed furiously. Now I had lost the wain. I didn’t bother to collect the pieces—the force of the blast had largely cleared them from the path. Moodily kicking a loose hoof into the ditch I started to trudge the weary miles to Osgiliath.
The sun was up when I arrived at my garden gate. I was still trailing blood and dollops of goo. Legolas was there, putting his spare annuals in my herbaceous border. He looked at me in horror.
“Ai-ee! Whatever happened to you?”
“Bloody fire horse blew up on me.”
“Serves you right for riding such things.” Legolas got up and brushed his breeches. “Wait out here and I’ll fetch the hose and give you a good hose down before you go indoors.”
He was as good as his word and presently I was drying myself down in front of the fire he had lit for me. Since I’d arrived back home I’d been tongue-tied and shuddering violently until the hot water calmed me. In spite of the urgency I went along with whatever Legolas would have me do, watching mutely as he fetched soap and towels, tub and ewer and filled the cauldron with water. I knew Bess wouldn’t let me near her if I had the slightest drop of horse blood on me.
Legolas knew where I kept my mead and I saw he’d poured us two goblets whilst I was in the bath. “Now take it nice and easy,” he said. “Tell me just what’s been happening.”
“No time for that,” I cried. “Something terrible has befallen! Legolas—look at me!”
I took Nenya from its cord around my neck and put it on my finger, instantly taking it off again. Legolas leapt to his feet. His eyes showed their whites all round.
“You vanished from my sight! Nenya is alive once more! What can it mean?”
“It means by now the Queen has been kidnapped—and the King himself is in peril of his life!”
Legolas froze to a statue in an attitude of dismay. I caught hold of his shoulders.
“Legolas, grab your bow and tell Gimli to fetch his axe. I’ll saddle up Bess—she’ll manage the three of us. We ride to Minas Tirith! The King has need of us!”
The City was in uproar. We entered the Citadel unchallenged. Guards were rushing this way and that, in stark contrast to their usual serene poise. Bergil’s office was locked. I caught the arm of a passing guard and asked him where Bergil was.
“Captain Bergil is nowhere to be found!” cried the man, before shaking off my hand and rushing away.
Nobody appeared to know where the King was either, though he had been popping up in unexpected places. “I last saw him down by the Gate,” volunteered one frantic equerry. Eventually we located him on his hands and knees at the portal of the White Tower, conducting a thorough examination of the scene-of-crime.
“Aragorn!” cried Legolas, oblivious of protocol—which wasn’t appropriate anyway.
“Legolas!” cried the King, staggering to his feet. “Gimli! And Goss too! Thank the Stars you’re here!” As he embraced the three of us in turn, his regal composure deserted him and tears ran down his cheeks.
Quickly we compared notes. The kidnap had been carried out exactly as planned. It was not until midday that anything had been reported amiss.
“Can’t find him anywhere,” said Aragorn. “Imalad’s in charge.”
“Sire! Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“Of course it is. Give him a bit of responsibility. Needs it.”
The three friends made rapid plans. Aragorn was determined to overtake the wain before it reached the Tower of Orthanc. Leaving me to continue investigating the scene-of-crime, the King mounted his horse. Legolas and Gimli clambered back up on Bess and out they all rode in pursuit.
…to be continued.