9. Fear, Fire, Foes!
As I rode back to Osgiliath I couldn’t expel from my mind the sight of Goldberry, wrapped in thought, sitting on the tomb of the last of the ruling Stewards, scrying the most unlucky of all the palantíri. The more I considered it, the more sinister its possibilities grew. I called home briefly for a change of clothes, then I rode on to Minas Ithil, meaning to catch Goldberry and confront her with what I had seen her do.
Night had fallen by the time I rode over the White Bridge into the sullen city. The sky had grown dark and heavy clouds had drifted down the sides of the Ephel Duath, to congregate in Morgul Vale. So it was that I failed to notice the smoke which hung over the city, until in Whitebridgegate I saw it lit up from below with a flickering glimmer. The Headless Horseman stood back from the street down an alleyway, so it wasn’t until I had drawn level with it that I saw where the smoke was coming from.
The inn was on fire!
It was raging out of control. A crowd had gathered to watch it burn to the ground. A fat orc in a singed pink tutu scrambled squealing under Bess’s nose. I dismounted from Bess and whispered a few words of comfort in her ear. She withdrew a little way back to wait for me.
I thrust myself to the front of the crowd, which stood with glowing faces, basking in the flames. A couple of elves in make-up, black leather straps, sandals and little else, hobbled past in front of me. One seemed to have injured his leg and was being supported by the other. A rider of Rohan, clad in a long red dress split up the thigh, was shouting orders to someone hidden in the midst of the throng. I recognised the landlady standing all by herself and I went and put my arm round her shoulders.
She gave a start, then she buried her face in my armpit. “Oh it’s you Goss!” came her muffled voice.
“I don’t know – I think she’s still inside...” She began sobbing uncontrollably, stuffing her apron in her mouth.
Letting go of her I dashed up to one of the fire-fighters as he grabbed the next bucket of water from the bucket chain and was about to throw it on the fire. I seized the bucket from him and poured it over my own head. Then I plunged into the building through the smoking doorway.
The reek hit me like a stifling monster. I dropped to the ground and crawled through the bar to the back rooms. “Goldberry!” I shouted as I went. “Goldberry!”
I put my shoulder to the door of the first room and burst it open. Inside – plenty of whips, chained collars, handcuffs and leg-irons. Spiky belts were draped over chairs. Curly-topped canes and black scourges like floppy spiders were strewn about, as were several elaborate heavy blunt daggers. Racks and wheels and other exciting instruments of torture leaned drunkenly this way and that.
The next room was full of black leather wipe-clean chairs and couches. Interesting pictures hung on the walls, which were beginning to crack and leak smoke. Still no sign of Goldberry.
Another room followed, full of stuffed toy bears, furry gloves, dummies, nappies and hot water bottles, cots and huge coloured safety-pins. A pile of powder-puffs lay in a heap. Smoke hung in the air like a miniature thundercloud, but it was not going to rain in here.
A quick glimpse of a piggery, except it was intended as a wallow for nominally intelligent beings. The stink was atrocious, particularly as it was beginning to bubble and boil. I shut the door fast.
I looked in yet another room, well-equipped with full-length mirrors, feather boas, palm fronds, fans, dashing hats and wigs richly endowed with curls and braids, sequinned dresses, black cloaks lined with red satin and polished high boots with flamboyant buckles. All waiting to be rendered down to black ash. Thus passes the glitter of the world.
Another room followed, full of baths of foam, scrubbing brushes, soap and thick fluffy towels, tiled surrounds and wash-stands. Great ewers of hot water stood around, steaming. This time they wouldn’t grow cold as they waited patiently to be employed.
I dashed up the stairs three at a time. Smoke poured up from between the treads. I plunged into the first room. Numerous cubicles met my eye, each with a plain black moistproof bed within, of all widths and heights, some single, some double, some for three or more, Some for standing, kneeling or hanging upside-down at just the right height. Some with exercise bars conveniently placed to grip from any position.
Then into the next room. The groan-machine, with its cords and tubes and flimsy membranes, still gasped and sighed like a hundred labouring galley slaves. It was there to drown out the creaks and noises you made with your partner, so that you didn’t have to listen in shame to the silence echoing your passion, nor be distracted by sniggers from an adjoining cubicle.
“Goldberry!” I shouted over and over again. Only the crackle of burning wood came back to me in answer. Either it didn’t hear me or it was studiously ignoring me, absorbed in its all-consuming business. Was it busy with the person I was calling?
Behind the door at the end of the corridor I saw a glow like the sun through chinks in the wood. The fire rumbled and crackled like a great forest beast, lying chewing up fallen branches, waiting for its chance to leap out and devour me.
A sharp crack made me turn round. Behind me the ceiling descended like honey from a spoon, hitting the floor with an orange flash and a crash of thunder, throwing up a shower of sparks and gledes. There was no way back. Hurling myself into the last room I flung wide the window. A sudden rush of wind nearly threw me onto my back. I felt a stinging sensation in my arm – my cloak was burning at the elbow! I slapped it out.
Struggling back to the casement I saw below me the moonlight glinting off ripples in a pond. The wind had risen and was blowing back the smoke and flames. A star twinkled encouragement from the pool’s depth. With no time to gauge whether it was shallow or deep, muddy or clear, I scrambled up onto the ledge and leapt out. As I did so, the solid world I had left behind me swirled and dissolved in sparks and flames.
The landing was soft – the pond was full of lilies and other water weed and rejoiced in a rich lining of stinking sludge. As I crawled to the brink, two loving arms slid round my neck and two lips pressed against my muddy forehead.
“Goss! You’re safe! Thank the Stars!”
“Goldberry! My gorgeous, my poppet! I was in there looking for you!”
“I know. They told me. And all the time I was out here, shivering in the dark, dreading to think what had become of you.”
There were people all around shouting. A crowd had gathered about us in the firelight. But for all we cared, we could have been lazing on a sunny hilltop, nobody within leagues of us.
“Oh, my love! Do I really matter so much to you?”
“You matter more... than anything...!”
I reached up to embrace her, but a tangled mass of wet vines and tendrils held me back. Enraged I snapped “We can’t seem to get away from bloody water-lilies!”
Sitting in a pond covered in muddy slime, her livelihood ablaze, Goldberry had an attack of the giggles.
We didn’t stay to watch the fire die down. Goldberry began shivering uncontrollably and I felt cold and feverish at one and the same time. Both of us were soaked to the skin. Arms around each other, I grabbed Bess by the bridle and the three of us dragged ourselves off in the direction of the Morgul Tower and Goldberry’s apartment.
We haven’t gone very far however when the figure of an orc loomed up out of the darkness. I recognised Guthmud.
“Well well well! It’s Mr Overdale. And you’ve found a new companion. An entertaining fire, eh?”
“Was it one of your boys that did that?” I growled.
“Maybe. Maybe not. Now I come to think of it, one of my best workers was complaining that he couldn’t get it out of his head.”
“Get what out?”
“Oh... images of fire and clutching hands, skeletons in suits of armour and black widows sitting brooding on tombs like crows. He went off after work in a foul mood, with me shouting after him ‘Get a life!’ Typical wight-obsession, I’d call that. I’ll have to get him a course of counselling. I suppose you didn’t see him at the bar, did you, Miss Gee?
“I didn’t see much at all. I was lucky to escape with my life.”
Guthmud looked hard at Goldberry. “Yes... you can say that again.”
His tone annoyed me. He was the last person I wanted to meet at that moment, when all I yearned for was a warm stove, a mug of hot camomile tea and Goldberry on my lap.
“If you don’t mind, Master Guthmud, my friend here has just had a nasty experience and I want to get her home and out of her wet things.”
By the light of the street lamps I saw a half-smile playing on his lips. If he’d come out with something suggestive, as I thought he was going to, I’d have laid him out cold on the cobblestones.
“My dear Mr Overdale! I really don’t mean to stand in your way! I made a point of speaking to you, nerves a-jangle as they must be, to invite you back to my office – you know where it is. To give you and Miss Gee a chance to dry out in front of my hot stove and have something warming to drink. And it so happens I’ve got something to give you – something you’re expecting...”
He looked at us – hungrily, I thought. “Something nice to cheer you up. Both of you.”
Goldberry shuddered. She put her head down, meaning to brush past him without another word. I held her back. After all the effort I’d made to cultivate Guthmud, I didn’t really want to be rude to him, no matter how I felt at that particular moment. In a brittle, jolly voice I tried to persuade Goldberry that we should take up Guthmud’s kind offer. I thought she was going to make a break for it and run. But she didn’t. She trembled in my hands like a frightened fawn, persuaded to stay against her better judgement.
Back at his office, Guthmud was as good as his word. He stoked up the stove, putting plenty of wood on it, and soon had it blazing merrily. Then he went off and came back with towels and a pile of rather odd garments, which did at least had the merit of being clean, warm and dry. Then he absented himself yet again, to grant us the privacy to change into them.
“Master Guthmud,” I said when he came back, “this is most welcome– and most unexpected.”
“Don’t mention it, me boy. I felt so sorry for you both, seeing you dragging yourselves away from the fire. I thought the pair of you had nowhere to go. Miss Gee has been living over the premises, hasn’t she? You can both stay here for the night, you know. There’s bedrooms upstairs. Quite nice ones.”
Goldberry was about to say she had an apartment in town, but I tapped the back of her hand warningly.
“I’ve just been out to give Bess some hay,” continued Guthmud. “I’d offer to put her in the warm, downstairs, but I don’t think she’d fancy sharing a stall with my fire horse.”
“That is most considerate of you. No, she wouldn’t. She’ll be all right out there for now. We won’t stay long. I mean – if it’s all the same with you...”
Guthmud reached down a large ugly bottle from a tall glass-fronted cabinet – the stuff he’d served me on the first occasion. I recognised it now – it was Sharkuruk. Fishing around for three small glasses, he poured us each a little of the oily brown fluid.
Sharkuruk must be the most appalling cordial in the world! The label says it’s made with 53 different herbs (some you wouldn’t care to know about). It burned savagely as it went down, but after a vigorous shudder I felt much better. Orc medicine. If it doesn’t hurt, they don’t believe it’s doing you any good.
“Ahh! As welcome as a shot of Imladris miruvor!”
“You’re joking of course,” grinned Guthmud nastily. I realised my gaffe. I thought of Snargy and his mother’s death at the hands of a raiding-party out of Rivendell. Had Guthmud loved his wife? Did the word ‘love’ mean anything to an orc? Yes – probably, in their own terms.
I turned and smiled encouragingly at Goldberry, who made polite show of taking tiny sips. She knew the drink all too well – they used to sell gallons of it in the Headless Horseman – but, as she told me afterwards, it seared her lips and burned holes in her clothes.
After a second glass (which Goldberry declined) Guthmud leaned back on his stool and said, “I must thank you for sending back my palantír. Where did you find it?”
“You won’t believe me if I told you,” I replied, trying to sound ingenuous. “But you really ought to tell your workers to be more careful with the goods they’re bringing in.”
Guthmud gave me a long low stare, nodding very slowly. I was about to reply with my frank open look when it occurred to me that shyness would pass off better. Giving a shrug of embarrassment I said, “If you really imagine I nicked it from you, you ought to ask yourself: how did I manage to do that – and how did I know you’d got it? It’s the Ithil Stone, isn’t it?”
Guthmud held up his hands. “Perish the thought, Mr Overdale!” Then he added slyly. “Had a glimpse in it?”
“Not for bloody long!” I replied and we both burst into grim laughter. I glanced aside at Goldberry and I could see her sitting there open-mouthed, possibilities hitherto unsuspected darkening the horizons of her mind.
“You don’t scry in it yourself, do you?”
“Not on your life!” he replied with unconcealed horror. “I only hang onto it because it’s a family heirloom. Ha-ha! Miss Gee will understand all about that! Won’t you, Miss Gee?”
Goldberry shut her mouth firmly. Guthmud was having a dig at her – and I couldn’t fathom it out. A strong suspicion was there in my mind of course that the Ithil Stone was the link between Goldberry’s tryst with Denethor that day and the blaze at the Headless Horseman. That wasn’t to say Guthmud had deliberately fired the joint – I guessed not. He wouldn’t be quite so boisterous about it, even if he was an orc, and he wouldn’t think it was a joke to share with us. But there was something else alluded-to in his sly remark. Family heirloom? Goldberry? What did he know about her that I didn’t?
“Let’s change the subject,” he said, reaching into his desk for a slip of paper. “Something much more bright and cheerful.” He handed the slip to me. “It’s to do with what we talked about the last time we met. If you’d like Miss Gee to accompany you, you’ll see it’s all been arranged.”
I stared at the slip of paper in my hand. It was a voucher for two people, good for three days at a luxury hotel as the honoured guests of Grimwald Uruksson – all expenses paid!
“It’s a business trip,” continued Guthmud with a wink. “You can write it off against taxes.”
My eyes lit up with anticipation – of enormous fun and deadly danger. I showed it Goldberry. “Coming?” I said. She was still too shocked to show any enthusiasm. But I knew she would the next day.
The hotel was famed throughout the whole of Middle Earth – eclipsing even Imladris, if that were possible. It was famed for its spa, its cuisine and its romantic location – if “romantic” is altogether the right word. A sparkling new palace of sensuous delights, which a consortium of enterprising orcs had built on the very summit of the Fire Mountain – Orodruin!
The by-now legendary Hotel Doom.
When we left Guthmud’s office, warm, dry and largely recovered, Goldberry was all for making her way back to her apartment and going straight to bed. I was more cautious.
“Goldberry,” I said. “I know where you were this afternoon, and what you were doing. And, I fancy – so does the Guthmud Gang. It must have been the Ithil Stone that betrayed you!”
She didn’t reply.
“You’ve been very silly,” I continued gently.
“Take me home.”
“I don’t think it’s safe to go home.”
She stopped still and put her knuckles to her lips. “What am I going to do?” she sobbed.
“You’re coming home with me.”
She lifted anxious eyes to mine.
I gave her shoulders a hug. “Guthmud and his gang don’t know who I really am. And more to the point, they don’t know where I live. They know me as ‘Mr Overdale’, a travelling merchant, recently arrived in Minas Ithil.”
I turned and patted Bess’s nose. Then, lifting up Goldberry in my arms, I placed her in the saddle and mounted up behind her. Turning Bess’s head about, we trotted back down Whitebridgegate, past the still-bright embers of the Headless Horseman and under the dim archway of the gate. I breathed a sigh of relief. We were out of that baleful city and on the road to Osgiliath, home and bed.
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.