12. Hotel Doom
In the last twenty years, a new city had grown up on the north side of Mount Doom. It sprawled almost to the ragged shores of Bagronkbûrz, the vast greasy black lake of poisonous water which drowns the site of the Dark Tower.
The volcano itself was out in the countryside, if countryside it could be called. During the reign of Sauron, good roads had been maintained between the Dark Tower and Mount Doom. But after the mountain had erupted for the last time, no further roads had been built on it and it had been preserved ever since as a natural monument. However the guardians of Gorgoroth Park had had no problem with granting a licence for a luxury hotel to be built on the very summit of Mount Doom. That was where Grimwald Uruksson had invited us to dine with him that very evening.
Ratbog dropped us at the foot of the mountain, together with our baggage, and drove the wain away to some police lockup in Doom City. Unless you wanted to clamber up the sharp, treacherous scree of crumbled pumice to the hotel, the only way to reach it was by the ropeway.
In a crisp modern building of black rough-hewn timber and whitewashed walls at the foot of Mount Doom a large treadmill was kept turning by the pacing of scores of feet and this wound an endless stream of cars up the side of the volcano. Each hung by a single hooked strut from clamps on the rope, as it rumbled over the pulley wheels of pylons which stalked like skeletal black trolls up the mountainside. Part of the hotel’s exclusive appeal was how inaccessible it was on foot and how safe the residents could feel themselves from the depredations of the cut-throats and ruffians who lived in Doom City.
A smiling concierge looked down a list for our names and checked them off. Then she ushered us towards the open door of one of the cars, waiting on its platform to be clipped to the rope. Soon we were on our way, swinging and bobbing over the black scree of the mountain’s flank. Goldberry, who had never been this high off the ground in her life, clutched my arm like a falcon. I wondered what sort of dangerous leap would be necessary at the other end to get us off this cable-car, but I needn’t have worried. Had we been fat and elderly burghers or matrons, as so many of the hotel’s guests were, we couldn’t have found it easier to step down from the car at the other end, safe from the wind inside the shelter built around the lofty platform.
From there it was a short distance up an easy flight of stairs cut in the floor of a tunnel carved through the foamed lava, before we stood in the foyer, amid displays of coloured pebbles and sand, potted palms and other spiky plants of the southern desert. A fountain lit by fires of red and green danced to quiet music, artificial springs trickled from make-believe cliffs and guests wandered around in carpet slippers and white bathrobes (if that!), going to and from the spa.
“Master and Mistress Overdale,” announced the receptionist and the bell hop scurried to collect our bags and take them to our room. Not until then did we lose our glazed look and begin to cast around wide-eyed at our surroundings.
From our window we could see westwards across the fearsomely beautiful Plateau of Gorgoroth, back down the winding road along which we’d come. As the sun went down, the sky glowed dully like a forge, outlining the jagged hills. Outside our window, an orc janitor poured a bucket of water into a stovepipe sunk below the lava crust. A few seconds later it exploded with a deafening shtoom! – announcing the hour of sunset. A column of steamy spray leapt up and caught the last of the sun’s dying rays. A yard below the tepid crust, Mount Doom was still very much alive.
The room was panelled in varnished pine and hung with carpets and tapestries woven by the shepherd people of the eastern plains, together with goat skins, grey, dark brown and white. A pile of rosy apples and pears lay upon an earthenware platter on a side-table. Selecting a pear, Goldberry nibbled it thoughtfully.
“This doesn’t look like orc fare,” she observed.
“Indeed no! Men, dwarves and even elves, come from all over Middle Earth to stay at Hotel Doom, to take the waters and enjoy the exotic cuisine.”
“Why, what water is there here you’d dare to drink?”
“Much water and highly prized. It pumps itself up under its own pressure from deep underground. It pours steaming and sulphurous into artificial lagoons where the guests bathe in it and ease away their aches and pains.” I’d read the brochure. “There’s time for a dip before dinner if you’d care for one?”
Goldberry shuddered at the idea. “I shall come and see it, just for the experience. But I won’t pollute myself by contact with foul rock-waters. I shall sit at the side of the pool and watch you.”
In the end we explored our suite instead. The bed was huge, soft and circular. A vast round quilt lay in the centre. You could have fitted a dozen people in that bed, touching toes like the spokes of a wheel, but really it was designed for two people to lounge about in as they fancied. If you didn’t want to lie snug beneath the quilt, there was a pile of snakes of fleece or feather, so you could cover your beloved completely to keep her warm and still kiss her unhindered, from the bridge of her nose to the tips of her toes.
If we thought the bedroom opulent it was because we hadn’t yet seen the bathroom. A miniature spa in itself, its walls and partitions were of marble in every colour you could think of, mostly icy green, inky black or snowy white, both polished and rough-hewn. Curtains of artificial stalactites hung down to divide the room, their glistening surfaces studded with sparkling gems.
The floor-level bath was deep and mysterious, like a floppy cloverleaf in shape, comfortably taking four people in any position they’d care to recline. It was filled by a waterfall of clear warm water which was made to pour by pulling on a tasselled rope. We lost no time in throwing off our clothes and filling the bath and as I sat under the waterfall, Goldberry knelt in foam to the tops of her thighs, inspecting the contents of the scores of flagons and flasks which gathered in tiny lit-up grottoes, or nestled between the stalagmites.
There were essences and extracts of herbs and spices to pour into the gushing waterfall. No end of rose-water. Ointments, lyes and unguents of every familiar flavour and savour, and not a few unusual ones, from the light floral scents, beloved of elves, to heavy black sludges of sandalwood and dander, musk and molasses, which the orcs loved to rub on themselves – at least those that didn’t go in for cruder natural products.
Eventually Goldberry selected an iridescent swan-neck flask of some sort of river weed extract, which she demanded to be rubbed with. So, kneeling up in the steaming water, I did that, taking my time. Then I poured clear warm water from a silver ewer over her shoulders, making sure she was properly rinsed down in all the cusps and cracks.
“What a pity,” I said, “that we’re having only three nights here rather than three weeks. In that time we could really get to know each other.”
Goldberry pouted. “I imagine you’d get bored and want to go off camping.”
“Well, we could do that afterwards. Just you and me and one sleeping bag. I say, do you think there’s time for a quick lie-down on the bed before dinner?”
“Didn’t the message say to meet Grimwald in the restaurant two hours after sunset? It’s an hour since that stovepipe went ‘boom’ and we still have to dress for dinner. What’s wrong with staying in the bath? Are you tired or something?”
Soon it was time to put on our bathrobes and go and get dressed up for dinner.
One of the things about a first-class hotel in this new age is the service. The Prancing Pony was never like this! No longer a jug of ale, a desultory chat with strangers before a log fire, finally to turn in to some scruffy room which caters for travel-stained wanderers. We were expected to dress for dinner – and Grimwald Uruksson, one of the richest men in Middle Earth, was footing the bill.
Servants came up and measured me for a dinner-jacket. The conventional sort of dinner-jacket in Hotel Doom was bright red twill with purple velvet lapels, a shiny black belt with a gilded buckle, butter yellow leggings and soft black suede thigh boots which came to a point in front. They gave you a three-cornered hat to carry too, trimmed with two bushy white plumes.
A small army of seamstresses attended Goldberry. A simple woodland nymph, she wasn’t used to all this attention and stood there with an expression of dismay and embarrassment while they fussed around her. They measured her, tried bolts of the finest fabrics up against her, draped and pinned and snipped and stitched, chattering animatedly and approvingly about her fine figure and perfect measurements, and soon had her fitted with a made-to-measure dress which the finest couturier in Minas Tirith would have found hard to match.
Goldberry had scarcely budged since they began and now they retired, leaving her poised like a statue. I gaped and let out a long low whistle. Goldberry batted the lashes of her blue-grey eyes at me in demure discomposure, but really I couldn’t help it. From something in the nature of a forest fantasy they had turned her into a wicked temptation. It was a good job the weather was warm and the restaurant was likely to be warmer, because the dress revealed rather more than it concealed. It was fair to say that every shred of fabric was chosen and placed the better to adorn her natural assets rather than conceal them.
It goes without saying that the cut and colour of the dress were the last things that Goldberry would have chosen to wear herself, in spite of how I remembered her in her door-bitch uniform in the Headless Horseman. Which all goes to show how it’s a good thing to let other people dress you occasionally, else startling possibilities might remain forever unrealised. The predominant colour was red, set off with gold and silver sequins like a shower of sparks from a forge. I imagined they were going to cover her shaven head with some sort of a flamboyant wig, but instead they produced something lacy and silvery, surmounted by a tiara of brilliants, which glowed and sparkled in its own light.
I presented my arm and Goldberry took it as if I was offering her a horseshoe fresh off the blacksmith’s anvil. Together we promenaded to the restaurant like a prince and princess from a distant planet. The other guests were wandering about in finery just as opulent, but the seamstresses had clearly hit the right note with Goldberry, the way heads turned to stare.
We followed the sound of pattering drums down a winding tunnel richly carpeted in red from wall to wall. Soon we emerged into a wide space full of lights and colours against the deepest dark. ‘Krax’ Restaurant was the hippest joint in Middle Earth. All the cooking was done by volcanic heat over wells and fissures in the lava, from which there emanated a ruddy glow. Orc chefs slaved in the heat, as they must have done when Mount Doom was the Dark Lord’s forge, and every now and then their sweating bodies, luridly lit by the furnaces, would be transformed into black silhouettes as flames and white sparks flew up in their faces and clouds of steam spurted around their legs and billowed up above their heads.
Strange to say, in spite of the fury of the culinary vulcanism, the restaurant was no more than pleasantly warm. The decor was that of a cave, probably natural, which must have opened up beneath a vast tilting plate of rock when the underlying lava was soft like treacle. But the ceiling was not natural and had been slid back to reveal a clear sky with the gibbous waxing moon three days from the full. The light which glowed on the faces of the guests was both heavenly and hellish, one cheek fringed with soft moonlight like frosted citrus, the other rouged with the flickering glare of the open kitchen range, while their eyes gleamed in candle flames which rocked and shimmered in bowls of cut crystal.
I looked round at the guests. They were few orc faces among them. No parties of orcs – those that I noticed were dotted around amidst the other guests. Upwardly mobile orcs who could afford to fraternise with men and elves. Sitting as far from the furnaces as they could get I noticed a large party of young elves, making a lot of noise. Were the elvish younger generation branching out from their traditional fare of simple woodland feasts, trying new things, new experiences? Something to savour while they were young, before they became immersed in the preoccupations of their elders? If so, Mirkwood and Lórien would never again hold a candle to the Mandate, should they ever feel the urge to cater for the modern tastes of their young folk. Then I remembered hearing that Lúthien University at Imladris had an outstation on the north shore of Bagronkbûrz. These were obviously students on the Dark Studies course.
The head waiter met us with a bow and escorted us to our table. The face of our host was lit by candlelight, but not sufficiently to make out his features until we were standing right by the table. I couldn’t decide if he was a fairly plain man or an exceptionally beautiful orc. Either way he was attired like a prince dressed for the company of his womenfolk, wearing rather more jewellery than a prince might wear. Grimwald Uruksson smiled and rose to his feet, extending his hand. Slowly taking Goldberry’s fingers in his, he kissed her knuckles with reverence. Goldberry held herself like a marble statue before a gushing fountain.
“Welcome to the Royal Mandate of East Ithilien, Miss Aelvsson. I trust you’ve had an enjoyable stay so far?” Turning to me he said, “And to you, Mr Overdale, I bid Hail and Welcome! How lucky you are to travel with such a ravishing companion.”
Waiters eased us into our chairs. “Miss Aelvsson is more in the nature of a business colleague,” I said to his frankly disbelieving face. “Newcomer as I am to Minas Ithil, she has done me the exceptional favour of introducing me to quite a few notables in the city.”
Grimwald’s eyes showed that he relished my turn of phrase. I thought he was going to add something to that, but instead he turned the beacon of his easy charm upon Goldberry.
“And how does it feel, Miss Gee – may I call you Gee? – being a dryad in fabulous Minas Ithil?”
“I’m not exactly a dryad – I’m a naiad. I don’t know much about trees in general, just the ones that grow along river banks. I’ll tell you anything you want to know about willows and poplars.”
“Really now?” replied Grimwald with a deep chuckle. “What’s your opinion of our attempts to grow poplars along the canals in Udûn?”
I was sure Goldberry was going to wince at that, but she kept herself under heroic control. “The poplars I saw gave me to understand that they’d rather be anywhere else than Udûn.”
“The trouble with being a tree is that you have to remain where you’re planted.”
“Not in Minas Ithil you don’t,” retorted Goldberry. “You heard about the huorns?”
Grimwald laughed heartily. “Oh, yes! – who hasn’t?” He peered at me. “But from the look on Mr Overdale’s face, it doesn’t appear that he has...!”
“No. I must confess I don’t know what you two are talking about.”
“Well,” said Grimwald. “In one of Minas Ithil’s numerous face-lifts, the dwarf contractors supplied trees to line the avenues. The ‘trees’ turned out to be huorns from Fangorn Wood. Everybody said how well they had taken and how nice they looked, but first the stray dogs began to disappear, and then the tramps, and then various people walking home from the pub after dark. The City Council gave orders for the trees to be chopped down. But they didn’t hang around to wait for that and departed for goodness knows where, all in the same night. I suppose you don’t know where they went, do you, Gee?”
“Back across the Anduin to Fangorn Wood I’d guess,” replied Goldberry. “They can swim, you know. They can even manage to forge their way upstream a bit.”
“Ha-ha! But not as far as the Brandywine River and the Old Forest, eh? That would have been rather a long way even for a huorn to come, just to stand around in Minas Ithil looking pretty.”
Goldberry, unperturbed, replied “Everywhere’s good for a change, now and again.”
It wasn’t lost on me how Grimwald was making a point of showing he knew everything there was to know about Goldberry. Except the one thing none of us knew – why she was here. Hers was the ideal cover story – she just went around as herself.
I had considered doing that too, but I had put away a friend or two of Grimwald’s when I’d done a job for GUB in the newly founded Doom City over 20 years ago. It was unwise to rely on Grimwald having a short memory. I’d rehearsed my story well, but I was waiting in trepidation for him to start directing a few well-honed questions at me.
He didn’t. Perhaps he’d had no option but to accept me at face value – a stranger nobody seemed to know anything about, who travelled in distant lands – a merchant adventurer. I was rather hoping that was true, although I knew I ought not to depend on it.
Grimwald drew a glistening bottle from the ice-bucket at his elbow. He poured it – the wine was excellent. Knowing a bit about wine I ventured a guess. “Old Winyards?”
“Same grape variety, but grown here on the southern slopes of Mount Doom. This is the first selection of course.”
I said, “I wouldn’t have credited it! But they do say all grapes need is sunlight. They thrive on stony soil.”
“They love a volcanic soil. And it imparts a special flavour to the wine.”
The three of us chinked glasses. “Well – here’s to Trade,” said Grimwald. “Free Trade. World Trade. Trade gloriously free from regulations. Anything from fine wines to – er – personal jewellery.”
The waiters came with dishes of hors d’oeuvres. I was dreading having to eat meat in an orc establishment, but this looked like a medley of vegetables, although I didn’t recognise a single one. I prodded my fork in and tasted them cautiously.
“Met anything like these before on your travels, Mr Overdale?”
Was he testing me? “No,” I said confidently. “I don’t recognise any of them. And the sauce is delicious. It doesn’t look as if there is a market opportunity for imported vegetables here in the Mandate, as I was rather hoping.”
“No indeed! These have been invented and grown here in Doom City. They don’t need earth and they don’t need light.”
“That’s amazing! I’d had half a suspicion we were eating sliced huorn” – a remark which earned a chuckle from Grimwald. I continued, “But you used the word ‘invented’. Shouldn’t that have been ‘bred’?”
“I choose my words carefully. These plants – if you can call them plants – have been developed like new mechanical devices. And patented as such. It’s hard to tell these days whether what you are eating is animal, vegetable or mineral. But orcs have never eaten food grown on the surface. They’ve always had things they could grow deep down in caves. Slimy, unpleasant-tasting things for the most part. It’s only in recent years that they’d been able to engineer roots and fruits which are palatable enough to serve in the best restaurants. Not bad, are they?”
“No, not bad at all,” I agreed. Goldberry threw me a sidelong glance.
Our host treated us to a lyrical description of all the new products being invented in Doom City. Products to rival Udûn, not to mention Dale in the North. And what a great place Doom City was to live in! He was recommending Goldberry to come and try it (he had a job for her, of course) and launched into a catalogue of the massage parlours, fetish clubs and strip joints for which Doom City was rapidly becoming famous. All of which he had a hand in – and didn’t care who knew it.
“Minas Ithil had better look to its laurels!” he said. “If My Lord Faramir has his way, the place will be gentrified before you can say ‘odds and sods’!”
I laughed. I had to admire the man’s egregious wit – for more of a man than an orc I had decided he was. I’d heard how charming Grimwald Uruksson could be and I was just wondering whether I could afford to relax enough to enjoy the meal, when the main course arrived.
Goldberry, wide-eyed, stuffed her napkin into her mouth to stifle a scream. I stared at the fried fish on my plate. It was not properly dead and it was working its jaws furiously, even though the rest of the body was cooked and the fins crisp.
Grimwald started tucking into his fish with relish. “I heard mention about Miss Gee not eating dead things, so I thought I’d order something that was still alive. It’s a speciality of the hotel. It’s a lifetime’s skill of the chef, to dip the body in the hot oil just long enough to deep-fry it, but not to kill it stone-dead.”
When he’d finished his fish he helped himself to ours as well. “I’m sorry you two weren’t hungry,” he said. “The vegetables were rather filling. But be sure to have a dessert – mother isn’t standing over you now, ha-ha! I heartily recommend the fruit pie and cream, especially the forest fruits. Me – I have an insatiable passion for forest fruits – for berries of all sorts.”
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.