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 never 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 orc-draught he’d served me on the first occasion. I recognised it now—it was Sharkuruk – the stuff Merry had been forced to drink by the servants of Saruman. Fishing around for three small glasses, he poured us each a little of the oily brown fluid.
…to be continued.