11. The Road to Orodruin
“Excuse the lack of ceremony,” he said, “but you’re being watched! It wouldn’t do to be seen reporting in at the Tower. Pull round to the Teeth Inn. You know it – we’ve been there. Turn left at the blockhouse. At the crossroads I’ll get off. Follow me as inconspicuously as you can. And, er, Miss Gee...”
Goldberry flinched at this sudden transfer of attention. “Oh yes... I know who you are,” said Grishnakh. “I think you’d better stay in the wain. It’s not a good idea to leave anything unattended around these parts. Especially so valuable a cargo...” His laugh was like a brick going through a window.
At the crossroads he dropped to the ground running, not waiting for us to halt. I did as he said and pulled into the courtyard of the inn. I handed the reins to Goldberry and gave her a hug and a peck on the cheek.
“Chin up, pet, I won’t be long. Put your hood up so that nobody can see who you are. Or what you are. If there’s any trouble, hit the triangle behind you. We’ll drop everything and come running.”
I got down from the wain and followed after Grishnakh. He was walking slowly towards the yellow blockhouse, deliberately not looking back. I was careful not to catch him up, or even appear to walk after him. I reached the blockhouse by a roundabout route and mounted the creaky stairs.
There was someone else beside Grishnakh in his office, a young orc who smiled at me nervously. “Come in, Goss,” said Grishnakh. “I want you to meet Ratbog. One of my best men. He’ll be at Hotel Doom with you to keep an eye on you and make sure nothing untoward happens.”
“Thank you,” I said doubtfully, “but isn’t it going to look a little suspicious if he’s with us when we meet up with Grimwald?”
“No, he’s not going to do that. He’s going to remain very much in the background, aren’t you Ratbog? In fact you are both going to act as if you don’t know each other.”
I didn’t know whether to be grateful or not, but I felt it politic to give the impression of being so. “Pleased to meet you, Ratbog,” I said and held out my hand. He didn’t take it, but did a short stiff bow, breaking into a wide grin.
“What happens if there is trouble and Ratbog’s not able to handle it on his own? How is he going to summon help?”
“Ratbog is stronger than he looks,” maintained Grishnakh. “He was junior champion of the Dirty Fighting League, two years ago now, wasn’t it?” The young orc nodded rapidly. “But you’re both going to summon help like this.”
Grishnakh dropped two small objects into our hands. I looked closely at mine. It was a functional finger-ring of leaden metal, with a clear hemisphere on top. Something was twinkling in the heart of it.
“Mobile palantíri,” said Grishnakh. “Latest thing out of Dale. Don’t lose them – they’re expensive.” He raised his eyebrows and grinned. “But not half as expensive as a classic palantír, eh? Ha-ha.”
“So it’s a palantír – and a ring too? This is going to get me frightfully confused...”
“Yes it’s a ring too. A pretty powerful toy, eh? But it won’t make you invisible.” He gave me a knowing leer. Ratbog pretended not to listen. He was obviously used to his superiors making in-jokes to each other.
“Of course you can’t be sure who else is watching-in. So maintain palantír silence – unless it’s an emergency.”
“I really appreciate this, Grishnakh,” I said, and this time I meant it. But he waved his hand. “If we can nail the Grimwald Gang over this business, it’ll be a feather in our collective cap.”
I put the ring on my right hand. I wondered how Narya would get on with it. I had my answer quick enough – badly! Both rings started getting hotter and hotter, not to mention setting up an unbearable itching in my finger. Quickly I pulled off the mobile palantír and put it on the other hand. I was wearing Nenya round my neck. I had reasoned that wearing both elf-rings doubled the chance of them being noticed.
“Is Ratbog going to come with us in the wain? If so he’d better stay out of sight.”
“It might be better if Miss Gee stays out of sight instead and Ratbog drives the cart. He does at least know the way. Do you?”
“To the summit of Mount Doom? It’s pretty hard to miss.”
“But the correct road to get there across the lava field is not hard to miss. I’d advise you to let Ratbog drive. Well chaps, best of luck.” Grishnakh held out a hand to each of us, but Ratbog gave the orc-salute and turned smartly on his heel. “And, er... Gâkh bûbi narkû gimbubut lat! As we say: may the swine never rumble you!”
As Ratbog strode on ahead through the doorway and his feet started stomping heavily down the stairs, Grishnakh pulled me towards him and muttered in my ear.
“Keep an eye on that girl you’ve brought along. She’s not what she seems!”
“Gee? She’s all right. I know her from way back.” I scanned Grishnakh’s features, thinking it was just a matter of orcish suspicion of forest nymphs, but he seemed genuinely and explicitly concerned.
“I know who she is,” he replied. “We’ve been watching Miss Gee Aelvsson in Minas Ithil for some time now. Or should I say Mistress Bombadil?”
“Weren’t you going a bit outside your territory? I mean, Minas Ithil is not within the Mandate.”
“I know. But there’s still a lot of orcs living there. We’re looking after our own people, if you like to think of it that way.”
“Why? Surely Faramir’s rangers can do that?”
“Since when did an orc ever get fair treatment from a tark?”
“Now look here. I know Faramir well and...”
“Never mind about that. It’s what the orcs believe that’s important.”
I was annoyed that Grishnakh had been watching Goldberry, not to mention straying outside his jurisdiction to do it. “If you’ve got anything on Goldberry – Gee, I mean – you’d better come out with it. What do you know about her that I don’t?”
“Consorting with your late friend and mine? Isn’t that enough? ...For starters?”
“She told me about it.”
“All about it?”
I was beginning to get hot under the collar. It occurred to me the story of her ill-treatment at the hands of Morfindel and his pals might have circulated a fair bit. “All I want to know, thank you.”
“It’s you I’m thinking of. It doesn’t escape notice that you’re keen on her.” He suddenly became aware that his lion breath was oppressing me and he lengthened his arm with a small grim smile.
“So what?” I retorted. “I don’t expect you to understand, not for one moment.” That made him laugh. But he still didn’t let go my hand. I added, “Do you think it’s clouding my judgement? Me – one of the most cynical of men?”
But he gripped my hand all the firmer and shook my shoulder slowly. “I don’t want to look as if I’m interfering,” he said. “But you just watch that girl – eh? I’d hate anything to happen to you.”
He forced a cut-glass chuckle and let go of my hand. “We narks ought to stick together,” he added.
I was nearly back at the inn when I heard the triangle being banged. I broke into a run and found Goldberry fighting with Ratbog in the driving seat. Correction: Goldberry was fighting and Ratbog was doing his best to fend her off. “Shush!” he was saying. “Shush!”
I jumped up onto the wheel and thrust myself in between them, getting an elbow in the eye for my pains. “Cut it out, you two,” I shouted. Both of them sat bolt upright like scolded children. I peered anxiously round the fringe of my hood to see who might be watching.
“Well, that’s drawn attention to us, if anything was needed,” I observed acidly. Then I thought to revise my approach. “I’m sorry... I should have been here to introduce you. Gee – this is Ratbog. Ratbog – this is my partner, er, companion, Gee.”
“What have we got an orc with us for?”
Ratbog sniffed. “You just have to put up with what you can get.”
“Ratbog, I’m sorry...” I said. “Forgive Gee – she was just a little taken aback, that’s all.” I gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder. “Let’s be on our way,” I said, taking the reins out of Goldberry’s hands and giving them to Ratbog. Then as the wain lurched into motion I grabbed Goldberry by the shoulders and tumbled us both back onto the sacking in the covered part behind us. I put my hand over her mouth as she tried to protest.
“Ratbog’s a GUB agent,” I half-whispered, half-snarled in her ear. “Grishnakh’s lent him to us. Once we’re at Hotel Doom he’s going to mingle with the crowd and keep an eye on us from a distance.”
“Oh. Big deal!”
“Look, pet, we’re going to need all the help we can get.”
“With help like that, who needs hindrance?”
“Be sensible! It could have happened to anyone. I want you two to get on.” I looked at Ratbog, who had his back to us and was expertly reversing the ponies out of the yard onto the rutted road. I noticed orc-blood like melted pitch trickling down the side of his neck.
“Why is he bleeding?”
“Because I hit him over the head with the triangle clapper,” Goldberry snapped at me.
“Oh! Really!” I snapped back.
“Well, how was I to know he belonged to us? Why didn’t you two come back together?”
“I’m sorry! Grishnakh had something to say to me in private.” But of course I didn’t want to tell her what it was.
The Vale of Udûn is one of those landscapes where you just know you’re on the point of waking up in pitch darkness, sweating and mooing like an ox cart going up a steep, steep hill, but you don’t quite seem to manage it. Oblong brown buildings with black gaping windows and skeletal fire-escapes are strewn all over the place like children’s blocks, facing all ways. The slopes of the Ash Mountains are riddled with holes and cracks and mine shafts. Rounding a corner, one comes suddenly on frowning cliffs of quarries, mostly abandoned, but some still being worked in noise and dust. The crump of blasting fire periodically rends the air, which tastes of garbage and marsh-gas, bitter ash and filth.
Tall chimneys, festooned with curly pipes like tree snakes, belch forth flames and fumes and smoke in just about every colour from bright orange to dirty green. Skeins of rusty pipes snake hither and thither, crossing the road in square arches, crawling up what are not so much buildings as mad scientific experiments and plunging into wide muddy trenches. Channels and sewers, adits and run-offs, score the land like a vanquished warrior hewn where he lies. Every now and then the road picks its way over one of these festering gashes on a rickety bridge.
“However do they get trees to grow here?” asked Goldberry.
“Look over there, then.”
Sure enough, there was a line of leafless poplars flanking a canal deep in rubbish. “They’re dead,” I said.
“No they’re not. I can feel them. They’re in dreadful pain, but they’re not dead.”
I thought to myself: by the Cracks of Doom! We’re into May now and there’s no sign of leaves on the poor things! “Spring comes late to Mordor,” I observed out loud.
“The Royal Mandate of East Ithilien,” Goldberry corrected me. “That’s a forbidden word you just said.”
“I’m sorry – it was. I really will have to get used to it.”
Throughout our conversation, Ratbog had uttered never a word. He just sat in front of us on the cross-plank, holding the reins and looking stolidly ahead. I had tried to bathe the wound on his scalp but he waved aside my efforts and took out a large yellow bandage, from which he tore off something like a scab. He smacked the bandage on his head and it fizzled and smoked for a second before settling down to bubbling quietly like a pat of butter melting in the pan. But it certainly stemmed the bleeding. Since then he hadn’t spoken a word, simply getting on with the driving.
Soon the hills drew together and we arrived at the Isenmouthe, Carach Angren of old. There still is an iron gate there and what’s more it is a toll gate. An orc shambled out of the sentry box and demanded five crowns. Ratbog showed his GUB identification and the orc shrugged and went away. The gate opened with a grinding sound.
“Listen, Ratbog, if there are any more tolls to pay, let me pay them. I don’t want to draw more attention to us than I have to.”
“What do you want to throw your money away for? I know the gate-keeper.”
Once through the Isenmouthe, we passed by a hoarding which proclaimed: You are entering Frodo and Sam country. Ratbog snorted. “Commercialisation is everywhere.”
But in reality the Isenmouthe gate was serving a good purpose, preventing an urban sprawl like grisly ectoplasm from reaching its fingers down the road towards Dûmpgoi – Doom City. Overcrowded though Udûn was, no resident in his right mind would go building a house the other side of the gate if it meant paying five crowns just to travel to and fro to get to work. The denizens of the Mandate had fought long and hard to make Gorgoroth a Park of the Realm, with all the public funds that accrued to the designation. Planning restrictions were severe. To build even a pigeon shed the other side of the gate was punishable by quartering, but that would have been of little deterrence to the sullen inhabitants of Udûn. Having to pay five crowns each way definitely was.
After trekking through Udûn, the Plateau of Gorgoroth comes almost as a relief. It has a kind of hideous beauty all of its own. To the left of the Isenmouthe, the pleated flanks of the Ered Lithui, the Ash Mountains, staggered away into a grey-green haze. Away to the right I saw the looming massif of the Ephel Duath, dark and smoky against the afternoon sky, its feet dropping away sheer into the tumbled glens of the Morgai. Looking back to where that dread valley petered out in cracks in the crumbling mountainside I could see Castle Durthang, now derelict, standing above the southern spur of the Isenmouthe like an admonishing finger. A fitful attempt at afforestation was in evidence. Even at that distance I could see that most of the trees were dead. They raised their splintered stumps in attitudes of hopeless appeal to an unfeeling sky.
The plain which opened before us was a lava field, bubbled and smeared into torn rags like brown dough. Ragged pieces of flat stone lay strewn about, burnt red and iridescent purple like clinker, each a miniature contour map of flaky layers. The land buckled and twisted like an unmade bed, a forty-eight year-old testament to the night of sleepless savagery which had ended the Third Age. Cut through the lava, trenched in places, banked in others, a road of crushed and graded pumice wound in the general direction of Orodruin – Mount Doom – a riven heap sprouting precipitously out of the plain.
A stunning location for a luxury hotel!
Nothing was visible of Hotel Doom from this distance, unless it was a glint of glass or polished marble that sprang out for a moment as the sun felt through a crack in the drear canopy. A caravan of small clouds, spawned on the dire summit of the volcano, marched away south-east like a plume of smoke, to gather in a vast bank of cumulus over the whereabouts of the Sea of Núrnen. It looked for all the world as if Orodruin were on fire once more.
But the mountain had been dormant this past half-century. I crossed my fingers it would remain so tonight.
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.