There was, in fact, all the trappings of a lavish banquet laid out on a long table. To this we repaired and Grimwald gallantly assisted Goldberry into her seat. The waiters scurried round, topping up all the glasses with sparkling wine. Grimwald raised his glass and tapped his knife on his plate for silence.
“Let me propose a toast to one of the most beautiful ladies who has ever set foot in this humble hotel of mine. It is my dearest wish that she will return again and again…” (and here the ghost of a cheeky smile passed across his lips) “…in fact if I had my way I’m not sure she would ever ‘depart’.”
It was the first of many toasts throughout that eerie meal. I raised my glass to propose a toast of my own (I wasn’t for letting him have it all his own way!)
“Now let me, in reply, toast the most magnificent and generous host I have come across for many a long year!” (He knew I had been travelling in darkest Haradwaith!) “May he enjoy a continuous stream of guests who never fail to bring him his heart’s desire…” (and here I permitted myself a cheeky smile too) “And may he never fail to reward them copiously for it!”
Goldberry caught my eye out of the corner of hers. She was trying to cotton on to what I was doing. Could I be so mealy-mouthed? Then she thought to go probing for broken glass in the pig swill, as she put it to me later. It was important to keep the sense of levity and mirth gushing out, because it was vital not to give the impression we were off our food. The more confident we could contrive to look, the more cautious Grimwald would be in trying to encompass our destruction. Playing for time—that’s what it was all about. Grimwald, convinced that he held all the cards, saw no danger in proceeding at a relaxed pace to humour us.
Then the food started arriving—dish after dish of the finest delicacies: at once rich and fattening, but of the sort to stick in your throat if you were the tiniest bit on edge. To my satisfaction, Goldberry tucked in with an appetite far in advance of her stature. So did I. Grimwald watched us with a sense of wonder. Were these people icy cool—or just plain stupid?
Actually I did begin to notice a certain detachment in Goldberry’s eyes. She was a little too relaxed—a little too resigned to her fate and a little too lacking in alertness. It suddenly occurred to me that something they’d given her had been drugged. I was convinced nothing narcotic had been fed to me, because I felt wide-awake, if not exactly on top of the world.
Grimwald raised his glass again. “The time has come for a very special ceremony! We will perform it in the side room over there, which has been made ready for us. Only those who have attained the required Order of Merit are permitted to witness the ceremony, I fear, so I beg the other guests please to hold us excused. In extenuation I promise you all it will only last a minute or two.”
Here it comes… I thought.
Grimwald went and opened a door at the end of the room. Two dozen of the heaviest uruks rose to their feet and filed in. Smilingly Grimwald beckoned to me, bidding me step inside.
Not knowing what to expect I walked into the room with as much confidence as I could muster. The uruks were lined up on either side, standing respectfully to attention. At the far end of this guard of honour, Grimwald stood behind a small polished table, upon which lay a little rosewood casket. Opening the lid he drew forth a medal on a red ribbon.
“Mr Overdale! Come forward!”
I did so and stood before him.
Still smiling, with every appearance of wishing to confer upon me a great honour, he placed the medal around my neck.
“I hereby invest you in the Grand Order of Mordor, First Class! When this proud nation comes at last to throw off the yoke of slavery, the name of Overdale will be remembered as one of the chief benefactors who made it all possible. Who returned to our guardianship one of the most precious items of our nation’s regalia—The Angrennan!”
The uruk guard of honour cheered and clapped.
Slipping his arm around my neck Grimwald escorted me towards the door which led back into the banqueting hall. I was in a haze of disbelief! Fully expecting to be rubbed-out, or at best beaten-up, I had to all appearances been greatly honoured by these people. How genuine that honour was I had no means of telling—but from what I knew of orc culture under the Dark Lord, it had seemed authentic. However cynical they were, and whatever they thought of tarks, I could not believe they would play jokes with the things that meant so much to them.
As I walked back to my place the guests at the long table applauded me enthusiastically. Everyone seemed to be in on the secret. Turning with puzzlement to face Goldberry I saw with a shock that her seat was empty. Up to that point I’d been doing so well. But as soon as I saw she was gone my nerve snapped.
How long was I supposed to keep up this charade? In a loud voice I demanded “What have you done with Goldberry?”
Guthmud, sitting opposite, affected consternation. “M-Mr Overdale… I regret to say that whilst you were receiving your award, she suddenly felt ill and we’ve had to take her to the duty nurse! I’m sure there is nothing much the matter with her…”
“No!” I roared. “There is nothing at all the matter with her! Unless you’re the cause of it!”
I lunged across the table to grab Guthmud by the throat, scattering dishes and glasses. Instantly my world was full of flying fists and boots…
…to be continued.