My first thought was to scour the White Tower in my invisible state, searching for the Queen in order to mount guard over her. But I soon realised that wasn’t a good idea. If I did succeed in locating the Queen I might simply lead her foes on to her. Elandrine likewise would think to guard the Queen with her body and it would precipitate a confrontation. No—my best strategy was to avoid Elandrine as far as I could and instead hunt down Imalad and somehow neutralise him. I strongly suspected that he was the heart of the mischief. If not—he was certainly playing a dangerous double-game.
But so was I!
Both Imalad and Elandrine had every reason to suspect me of treachery. Of course if they were the traitors themselves they would treat me as their chief enemy. But it would be hard for anyone to tell the difference. And that included me.
Both wanted me dead. Both were hunting me down right now, with the full backing of the Tower of Guard. I must not let their enmity blind me to the possibility that both (or either) might be acting in good faith. Or rather—that both (or either) might be acting as agents of the Queen. Which was not necessarily the same thing.
Of Elandrine’s loyalty to her royal mistress I could no longer be in any doubt. Of Imalad’s double-dealing likewise—had he not murdered Guthmud and betrayed his own orc friends to death? That he was pursuing a different plan to the kidnap conspirators whilst appearing to go along with them was amply proven. Indeed his handling of them had been masterly. When the wain had arrived at the Citadel he must still have been successfully deluding his fellow conspirators that Morfindel was alive and that the fake Angrennan was real and in working order. If the palantíri were not in the wain, then he must still be in possession of them himself.
But to what extent were he and Elandrine in league? Who was tricking whom? To the orcs in the wain everything would have appeared to be going to plan, even if they never saw the Angrennan doing its stuff, or indeed saw anything but a rolled-up carpet containing a woman when they went to collect it from Morfindel’s bedroom. It all turned on whether Imalad knew that it was really Elandrine inside that carpet, or whether he imagined it was the Queen. It dawned on me that this was the key thing to find out.
I decided to undertake a systematic survey of the secret passages and to make sure the way was clear between them all for my emergency use. It was unsafe to go wearing the ring all the time. Elandrine and Imalad had the other two elf rings and would be making use of them to locate me. On the other hand if I took off my ring, relying solely on my guardsman’s uniform for disguise, I might escape their notice.
Adjusting my helmet and rolling down its mithril mesh before my eyes I dashed up the main staircase to the King’s bedroom. In normal circumstances I would have drawn attention to myself by doing this, but contrary to their usual behaviour, guards were dashing hither and thither in apparent disorder. Because they were now in battle-order, every man had his face masked by his mithril mesh, so it was impossible for one man to identify another except by speaking to him. Not knowing the password I had to avoid being spoken-to.
I reached the door of the King’s bedroom. A squad of six guards were standing across it, barring the way. Another squad of five guards had lined up before them, seeking admission to the bedroom in order to search it. I quickly lined up behind them as the sixth member of the squad, making it appear as if I’d been delayed. Nobody challenged me.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw something flash into view. It was another person in guardsman’s uniform, standing apart from the others, brandishing a drawn sword and watching me. I turn my head to look—but in that instant the figure vanished again.
In a split second I realised what had happened. The palantíri had been briefly parted. Maybe this had been deliberate. Or maybe they were only in loose and hazardous contact and might at any moment part for good. But for a brief instant, somebody wearing a ring of Power had been revealed to me.
I thanked my stars that I’d chosen not to be wearing my ring. There was a good chance that the hidden watcher had concluded that I was what I appeared to be—a delayed guard. Had I been wearing Nenya, the watcher would have realised immediately who I was.
Who had it been? As far as I knew Elandrine was still running around naked. It was most likely Imalad—but if so he had lost no time in donning a guardsman’s uniform since I’d seen him last in the courtroom.
The squad began to file in through the door. Too late—I realised that each man was being asked the password. I thought I heard the man in front say “ghostly”, but it couldn’t have been that because hands flew out and grasped me as soon as I opened my mouth.
I span round and fell to the floor, slipping on my ring. I slid out from under the struggling pile of men who fell upon me and slithered inside the bedroom. Instantly the men on both sides of the door began to fan out, shouting and swishing their swords at thin air.
Since there were so few of them and they didn’t search at all systematically they were easy to dodge. I made for the adjoining door to the Queen’s bedroom. I opened it—it was unlocked! But behind it I came face to face with a similar door on the Queen’s side of the archway. This was how the royal couple gained access to each other, whilst yet respecting each other’s privacy. Though maybe it had not happened for a long while.
…to be continued.