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.

…to be continued.