It was an unhappy afternoon I spent with Captain Bergil. We held back from mutual recriminations, but the occurrence of a second murder, with even fewer clues to go on than before, weighed heavily on our hearts. If Bergil hadn’t hastened to silence the Inspector of Corpses by throwing him in gaol, and if I hadn’t exerted myself to get him released, might he not have been still alive?
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.
…to be continued.