I could see Lady Eowyn rapidly losing her temper. “Megastir recovered it from Morfindel’s insides, if you must know. He returned it to me. Well-disinfected—I’m relieved to say! He tried to tell you but you were off gallivanting in Minas Ithil by all accounts. Horsing around with young Aelvsson—Tom Bombadil’s wayward spouse!”

“Oh,” I said, deflated.

“When it became clear back in the courtroom that the rings had somehow got their power restored to them, or else you couldn’t just have vanished like that, I went back and fetched mine and then helped myself to some suitable attire. There was clearly something afoot. Something involving an attempt on the life of either the King, or the Queen, or both! I wanted to do what I could to prevent it. I needed my ring to see who was proposing to do what, and with what, and to whom!”

I put my hand to my forehead. “Well, Lady Éowyn, I must say I’m really glad you’re here. I was convinced I was fighting the murderer! But tell me something. Where did Megastir actually find the ring? I’m sure it wasn’t on Morfindel’s hand when I had the body sent to the mortuary.”

“I don’t want to go into anatomical details in front of someone non-medical…”

“Don’t worry—you’d be surprised what I’ve been in my life.”

“All right, then.” Lady Éowyn took a deep breath. “I’ll tell you Megastir’s theory, as he expounded it to me.” She looked carefully around and I did the same. “Morfindel was extremely good friends with Imalad, you know.”

“Imalad told me. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not.”

“Imalad told you nothing but the truth. I would go so far as to declare that their relationship was one of unbridled intimacy. Now Morfindel had tricked me into letting him see where I kept my ring in the Houses of Healing—in order to help himself to it when my back was turned! I was wholly unaware of it having been taken until Megastir returned it to me.

“Megastir—who was himself on fairly close terms with the pair of them (to what extent I didn’t dare guess and never liked to ask)—knew that Imalad coveted Morfindel’s new ring. Which he, Megastir, already had his suspicions about. In a strange reversal of the story of how his father Gollum first came by the One Ring, Morfindel was murdered for my ring of Power when he refused to hand it over voluntarily. That’s what Megastir believed, and he had excellent reasons for doing so.”

I slumped against the banisters. Bizarre—but it all made sense!

Éowyn continued. “He surmised that on the night of the murder they were larking about in the buff as usual. Morfindel must have taunted Imalad to find the ring for himself, having secreted it up his back passage in the conviction that Imalad wouldn’t be able to get at it there. In his fury at being so taunted Imalad must have seized the poker and put his friend hideously to death in sheer frustration. He might of course have guessed where the ring was and been trying to probe for it, but it looked more like sheer madness. However Imalad had been in sufficient possession of his senses to be sure of one thing—he was careful not to spill Morfindel’s blood!”

“Whyever not?”

“Oh, don’t you know?—Morfindel was halfelven. It’s not a good idea to go spilling elf-blood. And that goes for spilling blood of wizards—and of the halfelven too. When it touches the ground it foams up into vapour, gets in your lungs and is apt to do you a mischief.”

I gasped. “Imalad must have known that! But the poker would have needed at least ten minutes to heat up in the fire …unless it happened to be there already! But that suggests a certain premeditation!”

“No doubt! But Imalad is a very calculating young man. Morfindel would have been unaware of his actual intentions when they were indulging in their horseplay and may well have presented his posterior in jest or taunt! He knew of course that Imalad wanted the ring, but he didn’t appreciate to what lengths Imalad would go to get it.”

I could see it all, now! That was why Morfindel had not needed to be tied-up. It was why there was no sign of a struggle, nor marks of ligatures on his wrists or ankles. Imalad could have done the deed single-handed and then escaped through the secret passage to the ground floor, just before Bergil discovered the body.

It explained too what Bergil was doing at the door of Morfindel’s bedroom at midnight. He could well have been trying to pounce on them at play, in view of the complaints he’d received about the noise they used to make.

It also explained why Imalad was searching so assiduously for the ring in Morfindel’s bedroom and even thought to make an inspection of his body in the mortuary. And why he pursued Megastir for the ring, even to the point of killing him, and dissecting him in sheer desperation when he couldn’t find the ring in the mortuary. And why he was so dismayed when he saw me put the fake ring on the table in front of Grimwald Uruksson.

I had known without a doubt that Imalad was in on the plot. But I had wondered, or hoped, he was playing his double game, perhaps as an agent of the King, more likely the Queen. But he seemed to have been pursuing his own aims all the time.

And what had they been? Primary to get hold of the ring, for much the same reasons as had motivated Morfindel, but nowhere near as well thought-out. It had all been sheer opportunism. Nothing pointed up so clearly the corrupting nature of a ring of Power. Especially one to have fallen under the spell of Sauron.

If it were possible, the person by my side grew ever more gigantic in my regard. She, like her husband, had had no use for this corrupting thing, except for the medical application to which it might be put—as a curative, a palladian. Chiefly as something to be kept well out of sight. And where better than the cabinet of dangerous medicines? The only thing perhaps that one could fault her for was not securing it sufficiently against the likes of Morfindel son of Gollum. And yet—hadn’t he come bearing the King’s credentials?

Suddenly a cry of challenge rang out behind me. I turned to stare in the furious face of Elandrine, still naked and spattered with orc-blood.

“Traitor!” she screamed. “Die now—like the rat you are!”

Tearing off the elf ring she lunged at me in one and the same smooth movement. Instantly Lady Éowyn kicked me aside, sending me sprawling, and engaged with Elandrine herself.

The instant Elandrine pulled off the ring, both of us must have vanished out of her sight, so she didn’t know whom she was fighting. To have a ringside view of two shieldmaidens of Rohan battling it out would have been a rare spectacle, to be treasured for a lifetime! But Éowyn had the advantage of invisibility, as well as being the more experienced warrior. Effortlessly she got within Elandrine’s guard and, grasping the girl’s wrist, sent the sword spinning out of her hand. Then, twisting her wrist, she forced Elandrine to her knees. Two sharp smacks echoed along the corridor. Elandrine’s cheeks glowed with the marks of long aristocratic fingers.

Lady Éowyn flung the maiden to the floor and, pulling off her ring, revealed herself.

“You stupid little hussy! Goss would never do a thing like that!”

Elandrine fingered her cheeks as if they were bleeding. “Prince Imalad,” she replied, “has told me the full extent of the son of Gandalf’s treachery.”

“It’s your precious Imalad who’s the treacherous one! At this very moment he is searching for the Queen in order to kill her. Your proper place, when you’ve cleaned the worst off yourself, is by your mistress’s side, defending her with your life!”

I too pulled off my ring. Elandrine, mouth open, looked from one of us to the other. Whether it was by sheer force of Lady Éowyn’s personality, or whether Elandrine knew in her heart-of-hearts she was telling the truth I do not know. But kneeling up and clasping her hands in deference she bowed to the older warrior. “I humbly apologise, Lady Éowyn,” she said. “Do I have your leave to go?”

“You’d better go right now. Forget the cleaning-up—this is of the utmost urgency. Get to the Queen’s side as quickly as you can. Goss and I will hunt down Imalad and head him off.”

Elandrine scrambled to her feet and, with a glance of residual uncertainty in my direction, picked up her sword and sped away.

…to be continued.