I hurriedly unlocked the bedroom door and plunged inside, turning the key behind me and putting the chain on. I leaned back against the door, gasping.
“Goldberry! …Are you there?”
She was just coming out of the bathroom. “My, Goss! Whatever’s the matter? You’re as white as a sheet!”
“Something’s happened to Ratbog! Come on, grab your things. We’ve got to get out of here!”
Hurriedly I explained what had happened. Without a sound she fell into my arms. I kissed her eyelids tenderly. “Courage, my love. We’re not dead yet.”
There came a knock at the door. Goldberry froze.
Letting go of her I strode to the spy-hole and looked out. The bell-hop stood there in his uniform. He was holding a huge spray of flowers. Cautiously I unlocked the door and took the chain off.
“Master Uruksson sends his regards and hopes you will accept these.” Thanking him I took the flowers and handed them to Goldberry. She stood there clutching them numbly.
“He also sends an invitation to a banquet luncheon, to be held at one o’clock in your honour.” He proffered an envelope.
I took it and extracted the invitation. It was lavishly calligraphed and gilded. The bell-hop stood by, waiting patiently.
“Oh—I am sorry,” I said. I scrabbled in my breeches pocket for a crown. It happened to be the same crown I’d tried to give Snargy. I gave it to the man, who thanked me. But he continued to stand there with an expectant look on his face.
“Excuse me, but what are you waiting for?”
“With all due respect, Sir, you will notice the letters RSVP at the bottom of the invitation. Master Grimwald craves the honour of your reply by return, which you may give to me verbally.”
“No—we were just off… we need time to consider…” stammered Goldberry, hovering behind my left shoulder.
“No we don’t,” I said, mustering up a confident tone of voice. “Tell Master Grimwald, who has been an excellent host to us, that we are delighted to accept his kind invitation.”
The bell-hop turned smartly on his heel and marched away.
“What did you say that for? You just told me they’re planning to kill us! How could you possibly accept an invitation from them?”
“Goldberry, my pet… there’s no alternative. With the ropeway out of order, we’re trapped here on top of this volcano. Grimwald holds all the cards. Grishnakh said play for time—and that’s just what we’re going to do.”
I peered through the peephole again. A large wicker hamper, borne by unseen hands, had appeared outside our door. I hauled it into the room. Inside was a brand-new neatly pressed morning suit for me, a smart and very expensive blue dress for Goldberry (they already had our measurements) plus a white nosegay for my buttonhole and a posy of woodland blooms for Goldberry to carry.
I’ve attended a good few functions in my time at court, when I’d rather have been anywhere else in the world, but never have I prepared so reluctantly for a luncheon date. Goldberry moved like a sea horse in treacle. At last we were ready. With long faces and sinking hearts we looked at each other. Silently I held out my elbow towards her. Taking a deep breath, which shuddered as she let it out, she took my arm. We promenaded to the private dining suite at the appointed time as if we were going to a funeral. As indeed we probably were. Our funeral.
Before we went in I whispered in Goldberry’s ear, “Chin up, pet. You only die once. The people in there are just itching to see us come in wearing long faces. Let’s walk in merry and bright, just to spite them!”
Goldberry snapped to attention and put on a synthetic smile. Seeing her do that, a sense of fun bubbled up inside me from nowhere. I opened the door and politely ushered her in. Catching sight of her face as she slipped past me, my heart swelled with pride for her. She was looking as sunny and as joyful as she ever did when entertaining guests at her cottage in the Old Forest.
The first person we saw was Grimwald. Guthmud stood beside him, beaming like the cat that had got the cream. The two of them were surrounded by an entourage of uruks, big ugly characters who looked utterly out of place in formal dress—and were keenly aware of it.
Grimwald, who must have been looking forward to seeing signs of intimidation in our faces, responded with a moment of bashfulness to Goldberry’s sunny smile. Then instantly he rose to the occasion, becoming as suave and as urbane as I’d known him in our brief but sufficiently long acquaintance.
“Miss Gee! And Goss—my good friends! I’m so delighted that you’ve been able to come.” He spoke in a deep melodious voice as if to very old and very dear comrades. I was paying so much attention to his tone of voice that it didn’t strike me there and then that he’d called me by my real name. I think he was unaware of it too.
“You’ve no idea how much this visit of yours has meant to me. Not only have we concluded some very useful business—very useful indeed!—but I feel that I’ve made two new friends for life.”
There wasn’t even an edge to his voice when he said “life”. I have nothing but admiration for a man who can control his body language like that.
“Master Grimwald,” I said, matching his tone of voice (just to show I could do it). “We have been overwhelmed by your hospitality during our stay. Your generosity knows no bounds! What is the occasion of this unexpected treat, just as we were about to depart?”
Unlike Grimwald, I didn’t altogether succeed in keeping an edge out of my voice on the word “depart”. He noticed and I thought for a moment he was going to giggle. But he quickly mastered himself.
“Please…” he said, taking my elbow and turning to the waiter. “A glass of sparkling wine each for my dear friends here.”
As the wine was being poured he said, “I really couldn’t bear to see you slip away without giving you a worthy send-off. It’s so rare that I have guests of your quality to entertain—you must forgive me if I indulge myself whilst I have the opportunity. And really, Mr Overdale,…” (here he gave me a playful nudge in the ribs) “how can any host not be captivated by your delectable travelling companion, towards whom no act of generosity would seem too great?”
Goldberry lowered her head and batted her eyelashes submissively. She actually managed to blush prettily—I don’t know how she did it.
…to be continued.