I was nearly back at the inn when I heard the triangle being banged. I broke into a run and found Goldberry fighting with Ratbog in the driving seat. Correction: Goldberry was fighting and Ratbog was doing his best to fend her off. “Shush!” he was saying. “Shush!”
I jumped up onto the wheel and thrust myself in between them, getting an elbow in the eye for my pains. “Cut it out, you two,” I shouted. Both of them sat bolt upright like scolded children. I peered anxiously round the fringe of my hood to see who might be watching.
“Well, that’s drawn attention to us, if anything was needed,” I observed acidly. Then I thought to revise my approach. “I’m sorry… I should have been here to introduce you. Gee—this is Ratbog. Ratbog—this is my partner, er, companion, Gee.”
“What have we got an orc with us for?”
Ratbog sniffed. “You just have to put up with what you can get.”
“Ratbog, I’m sorry…” I said. “Forgive Gee—she was just a little taken aback, that’s all.” I gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder. “Let’s be on our way,” I said, taking the reins out of Goldberry’s hands and giving them to Ratbog. Then as the wain lurched into motion I grabbed Goldberry by the shoulders and tumbled us both back onto the sacking in the covered part behind us. I put my hand over her mouth as she tried to protest.
“Ratbog’s a GUB agent,” I half-whispered, half-snarled in her ear. “Grishnakh’s lent him to us. Once we’re at Hotel Doom he’s going to mingle with the crowd and keep an eye on us from a distance.”
“Oh. Big deal!”
“Look, pet, we’re going to need all the help we can get.”
“With help like that, who needs hindrance?”
“Be sensible! It could have happened to anyone. I want you two to get on.” I looked at Ratbog, who had his back to us and was expertly reversing the ponies out of the yard onto the rutted road. I noticed orc-blood like melted pitch trickling down the side of his neck.
“Why is he bleeding?”
“Because I hit him over the head with the triangle clapper,” Goldberry snapped at me.
“Oh!” I snapped back. “Really!”
“Well, how was I to know he belonged to us? Why didn’t you two come back together?”
“I’m sorry! Grishnakh had something to say to me in private.” But of course I didn’t want to tell her what it was.
The Vale of Udûn is one of those landscapes where you just know you’re on the point of waking up in pitch darkness, sweating and mooing like an ox cart going up a steep, steep hill, but you don’t quite seem to manage it. Oblong brown buildings with black gaping windows and skeletal fire-escapes are strewn all over the place like children’s blocks, facing all ways. The slopes of the Ash Mountains are riddled with holes and cracks and mine shafts. Rounding a corner, one comes suddenly on frowning cliffs of quarries, mostly abandoned, but some still being worked in noise and dust. The crump of blasting fire periodically rends the air, which tastes of garbage and marsh-gas, bitter ash and filth.
Tall chimneys, festooned with curly pipes like tree snakes, belch forth flames and fumes and smoke in just about every colour from bright orange to dirty green. Skeins of rusty pipes snake hither and thither, crossing the road in square arches, crawling up what are not so much buildings as mad scientific experiments and plunging into wide muddy trenches. Channels and sewers, adits and run-offs, score the land like a vanquished warrior hewn where he lies. Every now and then the road picks its way over one of these festering gashes on a rickety bridge.
“However do they get trees to grow here?” asked Goldberry.
“Look over there, then.”
Sure enough, there was a line of leafless poplars flanking a canal deep in rubbish. “They’re dead,” I said.
“No they’re not. I can feel them. They’re in dreadful pain, but they’re not dead.”
I thought to myself: by the Cracks of Doom! We’re into May now and there’s no sign of leaves on the poor things! “Spring comes late to Mordor,” I observed out loud.
“The Royal Mandate of East Ithilien,” Goldberry corrected me. “That’s a forbidden word you just said.”
“I’m sorry—it was. I really will have to get used to it.”
Throughout our conversation, Ratbog had uttered never a word. He just sat in front of us on the cross-plank, holding the reins and looking stolidly ahead. I had tried to bathe the wound on his scalp but he waved aside my efforts and took out a large yellow bandage, from which he tore off something like a scab. He smacked the bandage on his head and it fizzled and smoked for a second before settling down to bubbling quietly like a pat of butter melting in the pan. But it certainly stemmed the bleeding. Since then he hadn’t spoken a word, simply getting on with the driving.
Soon the hills drew together and we arrived at the Isenmouthe, Carach Angren of old. There still is an iron gate there and what’s more it is a toll gate. An orc shambled out of the sentry box and demanded five crowns. Ratbog showed his GUB identification and the orc shrugged and went away. The gate opened with a grinding sound.
“Listen, Ratbog, if there are any more tolls to pay, let me pay them. I don’t want to draw more attention to us than I have to.”
“What do you want to throw your money away for? I know the gate-keeper.”
Once through the Isenmouthe, we passed by a hoarding which proclaimed: You are entering Frodo and Sam country. Ratbog snorted. “Commercialisation is everywhere.”
But in reality the Isenmouthe gate was serving a good purpose, preventing an urban sprawl like grisly ectoplasm from reaching its fingers down the road towards Dûmpgoi—Doom City. Overcrowded though Udûn was, no resident in his right mind would go building a house the other side of the gate if it meant paying five crowns just to travel to and fro to get to work. The denizens of the Mandate had fought long and hard to make Gorgoroth a Park of the Realm, with all the public funds that accrued to the designation. Planning restrictions were severe. To build even a pigeon shed the other side of the gate was punishable by quartering, but that would have been of little deterrence to the sullen inhabitants of Udûn. Having to pay five crowns each way definitely was.
After trekking through Udûn, the Plateau of Gorgoroth comes almost as a relief. It has a kind of hideous beauty all of its own. To the left of the Isenmouthe, the pleated flanks of the Ered Lithui, the Ash Mountains, staggered away into a grey-green haze. Away to the right I saw the looming massif of the Ephel Duath, dark and smoky against the afternoon sky, its feet dropping away sheer into the tumbled glens of the Morgai. Looking back to where that dread valley petered out in cracks in the crumbling mountainside I could see Castle Durthang, now derelict, standing above the southern spur of the Isenmouthe like an admonishing finger. A fitful attempt at afforestation was in evidence. Even at that distance I could see that most of the trees were dead. They raised their splintered stumps in attitudes of hopeless appeal to an unfeeling sky.
The plain which opened before us was a lava field, bubbled and smeared into torn rags like brown dough. Ragged pieces of flat stone lay strewn about, burnt red and iridescent purple like clinker, each a miniature contour map of flaky layers. The land buckled and twisted like an unmade bed, a forty-eight year-old testament to the night of sleepless savagery which had ended the Third Age. Cut through the lava, trenched in places, banked in others, a road of crushed and graded pumice wound in the general direction of Orodruin—Mount Doom—a riven heap sprouting precipitously out of the plain.
A stunning location for a luxury hotel!
Nothing was visible of Hotel Doom from this distance, unless it was a glint of glass or polished marble that sprang out for a moment as the sun felt through a crack in the drear canopy. A caravan of small clouds, spawned on the dire summit of the volcano, marched away south-east like a plume of smoke, to gather in a vast bank of cumulus over the whereabouts of the Sea of Núrnen. It looked for all the world as if Orodruin were on fire once more.
But the mountain had been dormant this past half-century. I crossed my fingers it would remain so tonight.
…to be continued.