I pulled the chain out from under my shirt. The ring was still hanging from the end.
"You mean this ring?" I asked the Professor.
"Excuse me," Captain Gríma interrupted. "Commander Hunthor has ordered that this siege tower be burned. You'll have to vacate this area."
"Quite right, Captain," said the Professor. "If you gentlemen will join me in Orthanc, we can continue this conversation there."
A squad of soldiers with torches passed us as we made our way across the roof of the Ring of Isengard. The Professor led the four of us into one of the towers flanking the gate and down a long spiral staircase that let out into the tunnel behind the gate. Beyond it I could still hear the sound of Sauron's army fighting itself.
It took half an hour to walk from the Ring of Isengard to the Tower of Orthanc. I'm sure it would have gone faster if it had just been the Big Folk, but we hobbits have shorter legs. The Professor spent the time talking to Captain Gríma about the military situation. Once the orcs in the Wizard's Vale had reduced each others' numbers, the Dunlendings would clear out the remnant, then march east along the foothills of the White Mountains. They would clear out any squads of orcs that remained in the area before making contact with King Théoden's forces at Helm's Deep. "If you so choose," the Professor told Gríma, "you may resume your service under King Théoden."
"I don't think he'll be pleased to see me," said Captain Gríma. "He'll be even less pleased to see armed Dunlendings in the Westfold. He may order them out of the Mark."
"If he does," the Professor said, "then have the men withdraw to the Fords of Isen. I certainly wouldn't wish to give Théoden any cause for alarm." There was plenty of irony in the Professor's tone.
We were back in the Professor's study and seated at the table with the two candelabras when he said to me, "I must apologize, Deuce, for making you part of a deception. The ring you were given was not, in fact, the Ruling Ring of the Dark Lord, but was a duplicate made by myself."
"Uh huh. I see. Could you start this story from the beginning, Professor?"
"It will be a pleasure."
I was certain it would be a pleasure. The Professor was clearly a man who enjoyed the sound of his own voice.
"The story begins many years ago, during your uncle's expedition to the Lonely Mountain with Thorin Oakenshield. While he was traveling through the Misty Mountains, he acquired the Ruling Ring during an encounter with a disagreeable creature whom he referred to as Gollum."
"Uncle Lucky used to talk about his trip with the dwarves all the time," I said, "but he never mentioned finding a magic ring."
"He would not have," said the Professor. "By its very nature, the Ruling Ring makes its bearer secretive and suspicious. It was only at the very beginning of his posession of it that your uncle mentioned it to his companion Mithrandir." Mithrandir, I knew, was one of Doc Gandalf's names. "Mithrandir did not suspect at first what your uncle had truly found, but when he told me of it I suspected immediately. I knew then that if the Ruling Ring had been found that the power of the Dark Lord would grow apace, and that steps would need to be taken against him. We would, I came to realize, be forced to destroy the ring lest the Dark Lord regain it, and I began laying my plans to do so. Mithrandir opposed me, and in the end I was forced to expel him from the White Council.
"Long had I studied the arts of the Dark Lord, and now I put my knowledge to good use. I traveled to Imladris, and there I was able to study the Ruling Ring and in due course puzzle out the secrets of its forging. Then I created my duplicate, and was able at last to set my plan in motion. The Lady Arwen, daughter of Elrond Halfelven, agreed to bear the duplicate ring west to the Shire, drawing the eye of the Dark Lord, while your uncle set out with three companions to bring the real ring to Orodruin, Mount Doom, in Mordor, to be destroyed. And destroyed it was. Now the power of the Dark Lord is broken, and never again will he be able to take shape in Middle-earth and work his evil."
That brought me upright. "Uncle Lucky went to Mordor? Is he all right?"
"He has survived, though he did not escape unscathed. Fortunately his companions were able to protect him and bring him safely away from Orodruin. They remain in Mordor at the present time, but I am confident that they will be able to make their way out again, now that the Dark Lord rules there no more."
"So I was just a patsy," I said. "A sucker that you used to fool Sauron. Whose bright idea was it to give me your fake ring?"
"As it happens, it was your uncle who suggested your name. He was confident that you had sufficient wits to survive the experience, especially with Aragorn here to assist you."
"I must remember to give Uncle Lucky a thank-you punch in the face the next time I see him."
"The rest you know," the Professor continued. "The Nazgûl followed you here to Isengard while your uncle and his companions traveled to Mordor and destroyed the ring."
"Who did you send with him?" I asked.
"An elf of the Woodland Realm, a dwarf of the Lonely Mountain, and the younger son of the Steward of Gondor. They proved equal to their task, as I suspected they would."
"So Miss Rushlight, or Arwen, or whatever her name was, was acting under your orders when she hired me?"
"That is so."
"Fine." I pulled the chain over my head and sent it sliding across the tabletop to the Professor. "Here's your ring back. Case closed."
"So what happens now?" asked Petals.
"Minas Tirith is still under siege by the Southerners," the Professor said. "The fall of the Dark Lord will not sway them from their purpose. They mean to take the city and make Gondor theirs." He looked at Legs. "You have a part to play there. A crown waits for you, if you have the will to take it."
Legs was tense, I could see that. "It would take an army to raise the siege of Minas Tirith."
"One awaits you if you take the Paths of the Dead," said the Professor.
"Not if I can help it," said Legs.
"I fear there is no help for it," said the Professor. "A road long prepared awaits you."
I didn't like the sound of this, and I could tell that Legs didn't either. But if the Professor was right, then it was the only way Legs would see Minas Tirith.
"And what of you, Deuce?" asked the Professor. "Will you return now to your Shire?"
"I don't know," I said. "It sounds like Legs could use some help getting to Minas Tirith."
"Cripes, Deuce, are you nuts?" said Petals.
"Could be," I said.
Petals shook his head, then said, "So, Legs, how good are the locks in Minas Tirith?"