RINGTHOUGHTS

Hollin

Mmm, let's test this out.

Gandalf … no good. You know my little ways, don't you? And Aragorn … no, nothing doing there. Isildur's heir eh? We should have more to say to one another, but now isn't the time. First things first – and that means making sure I escape the Fire. Not that it will ever come to that, of course not, but assurance must be made doubly sure.

Hobbits … not much point changing from one to another. Better the Halfling you know. Ugh, woolly-footed and woolly-minded, at best not a full meal, and a nasty hard core to them too, in my experience.

Dwarf? Nasty gristly taste to a Dwarf's mind, and even when you've gnawed through it the results are so seldom satisfactory. Only as a last resort.

Elf? Oh, sylvan elf. Easier meat than Noldor certainly, but petty. And suspicious – comes from too near Dol Guldur. Keep in reserve.

Another man? Hmm, let's see. Men always have possibilities.

From Gondor, eh? We have a long, long score to settle with Gondor, and we should be delighted to do it with your help. Let's have a closer look.

Promising, distinctly promising. Rather self-absorbed, aren't we? A streak of vanity a yard wide, invincible self-confidence, pride, ambition, a fair smack of resentment already … mm, tasty.

Of course, there are a few nasty hard bits. Kindness, courage, loyalty, love of kindred and country, an irritating habit of protecting the weak … but nothing I can't deal with.

Young man, you and I are destined to be much better acquainted. You knew that, didn't you, the minute you first set eyes on me? But there's no hurry. We have a long journey before us. Plenty of time.

Let's just start with nourishing that vague feeling of resentment and suspicion. Not much fun, is it, taking orders when you're used to ruling the roost? Especially when they don't bother to explain things half the time?

The old wizard …Quite right, your father couldn't stand the sight of him. And we don't care what kid brother thinks, do we? No, I assure you, we don't. And this Aragorn … Thick as thieves with the wizard, obviously, and that's a bad sign. Is he really descended from Isildur, and if so, what does that mean for Gondor, and for you? Why exactly is he coming to Minas Tirith? To save Gondor? Maybe, but how? And why? Can you see him taking orders from you?

Hardly.

Think it over. And over.

Dimrill Dale

Too much action lately for me. You like action, don't you? And action with this so-called company brings out all your worst qualities. Bonding, do they call it? We'll have to break that up.

Did I catch some regret for the falling of the old wizard? Man, you ought to be dancing for joy. This is going to make things so much easier for us, you'll see.

Lórien

You hate this place? I assure you, my young friend, you can't hate it one-hundredth as much as I do. It stinks of elves and shrieks with echoes of Them.

But it's going to do my job for me. Oh, it was a very bad move on the part of Isildur's heir, to bring us here, you and me.

Inaction, that's what you need. Boredom, alienation, fretting.

I should fret if I were you. You've been away far, far too long. Is Gondor going to rack and ruin without you? Of course it is. Without you they haven't a hope.

And with you? No, let's spell it out, it's time: with me. Yes, you need me. All clear now, is it?

So you think you can handle me? And face up to the Master?

I doubt it, my friend, I very much doubt it, but by all means make the attempt. And if you fail, I'll hand you over to the Master and tell him you tried. Most amusing, that would be.

How to get me? Ah, we'll have to think about that. Not here, for a start. She's watching, you know that as well as I do. And the little woollyfoot, but he doesn't count. But he's beginning to suspect you, too, Isildur's high and mighty heir, so we'll have to wait on chance.

Had a quiet night, have we? Truth is (truth! not a word I generally linger over) – well, truth is, I had to try my luck with the elvish lady. To be frank, my friend, she'd have been a much better catch than you, but she's changed since the good old days. Seems to think she can curry favour with Them by turning her back on me… Not a hope, dear lady, They don't forgive, I assure you. At least I hope they don't.

So we're back together again, you lucky man. No more quiet nights, no more peace for you now till you get me – you know that. And when you've got me – no, when I've got you – there'll be no peace again, ever, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead. And after, my friend, and after.

Rauros

Perfect. Everything comes to those who wait, my friend. I should know, I've waited a hundred times longer than all the years in your pathetic little life so far. Just for this.

Oh, we're very deep in now… Cast down Mordor, will we? Anything you say, my boy. If you can withstand the Master (and oh, what a very big if that is…), then by all means, we'll cast down Mordor. And then, you and I, we'll make Gondor into something that would make Mordor look like a health resort by comparison. Delicious!

That's enough talking. Time for action. Oh, it's so wonderfully easy. Candy from a baby.

Curse this invisibility trick!

I didn't think the woollyfoot would have the wit or courage to try it. Well, come on, make a grab … you might still catch me…

Too late. Sorry, my young friend, but I have myself to think about now. The Master is looking for me and all I can do is call on him.

Oh, have your poor little mind back, if you want. I haven't bothered to make that much difference to it, yet, below the surface – I was saving the pleasure of devouring you until later, when you were well and truly mine. Make the most of it, you haven't long to live.

So long.

Ithilien

Things are getting just a little sticky. Woollyfoot is feeling the strain, but he's tougher than I thought, just as the last one was. And still heading for the Fire. Or is it straight for the Master?

No, he'll never make the Fire, and he won't be able to part with me even if he does, but still, to be absolutely safe…

Another Man?

This is a familiar flavour. By all that's wonderful, it's kid brother. I never thought I should get two bites at the cherry. I've had so much practice with the other one, it should be very, very easy.

Hmm. Surprising. Not really the same flavour. Pride yes, but not the most helpful sort of pride. There's a sour, wizardly overtone about this one. And a nasty aftertaste reminiscent of Aragorn. Ugh.

But this one's young. He can't be far gone in virtue yet. And if he is – well, the higher they are, the harder they fall. At this juncture, I can't afford to neglect any opportunity that presents itself. Let's probe a little further.

Lots of pain here. But while pain is always enjoyable, it isn't always particularly helpful. Pain-and-grief, pain-and-resignation, is no good. We need pain-and-hate, pain-and-desire-for-revenge … we'll have to work on that.

What else?

Suspicion. Excellent. Don't try to rationalise it, you young fool, reason is the last thing we want.

Self-reliance? Yes. Could be good, could be bad. But there's a sort of defensiveness mixed in with it. Ah, this is better. Used to playing second fiddle are we? Used to seeing our opinions ignored or overruled even when we know they're right?

I could fix that for you, my friend.

Intelligence? We're better off without that, too, but we can cope. And when you're mine, it will make you a much tastier morsel. There's no aid to suffering as good as lucidity, once you belong to the Dark, believe me.

And here's something much, much better. Curiosity. You seem to like proverbs, my dear young friend, so here's another one for you: Curiosity killed the cat.

So, Cat, answer me this:

Yes, I am Isildur's bane, but no, I'm not an orc arrow. What am I?

No, friend, you're on the wrong track. You don't want me because you think I'm a weapon and you hate war and killing?

How very peculiar.

But I'm not a weapon, my dear young friend. Not at all, and you do want me. You have no idea how much you want me.

What else do you want? I mean, really want, for yourself?

Hm. Not very helpful. Simple vainglory, like the other one's, is so easy to deal with, even if it's tangled with an irritating remnant of honesty. But to turn selfless wishes to selfish ends, well, it's a challenge. And I haven't much time.

But it can be done. Oh yes.

Come on, Cat. No, of course you can't let them go until you know all about them. Just keep on watching the mousehole and the mouse will come out, sooner or later. You know the answer already, deep down. It just needs bringing to the surface. Then you'll know me, and to know me is to love me.

Love. Aargh, that word. There's far too much of it in your mind, my young friend. When we've set the world to rights – or should I say, to wrongs? – I'll cauterise it out of you. It won't mean anything, to anybody, ever again.

Henneth Annûn

Aha, excellent. Small space, large crowd. Woollyfoot won't be able to try the invisibility trick again, he'd be caught by feel. Or of course we could torture the other one until Woollyfoot came out of hiding, which would be most entertaining … but somehow I think I'd have to work on you for quite a time before you would consider that. And time is what I'm short of. Never mind, the thing is to get you. The practicalities don't matter.

Talk, talk … but all right, my friend, I see your game and it's a good one. Cat looks as if it's curled up at ease on its cushion, but it's wide awake and watching the mousehole. Excellent. I could do great things with you, if the Master doesn't get you first. Mind, the latter is far more likely, now we're this close.

And here comes the mouse. Not my woollyfoot, the other one. Oh, neat, very neat. Straight into the trap.

One more effort and we're done.

Yes, I'm here, within your hand's reach, and you can have me, all to yourself. No, I'm not a weapon, you don't need to override any of your precious scruples. I'm simply power. Power to achieve whatever you want. Anything at all.

No need to be second fiddle to anyone, ever again. Don't tell me you didn't resent it. You did, you must have done.

Don't think any more about what I am. Or of who made me. Just think of what I can do. What you can do. Oh, it's so easy, so very easy…

All right, what about that pretty vision you had? I could make it happen. You could make it happen. No more danger to Gondor. Yes, Minas Tirith in peace, the silver crown return, anything you like. Come to think of it, why not wear the crown yourself? You could, you know. Who better to wear it? Think of it, now, think hard, and think fast.

Ouch!

How did you do that?

You didn't manage it all by yourself, you're a mere man, and for a moment I had you cold, I swear I did. Something helped you. Was it Them?

Was it Him? From the Beginning?

Oh, you needn't worry. I can't get through to a mind that's locked like yours, and I shan't bother to try. You're safe from me. The Master will find another way to make your life a burden to you, I have no doubt.

So what now?

You're letting Woollyfoot go, are you?

Towards the Fire. But every step nearer the Fire is a step nearer the Master. I think I'm safe enough, too, don't you?