In the end we explored our suite instead. The bed was huge, soft and circular. A vast round quilt lay in the centre. You could have fitted a dozen people in that bed, touching toes like the spokes of a wheel, but really it was designed for two people to lounge about in as they fancied. If you didn’t want to lie snug beneath the quilt, there was a pile of snakes of fleece or feather, so you could cover your beloved completely to keep her warm and still kiss her unhindered, from the bridge of her nose to the tips of her toes.

If we thought the bedroom opulent it was because we hadn’t yet seen the bathroom. A miniature spa in itself, its walls and partitions were of marble in every colour you could think of, mostly icy green, inky black or snowy white, both polished and rough-hewn. Curtains of artificial stalactites hung down to divide the room, their glistening surfaces studded with sparkling gems.

The floor-level bath was deep and mysterious, like a floppy cloverleaf in shape, comfortably taking four people in any position they’d care to recline. It was filled by a waterfall of clear warm water which was made to pour by pulling on a tasselled rope. We lost no time in throwing off our clothes and filling the bath and as I sat under the waterfall, Goldberry knelt in foam to the tops of her thighs, inspecting the contents of the scores of flagons and flasks which gathered in tiny lit-up grottoes, or nestled between the stalagmites.

There were essences and extracts of herbs and spices to pour into the gushing waterfall. No end of rose-water. Ointments, lyes and unguents of every familiar flavour and savour, and not a few unusual ones, from the light floral scents, beloved of elves, to heavy black sludges of sandalwood and dander, musk and molasses, which the orcs loved to rub on themselves—at least those that didn’t go in for cruder natural products.

Eventually Goldberry selected an iridescent swan-neck flask of some sort of river weed extract, which she demanded to be rubbed with. So, kneeling up in the steaming water, I did that, taking my time. Then I poured clear warm water from a silver ewer over her shoulders, making sure she was properly rinsed down in all the cusps and cracks.

“What a pity,” I said, “that we’re having only three nights here rather than three weeks. In that time we could really get to know each other.”

Goldberry pouted. “I imagine you’d get bored and want to go off camping.”

“Well, we could do that afterwards. Just you and me and one sleeping bag. I say, do you think there’s time for a quick lie-down on the bed before dinner?”

“Didn’t the message say to meet Grimwald in the restaurant two hours after sunset? It’s an hour since that stovepipe went ‘boom’ and we still have to dress for dinner. What’s wrong with staying in the bath? Are you tired or something?”

Soon it was time to put on our bathrobes and go and get dressed up for dinner.

One of the things about a first-class hotel in this new age is the service. The Prancing Pony was never like this! No longer a jug of ale, a desultory chat with strangers before a log fire, finally to turn in to some scruffy room which caters for travel-stained wanderers. We were expected to dress for dinner—and Grimwald Uruksson, one of the richest men in Middle Earth, was footing the bill.

Servants came up and measured me for a dinner-jacket. The conventional sort of dinner-jacket in Hotel Doom was bright red twill with purple velvet lapels, a shiny black belt with a gilded buckle, butter yellow leggings and soft black suede thigh boots which came to a point in front. They gave you a three-cornered hat to carry too, trimmed with two bushy white plumes.

A small army of seamstresses attended Goldberry. A simple woodland nymph, she wasn’t used to all this attention and stood there with an expression of dismay and embarrassment while they fussed around her. They measured her, tried bolts of the finest fabrics up against her, draped and pinned and snipped and stitched, chattering animatedly and approvingly about her fine figure and perfect measurements, and soon had her fitted with a made-to-measure dress which the finest couturier in Minas Tirith would have found hard to match.

Goldberry had scarcely budged since they began and now they retired, leaving her poised like a statue. I gaped and let out a long low whistle. Goldberry batted the lashes of her blue-grey eyes at me in demure discomposure, but really I couldn’t help it. From something in the nature of a forest fantasy they had turned her into a wicked temptation. It was a good job the weather was warm and the restaurant was likely to be warmer, because the dress revealed rather more than it concealed. It was fair to say that every shred of fabric was chosen and placed the better to adorn her natural assets rather than conceal them.

It goes without saying that the cut and colour of the dress were the last things that Goldberry would have chosen to wear herself, in spite of how I remembered her in her door-bitch uniform in the Headless Horseman. Which all goes to show how it’s a good thing to let other people dress you occasionally, else startling possibilities might remain forever unrealised. The predominant colour was red, set off with gold and silver sequins like a shower of sparks from a forge. I imagined they were going to cover her shaven head with some sort of a flamboyant wig, but instead they produced something lacy and silvery, surmounted by a tiara of brilliants, which glowed and sparkled in its own light.

I presented my arm and Goldberry took it as if I was offering her a horseshoe fresh off the blacksmith’s anvil. Together we promenaded to the restaurant like a prince and princess from a distant planet. The other guests were wandering about in finery just as opulent, but the seamstresses had clearly hit the right note with Goldberry, the way heads turned to stare.

We followed the sound of pattering drums down a winding tunnel richly carpeted in red from wall to wall. Soon we emerged into a wide space full of lights and colours against the deepest dark. ‘Krax’ Restaurant was the hippest joint in Middle Earth. All the cooking was done by volcanic heat over wells and fissures in the lava, from which there emanated a ruddy glow. Orc chefs slaved in the heat, as they must have done when Mount Doom was the Dark Lord’s forge, and every now and then their sweating bodies, luridly lit by the furnaces, would be transformed into black silhouettes as flames and white sparks flew up in their faces and clouds of steam spurted around their legs and billowed up above their heads.

Strange to say, in spite of the fury of the culinary vulcanism, the restaurant was no more than pleasantly warm. The decor was that of a cave, probably natural, which must have opened up beneath a vast tilting plate of rock when the underlying lava was soft like treacle. But the ceiling was not natural and had been slid back to reveal a clear sky with the gibbous waxing moon three days from the full. The light which glowed on the faces of the guests was both heavenly and hellish, one cheek fringed with soft moonlight like frosted citrus, the other rouged with the flickering glare of the open kitchen range, while their eyes gleamed in candle flames which rocked and shimmered in bowls of cut crystal.

I looked round at the guests. They were few orc faces among them. No parties of orcs—those that I noticed were dotted around amidst the other guests. Upwardly mobile orcs who could afford to fraternise with men and elves. Sitting as far from the furnaces as they could get I noticed a large party of young elves, making a lot of noise. Were the elvish younger generation branching out from their traditional fare of simple woodland feasts, trying new things, new experiences? Something to savour while they were young, before they became immersed in the preoccupations of their elders? If so, Mirkwood and Lórien would never again hold a candle to the Mandate, should they ever feel the urge to cater for the modern tastes of their young folk. Then I remembered hearing that Lúthien University at Imladris had an outstation on the north shore of Bagronkbûrz. These were obviously students on the Dark Studies course.

The head waiter met us with a bow and escorted us to our table. The face of our host was lit by candlelight, but not sufficiently to make out his features until we were standing right by the table. I couldn’t decide if he was a fairly plain man or an exceptionally beautiful orc. Either way he was attired like a prince dressed for the company of his womenfolk, wearing rather more jewellery than a prince might wear. Grimwald Uruksson smiled and rose to his feet, extending his hand. Slowly taking Goldberry’s fingers in his, he kissed her knuckles with reverence. Goldberry held herself like a marble statue before a gushing fountain.

“Welcome to the Royal Mandate of East Ithilien, Miss Aelvsson. I trust you’ve had an enjoyable stay so far?” Turning to me he said, “And to you, Mr Overdale, I bid Hail and Welcome! How lucky you are to travel with such a ravishing companion.”

…to be continued.