I suppose I was expecting the interior of Orthanc to be like the exterior -- lots of black stone and iron doors and vast spaces. Instead, it looked like a more elaborate version of Brandy Hall. It was larger, of course, built on a scale to accommodate the Big Folk, but there were the same wooden floors and paneled walls and whitewashed plaster ceilings. It was nearly as crowded as Brandy Hall, too -- mostly the Professor's uniformed Dunlendings, but also Rohirrim, Gondorians, and even a few dwarves. I recognized one of the latter as Yari the teamster, and he seemed as surprised to see me as I was to see him.
"When you three disappeared after the attack," he said, "I thought for certain that those black riders had made off with you."
"No," I told him, "some of the Professor's troops drove them off. I'm here to pay him my respects. What brings you to Orthanc?"
"Business," he replied. "A dispute regarding a consignment of pipe-weed from the Shire."
As I looked around I could see that Captain Gríma had brought us to a waiting room of some sort where visitors to Orthanc were sized up and dealt with according to some established procedure. Gríma himself had reported to a Dunlending functionary in a brown robe, who had responded by writing something down on a slip of paper and sending it off by runner. He returned to us and said, "Now we wait for a response. I do not think we will have to wait for long."
He was right. A soldier in a uniform like the others, but blue, entered the room within ten minutes. He sent the members of our escort back outside with orders to report to Lieutenant somebody for a new assignment, then said to Gríma and us, "Lord Curunír is ready to receive you. Follow me."
He led us out of a door in the rear of the room, down a hallway, then up a set of white marble stairs to another hallway. A set of varnished wooden double doors stood closed at the far end of the hallway, flanked by two more blue-clad soldiers, and our guide led us up to them. This time there was no set of ritual challenges -- the two guards saluted our guide and opened the doors, and we walked through.
Once again, I was reminded of Brandy Hall -- this time, of the large room where Ace's father, the Master of Buckland, met his guests. There was varnished wood everywhere, with banners and tapestries hanging from the walls. A set of double doors at the far end of the room opened out onto a balcony. One of the tapestries in particular caught my eye -- it showed two trees on top of a hill, one glowing silver, the other gold. Somehow, the two trees in the tapestry shone by their own light, lighting up that side of the room.
Our guide led us to a long wooden table with a couple of candelabras resting on it. At one end sat a man in white robes with long white hair and an equally long white beard. He had a high forehead, and dark eyes. There was an object sitting on the table a few feet away from him; it was covered with a black cloth, so all I could tell about it was that it was about the size of a hobbit's head. Our guide saluted, and the man nodded to him. "You may go," he said.
The voice sounded like solidified Wisdom, and it immediately put me on my guard. Doc Gandalf used to go on and on about how persuasive Professor Curunír could be, and I could finally see what he meant. With a voice like that, your arguments didn't need to make sense; you could make people agree with you just because you sounded like you ought to be right.
Those dark eyes looked at the three of us, and the Professor gestured for us to join him at the table. He had had the foresight to put a couple of hobbit-sized chairs near him with long legs and footstools in front of them. Petals and I were able to seat ourselves easily, and they brought our heads up level with his. Legs seated himself at a normal Big Folk-sized chair. Captain Gríma remained standing.
The Professor looked at Legs and said, "Aragorn son of Arathorn." So that was Legs' real name. Then he looked at me and said, "Mister Frodo Baggins."
"Call me Deuce," I told him. Amusement glinted in his eyes as he nodded agreement. I have to say this for the Professor, he got the hobbit male honorific right, which not many Big Folk managed to do. Nobody outside of the Shire and the Bree-land uses family names, and it seems to throw a lot of people off.
Finally, he looked at Petals and said, "Mister Samwise Gamgee, known as Petals." Petals' face didn't give away anything.
The Professor looked back at me. "Deuce," he said, "I understand that you have undertaken to deliver a parcel to Minas Tirith for a Miss Rushlight."
"You should know that Minas Tirith is currently under siege by an army of Southerners at the behest of the Dark Lord. In addition, an army of orcs, now under the command of the chief Nazgûl, occupies the Gap of Rohan, and will be at the gates of Isengard by morning." Presumably Nazgûl was another name for the ringers.
I shrugged. "I knew the job was dangerous when I took it."
"Are you aware of the contents of Miss Rushlight's parcel?"
"It's a gold ring."
The Professor nodded. "A gold ring. And do you have reason to believe that it might be one particular gold ring?"
I shrugged again. "It's none of my business which particular ring it is. Miss Rushlight hired me to deliver it, and that's what I'm going to do."
"I admire your dedication to duty, Deuce. It is not so common a trait as one might wish."
"I've got a reputation to keep up."
Those dark eyes remained fixed on me, and that golden voice continued to purr. "I understand. As you are my guest here in Orthanc, it would not be . . . mannerly . . . of me to place any demands upon you. That being the case, I would like to make a request, which you may feel free to refuse."
"Might I be allowed to inspect this ring? If you do not wish to part with it, I will content myself with a visual inspection."
The Professor was up to something, that was for damn sure, but what? He was playing the role of polite host for now, but if I told him no, would he ring a bell and call a hundred guards down on our heads?
On the other hand, one gold ring looks the same as another. Would he be able to tell what it was just by looking at it? It hardly mattered, since he already seemed pretty sure that I had Sauron's master control ring. Anyway, we were already in his power, so why not humor him?
"Sure thing, Professor," I said, and I pulled the ring up from under my shirt and let it dangle in the air from the chain.
The Professor made a gesture, and the black cloth flew off the hidden object. It turned out to be a globe of some dark glass, but I could see a red glow within it. Suddenly the glow sharpened, and there was a burning eye within the glass, looking straight at me. The ring hanging from its chain suddenly seemed to burn hot as a flame, and the red letters sprang out into sharp relief. The burning eye had me pinned to my seat, and I don't know what I might have done then if the Professor hadn't thrown the black cloth over the globe again.
And just like that, I was free again, and the ring had returned to its usual icy coldness, and the red letters on it had vanished. I glared at the Professor. "What in the Halls did you do that for?"
There was a smile on the Professor's lips as he said, "I wanted to make certain that I had the Dark Lord's undivided attention. I believe I have succeeded."