8. The Terror in the Stone
The bar lady told me she wasn’t there. She had gone to Minas Tirith for the day to see her girlfriend. An empty evening stretched ahead of me. Moodily I wandered back out into the gloaming and decided to take a stroll round the city walls.
Minas Ithil is one of the spookiest places I know to walk round at night. The ruins of the old Morgul Tower glimmered pale in the light of the waxing Moon. Like reflected like, I thought to myself. In the warm summer evenings the local lads made beer-money out of taking tourists on ghost walks. But it’s not a thing you’d want to do out-of-season.
I was careful to walk the walls widdershins. Going round the other way you never know what you might wind up. As I was strolling south along the westerly wall, not far from Guthmud’s workshops, I heard a piercing scream echoing in the darkness. Making a dash for the nearest steps I hurried down and plunged into the maze of narrow streets, heading in the approximate direction of the scream.
I saw a little knot of people standing in the middle of the road. A single street lamp lit the scene with a sickly glimmer. Hurrying up I pushed aside the idle bystanders’ shoulders and glanced down.
A little orc lad was lying stretched out in the gutter, his eyes open and staring at nothing. In his lap, still clutched in his hands, knuckles showing white, lay a palantír. I thought I saw something nasty glimmering in the centre for a moment, but as I looked it vanished and the stone went dark.
Picking up the palantír I stuffed it into one of the deep pockets in my cloak. Then I knelt down to see what I could do for the lad.
“Do you know him?” said one old codger.
“No,” I said, “but I think I know what he’s been doing.”
“Ee!” exclaimed an old crone. “I wouldn’t let my grandchildren play with one of them things.” The others growled in agreement and began to drift off in twos and threes.
I chafed the boy’s hands and gave his cheeks a light slapping. He looked for all the world as if he was dead. I knew I had to get him somewhere warm and cheerful. Slinging his limp form over my shoulder I struck out away from the walls in a direction which would take me to the town centre. Soon I came upon a little street cafe, with green slatted chairs and chequered tablecloths on the tables. I set the boy down in a chair near the brazier, where he slumped until he began to stir.
“What’s the matter with him?” said the waiter.
“He’s had a nasty fright, that’s all. Something hot and sweet, please. And an ice-cream.”
Well, terrible things have been known to happen to people looking into strange palantíri, but there’s nothing it does to a kid which an ice-cream doesn’t cure, provided it’s applied promptly. Soon the little lad was tucking into a pile of chocolate ice surrounded with apricots and sprinkled with hundreds-and-thousands. I couldn’t get him to speak until he’d finished, so I gave up trying.
“What’s your name, son?” I eventually asked.
“Snargfrid son of Guthmud,” he replied. “Everyone calls me Snargy.”
“You had a bad turn back there, Snargy,” I said.
He looked at me as if he couldn’t remember a thing.
“Where did you get the palantír?”
“Is it your dad’s?”
Since the little lad would say neither “yes” nor “no” I took it for “yes”. “We’ll have to get it back to him,” I said. “Leave it with me.”
He made no objection to that. I think it had exhausted its appeal for him.
“Do you want me to take you home?”
“No. I can find my own way back.”
“You’d better go straight home now. Won’t your mum be worried?”
“Haven’t got no mum.” He got up as if to go.
“Stick around, my lad,” I said. “Let’s talk a little.” I was so disappointed at not finding Goldberry in that even chatting to a diminutive orc urchin in a street cafe was better than doing nothing all evening. It didn’t cross my mind to go to the fetish club. I knew nobody there and didn’t have any gear anyway.
“What happened to your mum then?” It’s a complete myth, made up by the elves, that orcs are spawned in the ground. They have mothers like anyone else. Though they do go in for cloning.
“Got killed,” he said miserably.
With a little probing it emerged that his mother was out travelling one day when she was set upon by Elladan’s and Elrohir’s ruffians and hacked to death. It’s impossible for an elf to tell a male orc from a female, but I shook my head sadly. I know they’ve got a grievance against orcs, but they could really do with being a little more discriminating in whom they targeted.
It seemed that Guthmud was fond enough of the little lad, as much as any busy father can be, and took him around the place with him. Snargy had quickly learned to be seen and not heard, and most of the time not to be seen, if he could contrive it.
When I got back to my room in the Headless Horseman I took a good look at my acquisition. I looked for a serial number – there was none. I knew I had a classic palantír. I put the thing in my lap and began to gaze into it.
But not for long.
Soon I had it well wrapped up in a towel and was invoking every banishing spell I could think of. It was the Ithil Stone! One of the original Seven Stones set up by the Numenórean kings in the marches of their kingdom. When the Ringwraiths captured Minas Ithil all those years ago, it had fallen into their hands. It had been used by the High Nazgûl to communicate with his master, the Dark Lord. It was not a thing to go lightly looking into.
I wondered what I could possibly do with it. It was quite obviously Guthmud’s. If I tried to sell it, it could easily be traced back to him. He must have inherited it from his father Gothmog, who became master of Minas Ithil when the High Nazgûl fell in battle. Sooner or later Guthmud would miss it. And there again he might not!
Early next morning I penned a note to Guthmud and sent the thing round to his office, well wrapped up. In the note I asked him to give me what he thought it was worth. That should reassure him, I thought, that I hadn’t stolen it from his premises and was holding it for ransom. Rather I had recovered it on his behalf and was returning it promptly. I needed his goodwill, not his money. But since he might have been suspicious had I simply given it back as a favour I decided to make myself out to be venal and mercenary and expect some sort of reward. But I was careful not to mention Snargy. In the note I reminded him I was staying at the Headless Horseman and to address his reply to me there.
Then I mounted my horse and rode in haste to Minas Tirith. I had no expectation of encountering Goldberry there – I didn’t know her whereabouts in the City – but I needed to make a further examination of the scene of crime. I was sure the bedroom held more secrets than it had hitherto yielded up.
Back in Morfindel’s bedroom I began a careful examination of the woodwork, tapping panels and prying into cracks. I also tried a few opening spells for good measure. Before conducting my search I had checked the secret passage by which Imalad had come at our first meeting.
It led down by a spiral staircase to the ground floor, where it emerged beneath the main staircase. Nobody pursuing a normal path along the Grand Hallway or mounting the staircase would be able to see the exit. Indeed, a person coming out that way could wait and listen until it was safe to issue forth into the corridor beside the stairs, which led to servants’ quarters and offices in a choice of directions. Once in the open corridor, you could have been coming from simply anywhere.
The entrances to the secret passage appeared to have no lock, relying on concealment for their privacy. Once you knew their position, you simply had to grasp the woodwork and pull. I hoped the same would be true for any other passages I might discover.
It didn’t take me long to find a second passage. It was in the corner beneath a shelf on which stood a bust of a former Steward of Gondor. The corner panelling opened inwards like a double-door. Once you knew it was there, it looked for all the world like a doorway. I didn’t think it was well-concealed at all. Behind the double-door was another spiral staircase. I began to creep up it.
At the top, in darkness, I wondered to myself where I was going to emerge. Since it was likely to be somewhere private I felt it politic to rap on the woodwork before pushing, then trust to my ready tongue and the fact that I was on the King’s business to talk my way out of trouble.
I pushed and the hidden door swung open. I found myself face-to-face with the King.
He was sitting at his writing desk, regarding me with amusement. “Well, Goss, like I always said – leave you alone and you’ll eventually find out everything there is to find.”
“I do apologise for intruding, Sire. I deemed it necessary to explore all aspects of the victim’s bedroom.”
The King was sitting to my right. To my left was the fireplace. There was a poker in the grate.
“That’s all right, Goss. I do understand. Feel free to nose around here too, if you like.”
There was no fire in the grate. I knelt down in front of the fireplace and picked up the poker. I was careful not to stand up with it – it’s not a good idea to go brandishing a weapon in the king’s presence, whoever you are.
The handle of the poker was substantial – you could easily grasp it with both hands. The shank was of square cross section, swelling out at the tip to a shape rather like a carrot. My bottom tingled. I put it down again without a word.
Aragorn must have read my mind. “There are matching pokers in every bedroom in the White Tower,” he observed.
The King had not been present when the Inspector of Corpses had given his report. I supposed however that Bergil could have told him what sort of murder weapon was used.
“I was just curious, Sire. The poker in Morfindel’s bedroom appears to be missing.”
“You’d better tell Bergil that. I don’t think he knows. He ought to make a search for it. However I imagine it only has to be used once subsequently for its proper purpose and all trace of it being the murder weapon would disappear.”
“That’s what I’d imagine too, Sire. But the Inspector of Corpses might know something we don’t.”
“You’ll have to ask him. Do you want to take the poker?”
“Not at this moment, Sire.” I was certain that that line of investigation was pointless. Even if a particular poker could have been identified as the murder weapon, which was unlikely, its whereabouts would tell us nothing. There had been ample time for the perpetrator to go swapping them around.
“When I was last speaking to Imalad son of Imrahil, Sire, he told me that Captain Bergil had arrested the Inspector of Corpses.”
The King laughed. “On your recommendation he has let him free again. You could never accuse Bergil of sitting on his hands. But perhaps it is better that way. Rather do the thing you shouldn’t, provided the damage can be reversed, rather than leave undone the thing you should.”
I rose to my feet. “I have a question to ask, Sire. I hope you won’t consider it impertinent...”
“Even if it is?”
“I am merely taking the advice you just uttered, Sire. But I have a mind to ask – what if one of your courtiers was annoying you, or blackmailing you, or you simply grew tired of having him around? How would you get rid of him?”
The King answered immediately – he needed no time to consider his reply. “I’m able to send men to their deaths, you know,” he said. “I don’t need to murder them myself, in my own palace.”
It was a fair answer. Yet I persisted. “But suppose, for the sake of argument, that you did. Maybe in haste, out of anger or fear, without first considering the alternatives. What remedy does the Ancient Law of Gondor prescribe for that?”
This time the King did hesitate before replying. “When the Law was formulated I don’t think the possibility was even conjectured! It would be up to the judge to make a pronouncement, having considered all aspects of the case. Speaking for myself I would argue in my own defence that my personally killing a Ward of the King de-facto withdraws the royal protection from him.”
“So it is possible, once granted, for the royal protection to be withdrawn?”
“Oh, yes! Although it is sometimes difficult, and usually inadvisable, there is nothing I can do which I cannot undo. Except bring a dead man back to life again.”
“In view all the complaints, Sire, which you must have received about the son of Gollum, were you ever of a mind to withdraw the royal protection?”
“Never for a moment. I had of course no idea some of the things he would get up to. But when I took him into my – er – close confidence I knew I was taking a man with creative capacities far beyond those of normal men. So right from the start you could say I implicitly assented to all the things he might do.”
“Even if some of those things turned out to be criminal?”
“Morfindel son of Gollum was responsible to me alone. And he knew it. Whatever I asked him to do he’d do it. Whatever I told him to undo he’d undo it. Never once did he disobey me. I must confess that some of the things that came to my ears afforded me considerable amusement. Life was getting so boring.”
“Nevertheless it might have been, Sire, that he was planning a fatal blow against you. He would have been a fool to plan for anything less than fatal.”
Aragorn cast his eyes downwards and toyed with the quill pen on his blotter. “That is exactly what I fear. And were one of my loyal subjects to discover such a plot, they might well have taken the administration of justice into their own hands, particularly if it was a matter of urgency. I would not like to have my hands tied when it comes to dealing with such a person. Do you have your suspicions?”
“Most decidedly, Sire. But for the present they are merely suspicions. And now, by your leave, I’d like to have words with Megastir, now that he has been released. And I was in such haste to continue my investigation of the bedroom that I failed to report my presence here to Captain Bergil.”
“Forget Bergil. I should find Megastir first, if I were you. On his release he happened to express his disappointment that you had not visited him in prison.”
“I – I was busy. It never occurred to me that the Inspector of Corpses would have welcomed a visit from me.”
“He spoke less out a sense of personal slight than out of a desire to tell you something important. In private. At least that was the impression I formed when Bergil told me about it.”
Taking leave of the King I hastened south along the Sixth Circle to the mortuary. I hadn’t the slightest doubt I’d find Megastir there. But for some reason I didn’t stop. Instead I walked past the entrance and kept on walking until I got to the gate in the back wall of the City. There’s a watchman there, but he doesn’t stop anyone these days – you can just go through and tiptoe down the rick-rack path to Rath Dínen, the Street of Silence, stretched out beneath the louring cliff of Mount Mindolluin.
Soon I found myself wandering among the tombs of the Kings of Gondor, brooding in perpetuity within that dim strait. The House of the Stewards loomed before me, still stained and streaked with fire. The memory of the terrible end of the Last of the Ruling Stewards was still painful to the City. It was not so much out of neglect, as in tribute to the enduring pain, that the edifice had been left unwashed, unscraped, the cracks and crazes wrought by the pyre of Denethor weathering into the stone’s heart.
I peered in through the shattered crystal of a side window. There had been no movement to draw my eye, but it came to rest on the still figure of a woman. She was draped in a thin black shawl which hid her face and she sat beside Denethor’s charred skeleton as he lay on his marble slab, still clad in the black armour he had worn without respite through those last dismal days of his life.
The woman was Goldberry!
I saw her reach forth and take the blackened palantír from Denethor’s withered hands. Rubbing the soot from a spot with the heel of her hand to make a window into its depths, she peered within. I stood stricken, my temples throbbing, unable to move or even breathe. I fully expected to see her fall back with a cry, just as Snargy had done when he ventured to scry the Ithil Stone in his childish curiosity.
But no such thing happened. Presently she sighed and shook her head. Then, stretching forth her hand once more, she replaced the palantír in Denethor’s sooted claws. With head bowed, she remained withdrawn in the dark of her own depths, sitting hunched over the old warrior as he lay in the last extremity of defeat.
Suddenly I knew I didn’t want her to see me there, spying on her. Slowly I eased my face away from the broken window and crept back the way I’d come. Should I have called out to her? – spoken her name? Called her back to the world of light and life? But I knew that even if I’d shrieked aloud to her, she wouldn’t have heard me. She would have stayed sitting wrapped in cobwebs of grief, veiled in black like a gaunt crow, steeped in the futility of an old man’s despair.
Soon I was back at the mortuary. The door was unlocked, so I pushed my way in and called out Megastir’s name. There was no answer. I was just turning to go out again when it occurred to me that, now at liberty, he was unlikely to leave the door unlocked when he was elsewhere. I began to make a search of the various rooms of the mortuary.
The last room I came upon was windowless and cavernous. Taking a cresset from the wall and lighting it with my tinderbox I crept in beneath the black stone archway, carved with skulls and long-bones, yew-berries and lilies of the night.
Along the walls on either side were tanks for corpses, each like a marble bath filled with preserving fluid. A subtle mix of pungent herbs banished the fearful reek of death, with which I was all too familiar, but it could not restore life to the stagnant air. Out of little more than curiosity I peered into each bath as I passed. Some were empty, but a few contained corpses in various stages of dissection. A headless trunk was there, of the right stature to be that of the son of Gollum. If so, it had been pared down considerably since last I had set eyes upon it. Eviscerated and devoid of skin and muscle, it looked like nothing so much as a cast-off suit of elvish armour.
It was only after I had pried into each tank and was about to tiptoe out again, that I thought to take a closer look at the black plinth on a dais at the end of the room. There on the slab of shiny marble, pale smoky wisps on deepest black, beneath a sable drape embroidered with the arms of the City, was a corpse dissected down to the skeleton. It was the body of a tall thin man with prominent ribs. Ribs to set shirt buttons buzzing as he laughed his booming laugh. Which he would never do again.
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.