It was late afternoon and the sun was going down behind the Ephel Duath as our wain clattered into Doom City.

In the last twenty years, a new city had grown up on the north side of Mount Doom. It sprawled almost to the ragged shores of Bagronkbûrz, the vast greasy black lake of poisonous water which drowns the site of the Dark Tower.

The volcano itself was out in the countryside, if countryside it could be called. During the reign of Sauron, good roads had been maintained between the Dark Tower and Mount Doom. But after the mountain had erupted for the last time, no further roads had been built on it and it had been preserved ever since as a natural monument.

However the guardians of Gorgoroth Park had had no problem with granting a licence for a luxury hotel to be built on the very summit of Mount Doom. That was where Grimwald Uruksson had invited us to dine with him that very evening.

Ratbog dropped us at the foot of the mountain, together with our baggage, and drove the wain away to some police lockup in Doom City. Unless you wanted to clamber up the sharp, treacherous scree of crumbled pumice to the hotel, the only way to reach it was by the ropeway.

In a crisp modern building of black rough-hewn timber and whitewashed walls at the foot of Mount Doom a large treadmill was kept turning by the pacing of scores of feet and this wound an endless stream of cars up the side of the volcano. Each hung by a single hooked strut from clamps on the rope, as it rumbled over the pulley wheels of pylons which stalked like skeletal black trolls up the mountainside. Part of the hotel’s exclusive appeal was how inaccessible it was on foot and how safe the residents could feel themselves from the depredations of the cut-throats and ruffians who lived in Doom City.

A smiling concierge looked down a list for our names and checked them off. Then she ushered us towards the open door of one of the cars, waiting on its platform to be clipped to the rope. Soon we were on our way, swinging and bobbing over the black scree of the mountain’s flank. Goldberry, who had never been this high off the ground in her life, clutched my arm like a falcon. I wondered what sort of dangerous leap would be necessary at the other end to get us off this cable-car, but I needn’t have worried. Had we been fat and elderly burghers or matrons, as so many of the hotel’s guests were, we couldn’t have found it easier to step down from the car at the other end, safe from the wind inside the shelter built around the lofty platform.

From there it was a short distance up an easy flight of stairs cut in the floor of a tunnel carved through the foamed lava, before we stood in the foyer, amid displays of coloured pebbles and sand, potted palms and other spiky plants of the southern desert. A fountain lit by fires of red and green danced to quiet music, artificial springs trickled from make-believe cliffs and guests wandered around in carpet slippers and white bathrobes (if that!), going to and from the spa.

“Master and Mistress Overdale,” announced the receptionist and the bell hop scurried to collect our bags and take them to our room. Not until then did we lose our glazed look and begin to cast around wide-eyed at our surroundings.

From our window we could see westwards across the fearsomely beautiful Plateau of Gorgoroth, back down the winding road along which we’d come. As the sun went down, the sky glowed dully like a forge, outlining the jagged hills. Outside our window, an orc janitor poured a bucket of water into a stovepipe sunk below the lava crust. A few seconds later it exploded with a deafening shtoom!—announcing the hour of sunset. A column of steamy spray leapt up and caught the last of the sun’s dying rays. A yard below the tepid crust, Mount Doom was still very much alive.

The room was panelled in varnished pine and hung with carpets and tapestries woven by the shepherd people of the eastern plains, together with goat skins, grey, dark brown and white. A pile of rosy apples and pears lay upon an earthenware platter on a side-table. Selecting a pear, Goldberry nibbled it thoughtfully.

“This doesn’t look like orc fare,” she observed.

“Indeed no! Men, dwarves and even elves, come from all over Middle Earth to stay at Hotel Doom, to take the waters and enjoy the exotic cuisine.”

“Why, what water is there here you’d dare to drink?”

“Much water and highly prized. It pumps itself up under its own pressure from deep underground. It pours steaming and sulphurous into artificial lagoons where the guests bathe in it and ease away their aches and pains.” I’d read the brochure. “There’s time for a dip before dinner if you’d care for one?”

Goldberry shuddered at the idea. “I shall come and see it, just for the experience. But I won’t pollute myself by contact with foul rock-waters. I shall sit at the side of the pool and watch you.”

…to be continued.