7. A Nice Little Earner
“Mr Overdale to see Guthmud son of Gothmog,” I said to the girl behind the hatch.
“Master Guthmud says you’re to go right in,” she replied cheerily.
This was Guthmud’s palantír-recycling plant. They came in by the cartload, packed in straw, although why the straw I didn’t know then – you could drop a palantír off the city walls and it would just smash a few rocks. Though they do say the newer ones scratch easily.
I saw orcs, in row upon row of benches, working away unpacking the things, examining them for damage, tuning them, conditioning them, proving them, feeding in a few commercials and then packing them in bright gift boxes for the markets of Dale and Minas Tirith.
Guthmud came out of the side office and raised his hands expansively.
“Impressive operation you have here,” I observed.
“It’s a nice little earner,” he agreed. “It started as a hobby but it’s just grown and grown. The trouble is, parents buy these things, but after a month or two the children lose interest. We buy them up cheap and sell ‘em dear. Which is the way to make money of course.”
“Why isn’t everybody cashing in?”
“Nobody else has the skills, me boy. This place isn’t called Dûshgoi – Sorcery City – for nothing. It just takes a nasty wight to get into one and you’re reduced to using it as a garden ornament – and sometimes it has to be a pretty remote part of the garden! Well – all these chaps are able to get them out, see?”
“I should have thought their skills were much in demand all over Middle Earth and they wouldn’t have to remain here in Minas Ithil.”
“Don’t you believe it! Doing this sort of work you get so much noise in the head, you just want to go off at the end of the day and smash something. The boys in here drift out to the local bars and they get in fights and they smash the place up... the sorts of things that would only be tolerated in Minas Ithil.”
“So they really get the wights out, do they?”
Guthmud gave me a sly look. “Well let’s just say they put them to sleep. The kids get a month or so of solid play out of them, which is all they have the attention span for these days, then the stones come rolling back to us again. ‘Take it away! Please!’” He chuckled.
“I can see how it could be quite a lucrative business. Is this the sum total of it here?”
He looked at me wide-eyed. “What? Geddaway! You don’t think I could make a living out of this do you?”
“I’m impressed. All crammed into one street in the purlieus of Minas Ithil!”
“Well I wouldn’t say that. Minas Ithil is the showroom. It’s nice around these parts. Trees... pretty birds singing songs...” Guthmud had a slight lisp as well as a wheezy chest, so the way he said it nearly gave me an attack of the giggles. “Most of the operation’s in Udûn. It’s not a proper fire horse if it isn’t from Udûn.”
“Fire horses? You assemble them here too?”
“No... Minas Ithil is the showroom, like I said. A bit of repair, a bit of maintenance... here! – come and look at this!”
He led me downstairs through extensive cellars. I call them cellars although the street sloped so much that they came out at ground level at one end, where there were big double doors. I thought – what a marvellous place for dark deeds. They’d stand comparison with the dungeons of Dol Guldur.
In a stall by itself in the corner was a single fire horse. It stood as still as a statue. In place of the head it had an empty skull. Otherwise the creature was sleek and well groomed.
“There! Isn’t she a beauty!”
I’d never been this close to a fire horse before. I looked at it with horrid fascination.
“I suppose it doesn’t get lonely?”
“Nah! You’ve got to keep them in stalls by themselves. Not in a stable with natural horses because the other beasts go wild with terror. Now this one’s bred from the best Rohan stock – mostly.”
“So you actually breed them as fire horses, do you?”
Guthmud gaped at me in amazement. “How would you do that? No – you take a normal horse, keep it in the dark for two years, except when you’re exercising it (best done at night) and flame it all over frequently. This induces the muscles to respond to stimulation with the old amber and cat-skin. Then you give it the Treatment.”
“Where do you get the horses from?”
“I buy ‘em. People know I buy ‘em, so they come in with them, whenever they’ve got one or two to spare.”
“Do you buy them from the Rohirrim? I know they’ve been grousing about how the new-fangled fire horses have been killing their trade.”
“Not directly from them. They’re a bit cagey about selling their beloved hacks to make fire horses out of. But most of the breeds I see look pretty familiar, if you’ve travelled in that part of the world.”
“You don’t suppose people are rustling them and selling them on to you, do you?”
Guthmud put his wide grinning face close to mine. “Frankly I don’t ask questions, unless the price is too high. It’s none of my business, I tell my dealers! And they respect me for that.”
Taking a torch out of a bracket in the wall, Guthmud waved it across the empty eye-sockets of the pale white skull. There was a “whumpf!” and flames appeared behind the eyes.
“There! Care for a canter?”
“Not around here, I don’t think,” I replied cautiously. “I’m not at all happy guiding my own horse around the City. And I wouldn’t know how to ride it.”
“You ride it just like a normal horse,” said Guthmud, “except it’s more obedient. The better ones learn to read your mind, so you don’t have to go controlling them with reins and spurs. You can’t anyway – it doesn’t feel pain. Some say it’s in so much pain already a little more makes no difference. You can also have the geography of the district burnt into their minds, although ‘mind’ is a figurative term with these beasts, you understand. Then you just have to think where you want to go and it goes there.”
“The stamina is phenomenal! It doesn’t tire in the normal sense. But you do have to watch it doesn’t overheat. See? – the red light here on the control panel.”
I had noticed the tablet with pins and glowing gems set in the skull between the ears – which were really chimneys bent out of sheet steel as far as I could tell. Inscribed on the tablet I could see the words in the Black Speech for ‘whoa’ and ‘giddy-up’. I was sure it wasn’t as easy to handle as Guthmud made out.
“What does it run on?”
“Well – it doesn’t eat grass any more!” He sniffed. “Neat spirit, poured in here. Plus a little flesh now and then. Alive or dead, any condition. In Udûn it’ll forage for itself.”
“Very nice,” I nodded, trying to appear appreciative.
“How’re you getting on with your own horse?”
“Bess? Had her for years. Very fond of her – wouldn’t want to part with her. But she’s been getting a bit wilful recently.”
“Well, bring her in – we’ll give her the Treatment.”
Back in his office, Guthmud set two small glasses on the table and poured some tarry stuff into each. I sniffed mine cautiously. It smelt as disgusting as it looked and if you’d brought so much as a spark near it I’m sure it would have gone up with a whoosh. We drank a toast to the palantír business and another to the fire horse business. I must admit the second drink went down a lot easier than the first.
“Been travelling abroad a lot?”
“That’s all I’ve been doing this last twenty years,” I replied. “I was brought up in Gondor, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the place. Minas Tirith I hardly recognise. Nor Minas Ithil, come to that.”
“Yes, we’ve made great strides. And the place across the river has mellowed down a bit. There’s some good bars there now, if you go with a group of lads. You don’t want to go alone – not if you’re an orc.”
Guthmud sat down and folded his fingers. “So tell me, young man. What’s your line of business? Are you into palantíri yourself?”
“Not especially. I’m a merchant of happy faces. Whenever I see a sad face I tried to think what I’ve seen in my travels which would turn it into a happy face.”
Guthmud beamed at me. The idea obviously appealed to him. “Well,” he said, “sell me a happy face. I’m a connoisseur of them.”
“You’re looking pretty happy already,” I said. “But I think I know what might turn up the corners of your mouth a bit more.”
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the fake Angrennan which Faramir had given me. I put it on my finger, clenched my fist, and with arm outstretched held it under Guthmud’s nose.
The expression on his face was everything I’d hoped for. His father Gothmog, of course, would have been perfectly familiar with the ring, assuming he was the same Gothmog who’d been the Castellan of the Tower of the Moon, something I had no reason to doubt. I had wondered, of course, how familiar the son would have been with the father’s affairs.
I needn’t have worried. He recognised the ring all right.
His heavy eyebrows lifted and his bulbous eyes stared. Then his mouth dropped open and his head craned forward. “Ma-thrakug, tark-ash, Krithob nazg, agh?!” he muttered before he could stop himself. (Brings-he, man-of-Gondor-this, of-the-Nine a-ring, eh?!)
A cunning look passed over his face. “Know a bit of the local lingo, do you?”
“I know so many languages I’ve lost count. Though I wouldn’t like to go buying and selling in most of them. Let’s just keep to the Westron, shall we? I know the price of things in that tongue.”
Guthmud chuckled. “And can you rattle off the top of your head the price of that ring?”
“How much do you think a ring like this changes hands for? That’s if you’ve ever seen anything like it changing hands?”
“No,” said Guthmud slowly. “I don’t believe I have. Not changing hands.”
“Well let me tell you – it’s very expensive. I don’t suppose for a moment you’ve got enough in your back pocket.”
Guthmud grinned up at me, a big wide toothy grin. It was like staring a wolf in the mouth. He was about to suggest a figure, then he held back, flinching slightly, as if he knew I was going to laugh in his face.
“Let’s start the bidding seriously,” he said. “Twenty thousand crowns.”
Wow! I thought to myself, he was serious! I kept my half-smile fixed in-place. “Keep going,” I said. “A few more noughts.”
He had been holding his breath, but now he snapped back in his chair and let out an explosive gasp. “Ha! It’s a collector’s item of course. But there aren’t many collectors who’d aspire to owning that! Well, don’t let me kid you I can afford it. You are going to have to carry that heavy burden around a bit longer.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” I said quietly. “I’ve barely begun to exhibit it. I’m only the agent, of course. Not the owner, who prefers to remain anonymous. But I can produce good authority to sell it, if called upon to do so. I fancy I know one or two folk who’d be interested in taking a look at it, at the very least. A collector’s item, did you say? I think it takes a collector who’s also interested in palantíri really to appreciate its value.”
It was a dangerous thing to say, but I thought I’d give it a try.
As if coming to a decision Guthmud slapped his hands on the desk. “I think I could find you a buyer,” he said. “There’d be a small commission for the introduction. Let us say... 10 per cent. Are you going to be around for the next few days?”
“On and off,” I said. “I’ve booked rooms in the Headless Horseman for use while I’m in the City. I’m not going to be here all the time – far from it. But if you want to leave a message for me, that’s the place to leave it.”
I didn’t want him to know my precise movements. Already I fancied he was scheming away in his ugly bonce how to lay his hands on the ring for nothing.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.