I looked in the palantír ring once more and I saw the face of Aragorn. Whether it was an image from the present, or the past, I had no way of telling—he was not opting to communicate with me. He himself had no palantír ring. But whether it was the present time, or fifty years ago, it was the same careworn face, the same anxious frown, the same noble brow burdened with the tale of ages.
He was kneeling down, turning blades of grass this way and that. The grass slipped through his fingers, and I could see in his mind’s eye the dream slipping through his fingers too. The lovely dream which had all come true, as he’d told me himself. Yet here it was, fading—slipping beyond his grasp—as surely as if it were a spectre from another world, a world never seen by waking eyes.
I have spent some pretty bad nights in my life, but that night was the low-point. I don’t know how long I slept, but I came to, in the dark, lying on the cold stone slabs, the palantír ring pulsating on my finger.
“Gimli here! Goss, you sluggard! I’ve been trying to raise you for ages!”
“What’s happened?” I sobbed.
“We’ve just taken leave of Ghân-buri-Ghân-buri-Ghân’s people. It was they who were coming out of the wood when I had to break off. They were not initially disposed to be friendly—they’d been badly scared by what they’d witnessed. But when Aragorn introduced himself as King Elessar they bowed down before him and treated him as a god. They don’t forget that he gifted them this wood in perpetuity, out of gratitude for their help half a century ago. Even if we do.
“Aragorn demanded to know if it was they who had attacked the wain. They said nay, with such looks of horror on their faces that you had to credit them. They said it was the work of a demon—a gûl. They had known nothing like it since the Winged Terror.”
My heart shrank into a knot. The Winged Terror! During the Ringwars it was how people described the onslaught of the Nazgûl.
“The Nazgûl ring!” I gasped. “Were they able to describe exactly what they saw?”
“Oh yes, in great detail, though they are a people with few words in their own tongue and hard to understand even in the Common Speech. The wain stopped and gorgûn—orcs—got out. They were laughing away among themselves as they unrolled the carpet, clearly meaning to enjoy some diversion with their prisoner. The carpet was squirming, so the wild men were certain there was someone inside. But once the orcs had unrolled it—there was absolutely nothing and nobody to be seen!
“Then the orcs began running about this way and that, panic-stricken. As the wild men put it: their heads started to fly off all by themselves. It was all over in seventy heartbeats—fast heartbeats if you ask me, but I don’t think the wild men made any allowance for that. Then the wain caught fire and burnt to ashes.
“But you know, Goss, I wouldn’t say that sounded particularly like the handiwork of a Nazgûl, even if one has come back to walk the earth. An orc would say it was a regular tark trick, that.”
A lightning flash lit up my mind. “Elandrine!” I cried.
“Yes… ” said Gimli, “that’s the conclusion we’re coming to. Arwen’s not trained to do things like that, but Elandrine is. Now Aragorn is certain Arwen always wears her elf ring. If the rings of Power had all been enabled at the time of the kidnap, as you’ve been telling us, that would account for most of what the wild men describe. In fact for all of it, apart from the ferocity of the vengeance which the unseen person in the carpet wreaked on his—or her—captors. Let’s for the sake of argument say ‘her’.”
“Palantíri…!” I cried. “The palantíri were in the wain when it left Minas Ithil! Is there any sign of them in the ashes?”
“I’m sure we’d have seen them if they were. But now you’ve told me that, we’ll have another look. Hold on—Aragorn’s coming over.”
After the terrible storm in my soul, the sun was breaking through! I couldn’t make sense of it yet, but one thing was clear. Queen Arwen was not lying dead, or in hateful bonds. She was free! In hiding maybe, but very much mistress of the situation.
And if it had not been Arwen in the carpet, but Elandrine—then… then I had to throw away all the lumber in my mind and rearrange the furniture. That was going to take me some little while.
A lantern glimmer made me look up. A face appeared at the door grille. Hastily I covered the palantír ring.
“Just checking you’re all right,” said the guard.
He went away again. But he had clearly been able to see me, in spite of the fact I was wearing Nenya. So the rings of Power were not working any more. The palantíri, wherever they were, were no longer in contact.
Gimli came back on-line and I told him. He replied “The palantíri are not in the ashes—Aragorn’s sure of that—but we’ve found a footprint. A woman’s footprint! A fresh one—and the woman was almost certainly naked. Aragorn says he ought to be familiar with Arwen’s foot by now, or it’s high time he stuck himself on a slab in Rath Dínen. The woman who made the footprint is taller and more muscular than the Queen.”
“It’s Elandrine! It’s got to be Elandrine! It’s got to be!”
“Oh… ‘bye for now—we’re off! Tracking the footprints. They lead back towards Minas Tirith. Aragorn says if we make haste there’s a chance of catching up the person who made them.”
His face flickered out, but a moment later it came back. “And from what you’ve told us, she won’t be invisible now! Unless of course she has the palantíri… and can work them at will!”
…to be continued.