In the Darkness Bind Them

by Henrika

Pairing: Gandalf/Sauron, Gandalf/various uruk-hai, Gandalf/Saruman

Rating: NC-17

Summary: AU; Sauron has regained the One Ring and won the war. Gandalf is trapped. Will the Istar be able to resist the Dark Lord's attempts to break him?

Disclaimer: I don't own these characters. They belong to J. R. R. Tolkien. I make no money of this.

A/N and warnings: This story is very dark and deals with disturbing matters like graphic violence, graphic rape, torture, humiliation and much more. If this is not your cup of tea, now is probably the time to turn back. You have been warned!

Archiving: My own site, Lord of the Rings - my Gandalf slash fiction and art and Meddling in the Affairs of Wizards (hopefully!) Others, please ask first.

Dedicated to: Nefertiti, for so kindly helping me with beta and suggestions. Without you this story would probably still be in a file somewhere in my PC. Many hugs to you, my dear!

Chapter 19

Heeding Gandalf's advice, Saruman decided to lie low at the fortress Barad-dûr and not make it official that he was now the bearer of the One Ring. The less he needed to use it, the better, for Saruman doubted his own ability to resist the temptation of the Ring, especially if he had to use it to his own benefit. Many a time had the thought crept into his head: take the Ring, rule Middle Earth... Take revenge on Sauron and make Mithrandir your own...

He had managed to push those thoughts away so far, but for how long could he keep it up? Gandalf provided a welcome distraction from the call of the Ring, and because of that Saruman tried to stay close to his fellow wizard at all times. Gandalf was still weak - too weak for a journey to Mount Doom - but he was regaining strength every minute, and as soon as he was fit enough, they would leave.

Staying at Sauron's fortress was risky, despite the fact that they now had the Ring and the Dark Lord was bound. Sooner or later someone would discover him, or Sauron would find a way to free himself. The domestic servants still believed that Sauron was in charge and were probably not surprised by his absence. On the whole, the Dark Lord spent very little time at Barad-dûr, as he had other, more important tasks to deal with.

Gandalf couldn't wait to leave Barad-dûr. He wanted to get outside again and see the ground and the sky, even though he would only see Mordor. Still, it would be a blessed sight. Being confined within four walls had made the wizard feel like a trapped animal. He was no Elf, so he wouldn't die from being locked up, but it affected him nonetheless. Saruman, who had lived in Orthanc for ages, was not affected as strongly as Gandalf, but he also would welcome the sight of open lands.

Gandalf dressed for the first time in months and stood by Saruman's tiny window, regarding the tiny bit of sky that was visible through it. Oh, how he missed wandering beneath Elbereth's stars! He did not like Mordor, but the stars were the same, no matter where in Middle-Earth one was.

Saruman had brought him clothes: simple rags worn by Sauron's servants, but clothes nonetheless, because no one - not even a wizard - could head out into Mordor in naught but his skin. The shirt was loose and made of coarse, grey fabric, and the trousers were so big that he needed to lace them extra tightly to keep them from falling off. But compared to no clothes at all, they were fine.

Suddenly Gandalf felt a hand on his shoulder and started slightly before realizing it was only Saruman. He had been so deep in thought that he had not registered Saruman's approach.

"Gandalf? What are you looking at?" Saruman asked quietly, trying to follow Gandalf's absent gaze.

"Only the stars," Gandalf replied and even managed a little smile. "I have missed them. I have missed everything during my time here."

"You will soon see them again," his fellow wizard replied, sliding his hands down Gandalf's arms. "Even if we never return from Mount Doom, you will see the sky."

Gandalf sighed heavily and leaned back against Saruman's thin yet warm and solid frame. He couldn't deny it, of course. He was very frightened. This would be his greatest and most difficult task ever, and there were no guarantees that he would succeed. Gandalf suspected that Saruman was as scared as he was, perhaps even more so. Though the White Wizard had always been good at hiding his feelings, his carriage and behaviour told of his anguish.

"I wish there were an easier way..." Saruman muttered into Gandalf's shoulder.

"I do too," Gandalf agreed. "But there is not. We must do this."

"Do you think we can?"

Gandalf chuckled. "Well, Saruman, I once placed my hope in one little Hobbit, and I suppose we should have a better chance of succeeding... But no one can know."

Thoughts of claiming the Ring and taking the horrible burden off their shoulders once again swirled through Saruman's mind. His hold of Gandalf absently tightened, and Saruman pinched his eyes shut, trying to regain control of his thoughts.

"Saruman?" Gandalf asked anxiously. "What is it?"

"Nothing..." the Istar replied and moved away from Gandalf. "Everything is fine."

Gandalf sighed. "Is it the Ring? Saruman, dear, maybe I should carry it."

Saruman shook his head. "No, Gandalf, I have it. It's fine. Really. I can handle it."

Gandalf nodded in agreement, but his mind was not as confident. They needed to leave Barad-dûr as swiftly as possible.

"I think I will soon be well enough to travel," he said. "Can we leave early in the morning? There is no need to linger here anymore."

Saruman's eyes widened. "Tomorrow? Gandalf... It's only been a day...Are you sure that..."

"Yes, Saruman, I am positive," Gandalf interrupted with a slight trace of annoyance in his voice. He was not quite himself yet, but as long as he stayed at this place, he never would be.

"There is no need to postpone the ordeal. Our chances are decreasing every minute that we wait. I know you worry about me, Saruman, and I appreciate your concern, but destroying the Ring is more important than my health."

"But we need your health to succeed," Saruman pointed out sharply. "Do not expect me to carry you into Mount Doom!"

"I have told you I am fit for the journey," Gandalf insisted.

"So you say, but you suffered through something terrible only two days ago, and... It is not necessarily your body that needs to recover."

"I feel fine," Gandalf reassured his fellow wizard. "I feel very... focused. My spirit doesn't break easily."

"After what you have been through, I am quite certain about that," Saruman remarked with a small smile. "I just...don't want you to get hurt, Gandalf."

"Of course not. I don't want either of us to get hurt," Gandalf replied. "But our quest goes first. Always. Remember that, Saruman."

Saruman didn't answer, but instead he stuck his hand into his pocket and drew out the One Ring. It looked so small and insignificant; just a small, golden band without any stones or decorations. Judging from its appearance it was impossible to know that it was in fact the Master Ring, the greatest of them all. All the other Rings of Power looked much more imposing.

Gandalf opened his mouth to tell Saruman to put the Ring away, but he closed it again before any words could be uttered. He really didn't like having the Ring so close, let alone visible in Saruman's hand, but Gandalf also didn't want Saruman to believe that he mistrusted him, so he decided not to say anything. Quarreling between them now could not be tolerated.

It took a while, but Gandalf breathed a sigh of relief when Saruman finally put the Ring back in his pocket. His fellow wizard suddenly looked very old and weary. Saruman had been through many rough days in the past week and was probably both physically and mentally exhausted. He had rebelled against his abusive master, saved his fellow Istar from a cruel death, and now he had the most feared and lethal object in all Middle Earth in his possession. The most dangerous and exhausting task lay still ahead of them.

Gandalf knelt before Saruman, who sat on the bed and took his hands into his own. Saruman's hands were cold.

"My dear friend..." Gandalf whispered compassionately. "I know it must be difficult, but always remember I am here. We are together in this. We will find a way. Trust me."

Saruman nodded slowly, but he did not look too convinced.

"We will leave early tomorrow," Gandalf continued, rubbing Saruman's cold hands to get some warmth into them. "All we need now is a good night's sleep."

The Istari awaited an opportunity to leave Barad-dûr as safely as possible. Gandalf didn't know how many of Sauron's servants knew about him, but he didn't want to take any unnecessary risks. If someone recognized him, things could get problematic.

Saruman had brought them both travelling cloaks made of warm, black fabric that would be much needed in the cold, barren fumes of Mordor.

They checked through their scarce belongings one last time before leaving the chamber where they had spent the past two days hiding. They only had a few bottles of water, some bread, a sword and a dagger, in case they needed to defend themselves against something, and then - of course - the Ring.

The One Ring was still located in Saruman's pocket, and though Gandalf did not feel completely at ease with the thought, he had accepted the solution. He had Narya on his finger, and Saruman had agreed to let him bear Vilya and Nenya as well. He knew that not even The Three would have the power to stop Saruman in case he was corrupted and decided to claim the One Ring, but they did give Gandalf a small sense of security. At the same time, he felt melancholic. Vilya and Nenya did not belong to him. What had become of Elrond and Galadriel?

They were dead, of course, like so many others. Gandalf realized that the sooner he accepted the fact, the better. If their mission succeeded, he would have time to grieve over them later.

Wrapping his hooded Mordor-cloak tighter around his body, he glanced at Saruman. The White Wizard gazed back at him, nodding in silence.

"Are you ready?" Gandalf asked, barely finding the voice to speak.

Saruman nodded, still silent. Absently he placed his hand over his pocket where the Ring momentarily rested, taking a deep breath.

"Yes. Let's go," he said.

The two wizards left Saruman's chamber, hoping never to see the gloomy place again. To Saruman it was a place associated only with pain, humiliation, and agony, and he was glad to finally leave it behind. He would not miss anything in Barad-dûr, and - he suspected - neither would Gandalf.

Slowly they made their way through the huge fortress, headed for an exit. Saruman had not been outside since his arrival at Barad-dûr months ago, and he had not thought about memorizing the places where he had been. The place was so huge that the wizards were soon lost in the seemingly endless labyrinth of corridors, and their hearts were soon heavy with fatigue and bitterness.

"It will take us days to find a way out..." Saruman muttered, sighing deeply and sinking onto his knees. Gandalf sank down next to him and tried to think of something reassuring to say, but he came up with nothing. He knew that Saruman was carrying a heavy burden, and Gandalf did not blame him for his weariness. The Ring was never easy to bear, and it was certainly not getting any lighter.

"We must keep trying..." Gandalf murmured, stroking Saruman's back. "Sooner or later we will find an exit... We must keep walking."

"Gandalf... Maybe I could... use the Ring. Just once. If I put it on, maybe I will gain better insight into..."

"No!" Gandalf snapped at once, seizing Saruman's hands spasmodically. "You mustn't do it! You cannot use the Ring! Do you hear me? We must find another way!"

The look of pure terror and shock on his fellow wizard's face startled Saruman and quickly drove the thought out of his head. Gandalf was right. If he put on the Ring, he might never take it off again.

"You are right, Gandalf..." he sighed. "It was a stupid suggestion."

"Aye, it was," Gandalf agreed, instantly calm again. "But I do not blame you. The lure of the Ring is strong. You mustn't succumb to it."

"I will not. Let's go."

The Istari rose again and continued their seemingly hopeless search for an exit. Gandalf made sure to hold the hand of his fellow wizard, partly because it gave him a comforting sensation, but also because he wanted to make sure Saruman's hand didn't accidentally slip into his pocket...

The huge fortress was surprisingly empty, and though they tried their best not to be seen by anyone, they did not have to hide at all. Gandalf once saw a couple of human servants from a distance, but the servants did not even seem to notice them, let alone recognize them. Obviously many strange creatures lurked in the dark corners of Barad-dûr, so two hooded and cloaked figures did not draw anyone's attention.

They also heard the cruel, foul voices of orcs a few times and made sure to hide in the shadows until they could no longer hear the pack. The ones they heard were regular orcs, not soldier Uruk-hai, but to Gandalf it made no great difference. He had come to detest both races.

Saruman wrapped his arms around Gandalf when he felt the trembling of his fellow wizard, trying to offer comfort and protection. What had happened only two days ago was still very fresh in Gandalf's memory, and Saruman could understand his fear and disgust of the foul creatures.

"They are gone now..." he whispered when he could no longer hear the barking voices. "Gandalf... don't be afraid."

"I'm sorry..." Gandalf whispered back. "I was being foolish. Let's continue."

But before they could continue, both wizards heard a startling sound approaching them, and they froze in an instant, holding their breaths. It was the sound of footsteps. Whoever it was, he was headed straight toward them, and there was no way they could slip past him undetected. A human servant would probably not cause any problems, but an orc or uruk would. Gandalf was terrified that it was one of those who had participated in raping and torturing him in the dungeons only two days ago, and he suddenly felt like throwing up.

He unsheathed his dagger and stood, despite his fear, ready to defend himself if necessary. Saruman had done the same, and they both stayed in the shadows, still hoping to avoid a direct confrontation.

As the steps drew closer, Gandalf realized that they were not caused by a human. Humans did not move with the ethereal grace and beauty of the Elves, but this creature sounded too clumsy and noisy even for a Man. It was not the shuffling gait of an orc either, so that meant it had to be an uruk.

Gandalf tried to swallow down his fear and disgust. If there would be a confrontation, he would not hesitate to stab the foul creature down.

When the creature emerged from the shadows and came into their range of vision, Gandalf gasped in surprise. It was the female uruk that had come to the Dark Lord's bedchamber to pleasure him while he had Gandalf collared shackled to the wall. He remembered her clearly and was certain that if she saw him properly, she would remember him as well. She was ugly and foul with an orc-snout, claws, fangs and swarthy, scarred skin, but Gandalf's fear faded, since she could not hurt him the way a male specimen could.

Perhaps she could even prove useful to them. Suddenly Gandalf got an idea. He lunged forward, knocking the she-uruk off balance and landing on top of her. She struggled and grunted in surprise, attempting to throw him off, but he was quicker this time and placed his dagger to her throat.

"Gandalf!" Saruman's voice sounded terrified, and the White Wizard even reached out his hand to grab Gandalf. A multitude of shocked thoughts passed through Saruman's head. What was Gandalf doing?! Saruman would have done anything to avoid a direct confrontation, and he thought Gandalf would do the same. So what was this?!

"Quiet!" Gandalf hissed and grabbed the uruk's hair with his other hand. She realized her disadvantage and ceased struggling. "I assume you remember me?" he then asked and swept the hood back from his head, baring his face.

"Gandalf!" Saruman tried, grabbing Gandalf's left shoulder, but his fellow wizard just shrugged it away and gestured at him to back away.

The she-uruk nodded. "The Master's pet..." she croaked, her voice hoarse and dark. "The wizard."

"That's correct," Gandalf said with a nod. "But I am not Sauron's pet any longer. We are looking for an exit, and so far we have been unable to find one, but you are going to help us. Do you know your way around this fortress? Do you know a way out?"

The uruk hesitated, then nodded. "Yes... I have run errands for Lord Sauron."

"Good. Then you will help us out of here. If you refuse, I will kill you."

Saruman was honestly surprised at the words coming from Gandalf's mouth. His fellow Istar had never threatened to kill any creature, fair or foul, before. In case Gandalf killed, it was in self-defence. He watched Gandalf rising to his feet, still holding the blade to the uruk's throat. She seemed docile now, passively obeying the wizard's orders, but Gandalf knew her true nature. She was much taller than him and only slightly shorter than Saruman, who was considered tall, even among Men and Elves.

"Are you sure this is wise?" Saruman whispered anxiously.

"Trust me. It is," Gandalf replied. "Walking with her gives us an excellent disguise. No one will suspect us if we are walking with an uruk."

He pulled his hood over his head again, concealing his features. For the first time in a long while Gandalf was actually happy he no longer had his long hair and beard: two of his well-known characteristics. No one could know he was Mithrandir simply by looking at him now.

We might actually succeed, Gandalf thought, hope igniting within him again. Things would be easier once they got out of fortress Barad-dûr. He was sure of that.

The she-uruk took them to a small exit, probably used as a sort of backdoor by some servants. Gandalf was pleased with the solution. The risk of being discovered was smaller if they passed through here rather than through the main exit, which undoubtedly was more frequently used.

When they finally reached the outside, it was already evening, and the night-sky was, as usual, covered with a blanket of stars, twinkling down at them from their place somewhere unreachably high up. Gandalf sighed when he saw them, taking a moment just to revel in the bright, blazing light the stars offered. He could see the moon as well: only a small crescent at the time, but a welcome sight nonetheless.

"By Elbereth..." he sighed ruefully. "I have missed all this..."

Saruman gave him a questioning look, and so did the uruk, who had now completed her task. She regarded the smaller wizard intently, not realizing why the sky affected him so strongly.

"Gandalf..." Saruman said after a while, gently touching his shoulder. "What about her?" he asked, nodding at the she-uruk. "Will you kill her now?"

Gandalf shook his head. "Kill her? No. I will release her." He turned to look at the she-uruk. "You! Go now. Leave us. Your master is defeated. You have nothing more to do in Barad-dûr. If you are wise, you will run."

The uruk was not slow to comply. She feared the wizards, especially Gandalf, as he was still holding the dagger in his hand. She was not the most intelligent of creatures, and though she didn't understand what the wizard meant by Sauron being defeated, she saw no reason to doubt him. Throwing one last look at the fortress that had been her home since her birth, she turned around and started to run.

"You let her go?" Saruman said, sounding slightly dubious.

"But of course," Gandalf replied. "I do not kill in cold blood, not even uruks. And she did what I wanted."

"And what now?"

"Now we head for the mountain of fire," Gandalf said with a tired sigh.

The exhausting and undoubtedly dangerous journey to the Mountain of Fire from Barad-dûr would take at least two, maybe three days, and Gandalf was worried that the weight of the Ring would grow too great for Saruman to bear before they reached their goal. Narya supplied Gandalf with some extra strength, but the One Ring, despite its power, was a burden which sooner or later exhausted its bearer.

The joy of reaching the outside faded quickly after some time in the barren wasteland. Mordor's lack of life was depressing, yet Gandalf was happy to be under open sky again. As they walked, he tried to observe his fellow wizard to see if Saruman was affected in any way, but the other Istar was good at keeping a straight face.

Gandalf's unease at being so close to the Ring did not decrease as they drew closer to Mount Doom - on the contrary. Saruman did not carry the golden band in a chain around in his neck, as Frodo had done, but even though Gandalf couldn't see it, he could feel its presence.

The Ring wanted to go back to Sauron. It did not want either of the wizards. Gandalf suspected that if either of them claimed the Ring as his own, it would only use him as a tool to get back to its one, true master. Gandalf earnestly hoped that Saruman had realized that as well. His fellow wizard had spent more time researching the Ring than he, and hence he should know its nature, but reason did not always win over desire for power.

A direct route to Mount Doom would have been the quickest way, but the wizards were afraid of being detected by Sauron's troops of orcs, uruks and corrupted Men that were patrolling the barren landscapes. They had no idea their Lord had been defeated, so they were still loyal to him, and Gandalf knew that if they were caught they would be taken back to Barad-dûr in chains. That couldn't happen. They had come this far, and they would go all the way.

Then there was something else that possibly composed a much greater threat than patrolling orcs and men - the Nazgûl. In their current states, neither Saruman nor Gandalf was strong enough to fight the Ringwraiths, let alone defeat them. The only way to do that was to destroy the Ring. Gandalf wondered if they could feel that their master was no longer in possession of the Ring. If they did, they might be even more drawn to its power, urged to return it to their master.

After a long day of walking, the Istari decided to settle down in a small cave and spend the night there, hoping to get some much-needed rest. They drank some water and ate a piece of bread each from their sparse supply. Then they curled into their travelling cloaks in order to get some sleep. They were both very quiet, and their communication consisted of a few short words exchanged every now and then to make sure they both knew what was to be done.

Gandalf decided to break the gloomy mood by crawling closer to his fellow wizard and wrapping his arm around him. Saruman accepted the embrace but barely returned it.

"I'm cold, and it's warmer this way..." Gandalf murmured. "I do miss my bed, even if it belonged to Barad-dûr..." He gave a dry chuckle. "Ironic, isn't it? Right now I would really give much to have that bed, and every minute I lay in it, I wished myself out."

"Go to sleep, Gandalf..." Saruman murmured back, though his voice revealed that he wasn't really sleepy.

"Is the Ring safe?" Gandalf asked.

"Of course. It is in my pocket, as usual."

Gandalf suspected that Saruman was unwilling to go to sleep for the same reason he was: the Ring. As the conclusion drew nearer Saruman's suspicions of his fellow wizard were increasing, and Gandalf could feel it. He wished there were some way to assure Saruman that he was not going to take the Ring, since words were no longer enough. But - Gandalf realized - there was no way to be absolutely sure, of course. He risked becoming corrupted almost as much as Saruman, although he might not notice it himself.

"I won't take it..." he whispered, rubbing Saruman's arm reassuringly.

Saruman spun around in an instant, glaring at Gandalf. "Of course not! I didn't say that!"

"You are suspicious of me," Gandalf stated bluntly. "It is no use denying it. The lure of the Ring grows stronger. It senses that we are about to destroy it."

Saruman sighed, but chose not to comment on Gandalf's statement. It was true, of course, and he knew it, but discussing it certainly didn't help.

"Try to get some sleep, Gandalf..." he said instead. "You need to rest."

"Yes, you are right about that," Gandalf agreed and tried to curl farther into his travelling cloak for warmth. Despite the gnawing anxiety in his heart he decided to heed Saruman and indeed try to get some sleep.

Gandalf tried to crawl into the nearest corner, but one of his rapists - a foul, grinning Uruk-hai - caught his ankle and pulled him back effortlessly. The wizard was already so weak from the rapes, beatings and loss of blood that there was no resistance left in him. Besides he knew that struggling would only be rewarded with a blow to his head or something worse.

He had been raped numerous times and it was far from over yet. Luckily his backside had already gone somewhat numb, so he could no longer feel the full pain caused by the brutal entries. One of them - the leader - had been present all the time and was obviously directing the actions of the others.

Gandalf wished himself dead every time he was raped by a new horny, grunting, smelly beast, but it seemed like his rapists were determined to keep him alive for as long as they could, so they could keep on torturing him. They had cut him, burned him, bitten him, and subjected him to numerous other methods of torture, but so far nothing directly lethal had been done.

"Hey, wizard-filth!" the leader said, poking Gandalf in the side with his boot. "Come on, now, wake up! We don't want you to fall sleep just yet!"

Gandalf tried not to react, keeping his eyes closed and his breathing even, hoping he could make the uruks believe he was truly unconscious, so they would lose interest in him.

"Stick that red-hot poker up his arse!" one uruk suggested with a bark of laughter, referring to the object they had already used to burn Gandalf's skin. "I wanna see him squirming and squealing on that stick!"

"No, that would kill him," the leader replied. "I have a better idea."

For some inexplicable reason Gandalf suddenly knew what was going to happen. He could see nothing, and still he knew he was going to be sodomized with a bottle. He was in his own broken body, but it felt as if he was also a spectator, watching the scene from afar.

The coming action filled him with terror. No! He already knew the awful feeling of having that hard, unyielding object forced relentlessly into his body, and it was nothing he wanted to experience again.

He tried to scream, but no words left his mouth. Waiting for the body-racking pain and the feeling of his rear being torn apart, blackness overcame Gandalf. He whirled into a dark, bottomless abyss, and was almost certain that death had finally come for him. He almost wished it were so.

When he opened his eyes again, he was sitting on an imposing throne, flawlessly dressed in shining white robes, and the One Ring was on his right ring finger. He could see Sauron on his knees before him, pleading for mercy, and Saruman by his side, collared and leashed, with Gandalf himself holding the end of the leash in his hand. The sensation of having such immense power surged through his mind and felt as intoxicating as a drug. There could only be one, and it was he. All he had to do was to take the Ring...

Gandalf woke up with a jerk and could hear himself screaming into the cold night air. His shocked and confused eyes roamed about the surroundings, but all he could see was blackness. He was covered in sweat despite the cold air he was breathing, and he could feel his own heart pounding like a hammer in his chest.

Gradually the wizard began to realize that he had only been dreaming. He was not being molested by any uruks, and he had not claimed the Ring for himself. It was only a dream. A nightmare.

He exhaled slowly, still sweating and shaking. Despite his attempts to stifle his wails, he began to sob quietly and pressed his hand to his mouth to suppress it. Saruman, who had been awakened and startled by his sudden cry, was by his side in an instant, anxiously asking what was wrong.

"I had a...nightmare..." Gandalf whispered and used his hand to wipe off the snot that was dripping from his nose. "I... I dreamt that I was back in that dungeon, with those fell creatures, and they... and then... then I dreamt that I had taken the Ring!"

Burning tears were pouring from his eyes, although he was barely even aware of it. Saruman put a clumsy arm around his shoulders to hug him close in an attempt to soothe him. The White Wizard was anything but used to giving comfort, so the gesture was awkward, but it didn't seem to matter to his fellow Istar. Gandalf clutched Saruman close and saw no reason to hold his emotions back any longer. He began to cry freely and once he let it loose, stopping appeared to be impossible.

Saruman didn't know what to do besides holding him in his arms and murmuring words of reassurance. At the occasions when they had lain in each other's arms, Gandalf had been comforting him, not vice versa. The situation made Saruman feel ill at ease and uncertain, but he could hardly blame Gandalf. Narya may have been successful in healing his physical wounds, but it would take his mind considerably longer to get rid of the emotional trauma caused by the horrible assault.

"Gandalf..." Saruman said after a while, cupping his fellow Istar's mottled, tear-streaked face in his hands. He made sure to keep his voice soft so as not to upset or alienate Gandalf. "I know it is difficult, but maybe you should try to keep your cries down. I am not sure, but I believe I heard orcs pass not far from here a while ago. We wouldn't want to attract them to us."

Gandalf stared back at him for a moment with a bewildered look, but then he nodded in understanding.

Saruman was right, and Gandalf decided to try pulling himself together. He continued to shake for another while but managed to stifle his sobs and stop the flow of tears from his eyes reasonably quickly. He was happy that Saruman did not recoil from him but kept an arm around his shoulders and continued to hug him close. In this desolate place Gandalf was in desperate need of the touch of another warm, living being.

"Did you really mean you heard the orcs?" he asked in a trembling voice full of fear.

"I did," Saruman stated grimly. "It's not so surprising, really. This is Mordor, after all."

Gandalf shivered and pulled his relatively thin cloak tighter around him. Whatever happened, they mustn't be discovered by orcs. The mere thought filled Gandalf's insides with fear and disgust. He was convinced that he would rather kill himself than let one of those filthy beasts touch him again.

"Are you cold?" Saruman asked when he noticed Gandalf's shivers.

"Yes, a little, but I am more afraid," Gandalf replied.

Only now Gandalf realized his hands were hurting. When he looked down, he could see that his nails had pressed into the soft flesh of his palms and caused bleeding, crescent-shaped wounds. Saruman saw it too, and Gandalf could hear his fellow wizard sigh.

"Clean your hands," he said, offering one of the water bottles to Gandalf.

"No need, really. I know we don't have much water to spare."

"No, I want you to do it," Saruman persisted. "Go on, now."

Sighing, Gandalf accepted the water bottle and poured some of its content onto his aching hands. He tried to use as little as possible and did not like seeing the water spill onto the ground, unused. Realizing that his throat was dry as well, he swallowed a mouthful directly from the bottle before handing it back to Saruman.

Gandalf suddenly thought himself grasping an alarming sound not far from their cave. He tensed up immediately and held his breath. Despite his fear and disgust of the orcs, he did realize that the worst that could encounter them was not an orc or even many orcs. The Nazgûl were still at large as well and composed a much larger threat than a pack of slow, dim-witted orcs.

Saruman tried to squeeze Gandalf's shoulder encouragingly. "Let's try to get some more sleep," he suggested. "We need to recover some strength before we continue."

Gandalf silently shook his head. "I don't think I can sleep anymore, Saruman," he replied. "And I am not even sure I want to."

Instead of persisting, Saruman seemed to understand Gandalf's situation and simply said, "Very well."

The stars were still visible, though they were gradually paling as dawn drew nearer. From the cave entrance Gandalf could regard the constellations. He could see Orion, the Wagon, Capricorn, and many more. The Morning Star shone as always in the east as the brightest object in the sky, second only to the moon.

Will this be my last night ever beneath the stars? he wondered quietly to himself. Saruman was sitting by his side, but it seemed as if his fellow wizard had dozed off again some time ago. Gandalf was scared, and there was no doubt that Saruman was scared too, although he wasn't as open about his fear as Gandalf.

Gandalf continued to gaze toward the sky until all the stars had paled and been replaced by a thick fog of dark and ominous clouds that characterized Mordor. No sun was visible in the Land of Shadows today either.

Night was coming again when the two wizards began to approach the cracks of Mount Doom - the only way that could take them to the fire that alone could destroy the One Ring. The looming mountain towering over them began to feel like a living creature, ready to close its big jaws around them and devour them whole.

Even though Saruman had had as much to eat and drink as Gandalf, he had to rest far more often than his fellow wizard. Gandalf knew why. The Ring was exhausting him. Gandalf knew that offering Saruman to carry the burden for him, if only for a little while, would do more harm than good, so there was not much that he could do to help him.

"It's not far now," he tried, only a few hundred yards from the narrow path that led up to the Sammath Naur. "Saruman, please get up."

Saruman was breathing heavily, shoulders slumped, almost curled in a ball on the ground. He had been sitting down for over ten minutes, but his strength just didn't seem to return to him. The Ring had started to feel leaden-heavy in his pocket, and it got worse with every step they took toward the cracks of Mount Doom. The Ring sensed what was about to happen and did everything in its power to prevent it.


Saruman's head snapped up when he heard Gandalf speak his name, and the hand of his fellow Istar landed softly on his shoulder.

"Saruman, we must keep going," Gandalf urged him. "We are so close now. See? Please, we must continue. Don't let the Ring weigh you down now after you have carried it for so long."

"I cannot go any further," Saruman said with an exhausted sigh.

"Yes, you can," Gandalf immediately replied and tugged lightly at Saruman's sleeve. "We are so close... Come on, now. Please."

But Saruman still refused to stand and kept shaking his head. Why had they even come here? Why? This was a mission doomed to fail. There was no other possibility. How could he have been so naïve as to believe Gandalf, who seriously thought they would be able to destroy the Ring? His only real option now, besides death, was to put the Ring on and becomes its new master. That way he could save both himself and Gandalf. Wasn't that what he wanted? Wasn't that what everyone expected him to do? Wasn't that what everyone would have done?

Gandalf seized Saruman's wrist and tugged harder this time. "Saruman, please - we must keep walking!" he urged, still trying to sound optimistic. Saruman was dangerously close to giving up at this point, and Gandalf could sense it.

"I can't..."

"Yes, you can. Just get to your feet and follow me. We're so close now."

"Let me go," Saruman objected, and tried to pull his wrist out of Gandalf's grasp, but his efforts were kitten-weak.

Gandalf did not release him but kept persisting, which soon made a strange kind of fury well up in Saruman, distorting the words Gandalf spoke in his ears. That, together with the constant tugging at his arm, caused the White Wizard to snap. With a snarl he rose to his full height in the blink of an eye and simultaneously threw Gandalf to the ground.

Gandalf had no way to prevent the fall and landed prone on his stomach. The air was knocked out of his lungs, partly by the fall but mostly by sheer surprise. He had not expected a sudden, violent reaction like that and was deeply shocked.

Saruman regretted his violent outburst as soon as he saw Gandalf hitting the ground. He kneeled beside his fellow wizard and helped him to get into a half-sitting position, as he checked for any possible injuries. Gandalf had scraped one elbow but had no other visible wounds or abrasions.

"I am sorry, Gandalf..." Saruman murmured repentantly. "Please forgive me... I...I don't know what came over me."

"I do..." Gandalf replied slowly. "It is the Ring. You were thinking about claiming it, weren't you?"

Saruman jerked. "How can you know that?"

"Call it intuition or something else. I can feel it, too. The Ring is afraid."

"I am really sorry, Gandalf... Are you hurt?"

"No, I will be fine," Gandalf stated and brushed some dirt off his clothes. "Let's move on."

Saruman, who had regained some strength from his violent outburst, helped Gandalf to his feet, and slowly they continued their journey toward the Mountain of Fire. Saruman's strength didn't last for long, though. The path grew narrower and the mountain steeper the closer to the entrance they got, and soon Gandalf had to drag his own weight plus half of Saruman's.

Saruman was on the verge of giving in every ten seconds, and though Gandalf didn't feel much better, he was determined to get them both up to the passage into the mountain, so that the Ring could finally be destroyed. They must not fail now, not when they were so close. This was the chance to get rid of an evil that had plagued Middle Earth for over 3000 years and claimed the lives of countless innocents. The age of the Ring was over.

Saving Middle Earth was what gave Gandalf strength to drag both himself and his fellow Istar closer toward the gaping entrance that led into the very core of the ominous mountain, but he also realized that he could not drag them all the way up. Saruman had to do the rest himself.

"I can see it!" Gandalf gasped, his voice already hoarse from exertion and inhalation of the acrid smoke that oozed from the mountain. His eyes were watering and burning, but he could see their goal now, perhaps not fifty yards above them. "Saruman, look!"

Gandalf tightened his hold on Saruman's hand and used nearly all of his remaining strength to drag Saruman up beside him, so he could see for himself how close to achieving their goal they actually were. But instead of gaining new strength as Gandalf had hoped, Saruman fell into a heap on the ground, even more exhausted than before.

"I cannot go any further..." Saruman whispered, clutching at his throat. "I... I... I can't. Let's turn back, Gandalf... Let us go back to Barad-dûr. We cannot do this. It's too much."

"What are you saying?!" Gandalf yelled, his voice increasing in power. "Look, can't you see? We are almost there!"

Saruman could see the dark, ominous gate as clearly as Gandalf, and the mere sight of it was enough to drain him of all the energy he had left. Those jaws would close around him as soon as he had taken the step inside the mountain, and they would surely never let him back out. He couldn't do it. It was suicide. Why didn't Gandalf realize that?

"Saruman, please come on..." Gandalf tried desperately and began to tug at his hand again, but Saruman twisted out of his grip with considerable strength when he noticed what was happening.

"I am not going up there!" he cried and began to tumble down the path, running and sliding indiscriminately. "It will be my death! It will be the death of us both!"

Gandalf saw no option other than following him. If Saruman gave in now and fell into the power of the Ring, everything would be lost. He couldn't let that happen, even if it meant that he had to kill his fellow wizard and take the Ring into Mount Doom by himself.

"Saruman, come back!" he yelled, not caring if he was making noise. They were so close that it didn't really matter anymore. "Don't you understand?! The Ring will be your doom! You have to destroy it! There is only that option!"

Saruman continued down the slope as if he didn't hear Gandalf, stumbling and swaying with his dark travelling cloak flapping behind him.

Gandalf reached him approximately ten seconds later. Grabbing Saruman from behind with brute force derived from sheer panic, he managed to stop him. Saruman, of course, fighting in panic as much as Gandalf, began to struggle instantly; screaming, kicking and scratching he did everything to rid himself of the weight behind him that was keeping him back.

Knowing that he would not be able to drag Saruman all the way into Mount Doom in case he remained unwilling, Gandalf began to realize he would have to take the Ring.

"Saruman! You don't have to go up there, just give me the Ring, and I will go in your place... Please!" he cried, dodging just in time to prevent one of Saruman's sharp nails from poking him in the eye.

"Nooo! Get away from me!" Saruman howled in reply. "I will never give it to you - never!"

"What, then? Do you want Sauron to have it?" Gandalf snapped. "Either you go up there yourself, or you give it to me! I will not let you ruin the future of all Middle Earth, Saruman!"

Gandalf tangled his hand in Saruman's long hair, pulling his head back, and tears of pain emerged in the White Wizard's eyes, twisting his face into an agonized grimace. Without warning Saruman punched his fist into Gandalf's stomach. Gandalf staggered backwards, gasping for breath, and his hand fell down from Saruman's hair.

Taking advantage of the situation, Saruman backhanded Gandalf across the face, sending him sprawling to the ground. Straddling Gandalf, he then drew out his uruk-dagger from its sheath and put it to his fellow wizard's throat.

"Killing me won't help..." Gandalf croaked, trying to see past the stiff mask of insanity that now covered Saruman's face. If there was anything left of the old Saruman, he certainly couldn't see it.

Saruman's face began to twitch and his gleaming eyes started to narrow, and a low, growling sound slowly erupted from his throat. His features became so distorted that the pale light made him look more orcish than human.

For something that seemed like a long while he kept perfectly still, sitting atop Gandalf and keeping the dagger pressed to his throat. Gandalf couldn't know what Saruman was really thinking, but it seemed as if the two sides of him were having a heated discussion in his mind.

Then suddenly Saruman's expression changed and became completely blank, as if all his inside life had died. For a moment Gandalf thought Saruman would cut his throat, but instead the wizard slid off him and the dagger fell from his hand. His face was now ashen grey, and he had begun to look more dead than alive.

Slowly Gandalf rose into a sitting position, apprehensively regarding his fellow wizard. When he was certain that Saruman wouldn't attack him, he crawled closer to him and put his hand on his back. Gandalf could see that he was responsible for causing a split in Saruman's lower lip plus a swelling on his right cheek. He couldn't say he was sorry, though. He had been fighting for the future of Middle Earth, and to some extent, himself.

Gandalf kicked the dagger out of both their reaches. "Saruman," he said mildly, gripping Saruman's shoulders. "You have to come with me. Please, if there is anything left of you in there, listen now."

Saruman's dark eyes fluttered and then slowly turned to gaze back into Gandalf's. He didn't appear to have understood what Gandalf just told him.

"Saruman, can you understand me?" Gandalf inquired and tightened his hold on the other wizard's shoulders. When he still didn't receive an answer or even a nod, he began to shake him. Gandalf half-expected Saruman to throw him off again, but the White Wizard remained passive.

This is my chance to take it, Gandalf realized. I should do it. I know that. If I'm quick enough, the Ring won't gain hold of me before I destroy it.

Something made Gandalf hesitate, though. There was no way to be sure. He could trust no one, not even himself.

"I know," Saruman suddenly said in a hoarse, throaty voice. "The Ring must be destroyed... But... But I don't think I can do it..."

"Then give it to me," Gandalf pleaded. "Maybe I have the strength. But you must go with me. I am afraid of myself. Or will you do it yourself?"

Saruman glanced up at the ominous opening carved into the mountainside, and his courage started to sink even more. "Up there?" he said weakly.

"Yes, you know it is the only way. Come on, now."

Gandalf managed to pull Saruman to his feet once more, though he could feel his own strength gradually fading. He would not be able to drag his fellow wizard into Mount Doom, let alone carry him.

Due to Saruman's mad slide down the slope, the way up to the cracks was longer again. Gandalf was once again leading the way, keeping his eyes doggedly fixed on their goal. He kept telling himself that if only he could keep his eyes on it, they would not fail.

Squeezing Saruman's hand almost brutally hard, Gandalf continued to drag him. Beads of sweat were pouring down his forehead and trickling into his eyes, making his eyes burn and his sight blur, but he was determined not to give up. Every now and then he turned to look over his shoulder at Saruman, who was really struggling to keep up despite his fading strength. Gandalf could have gone slower, but he did not, because he feared the growing lure of the Ring. If Saruman went mad once more, things could end badly for everyone.

Many times Saruman simply wanted to break free from Gandalf's relentless hold and tumble down the mountainside again, but he always managed to regain his senses before trying something so drastic. What would happen once they got inside Mount Doom? Saruman feared never getting out again, though things were pretty hopeless as they were now. Perhaps it was worth at least trying to destroy the Ring. And he knew Gandalf would never forgive him if he backed out now.

Exhausted and gasping for breath, the two Istari finally reached the gaping, black entrance. Gandalf managed it first and had to drag Saruman up by the waist. It was an exhausting task in Gandalf's generally weak and exhausted state, especially as his fellow wizard was heavier than he.

Struggling to his feet and lifting Saruman with him, Gandalf rose, and the pair continued into the heart of the dark mountain. If the air outside had been acrid and thick, it was even worse inside. Gandalf managed to tear off a piece of fabric from his cloak, which he pressed to his face to keep the worst of the fumes out. He told Saruman to do the same, but the White Wizard seemed to have gone beyond hearing simple instructions. He kept on stumbling by Gandalf's side, but his legs almost seemed to move without Saruman's conscious knowledge.

The suffocating darkness in the tunnel leading to the mountain's core almost became too much to bear, even to Gandalf, and the thought of turning back crossed his mind more than once. He was quick to dismiss it, though, and hoped that his body and mind would stay strong enough to take both him and Saruman as far as they needed to go.

Glancing down at Narya on his right hand supplied Gandalf with some well-needed courage and strength as he kept on fighting through the thick, suffocating atmosphere, pulling Saruman's robotic body with him.

Soon the light from outside was no longer sufficient to illuminate the tunnel, and Gandalf was forced to slow the pace. His grip on Saruman tightened in fear, but even now Saruman did not protest or even react. Gandalf was worried about him, but the situation didn't allow him to really think such thoughts. All he had to focus on now was to get Saruman into the mountain's core and hopefully make him throw the Ring into the fire.

When the red glow from inside the mountain came into view, Gandalf realized that they were close. He dragged Saruman with a spasmodic hold, and all the time he could hear his own pounding heart, hammering like a large machine in his chest. That sound was soon overwhelmed by the roaring thunder from the fiery centre of Mount Doom.

Now they were finally there to complete a task that was originally appointed to Frodo. Frodo had failed, though, and Middle Earth's last hope lay with the two Istari. Gandalf almost thought of it as ironic. They had all been sent to aid the free peoples of Middle Earth against Sauron, but only to aid and preferably refrain from direct action. Now it seemed as if Fate wanted differently.

Gandalf even chuckled in the fiery, roaring, acrid heat. Action more "direct" than this was hardly possible.

Saruman leaned heavily against his fellow wizard and had to struggle hard not to pass out. Bearing the Ring now felt like bearing the weight of all Middle Earth in his robes, and he was certain that the treacherous object was causing the feeling deliberately, probably hoping that Saruman would give in to the lure and claim it for himself to get rid of the horrible burden.

Feeling that the air was running out, Gandalf removed the piece of cloth from his mouth so that he could speak to his fellow wizard.

"Saruman! Do it now! Throw it into the fire! This is our chance!"

Like a dazed sloth, Saruman stuck his hand into his pocket where the Ring lay. The heavy, cold metal brushed against his skin, and he thought about sliding the Ring on his finger and saying it was his. Gandalf would not be able to stop him. If he tried anything, Saruman could break his neck and throw his body into the fiery abyss. He wanted Gandalf to live, though. The image of himself sitting on a throne with his fellow Istar crawling at his feet crossed his mind once more.

"Saruman!" Gandalf's persistent and now more desperate plea reached inside his head. It was now or never. Now, in this moment, he had the power to decide whether he wanted to destroy the Ring or take it for himself and become the new ruler of Middle Earth.

Gandalf watched Saruman draw out the Ring from his pocket and ball his fist around it. He wanted to shout at him to throw it in or possibly even wrench it from his hand, but he was afraid that such an act would cause Saruman to do something foolish. His self-control was about to slip, and to prevent that from happening, he had to be handled carefully.

"Don't do it, my friend," Gandalf whispered. "It will not save either of us. Only the destruction of the Ring can do that."

By an effort of will Saruman dropped the Ring to the ground beneath them. Dizziness overcame him, and he sank to his knees and then to his rear. He could do neither. He was too weak to destroy the Ring but also too weak to bend it to his will. He had to leave whatever had to be done to Gandalf. Gandalf was stronger than he. He knew that now. Where Saruman had failed, Gandalf would succeed.

Gandalf reached out his hand to pick up the Ring, though with much hesitation. He had only held the Ring briefly once, long ago, at Bag End, before he was even sure of its origins. The Ring felt cold against his skin despite the surrounding heat. For a moment he could feel its call as strongly as Saruman did and briefly considered leaving it where it was. Saruman was glancing up at him from the ground with a dazed look in his dark eyes. Gandalf was uncertain of how Saruman would react to his taking the Ring, but in his current condition he did not pose much of a threat.

Slowly the wizard closed his hand around the One Ring and picked it up. He could clearly remember the dream he'd had the previous night with himself as the new Dark Lord, and it filled him with contempt. It was nothing that he wanted, and he hated the Ring for trying to implant false desires like that in his unwilling mind. He was not Sauron, and he definitely did not want to become his substitute!

With a fluid motion of his arm and an enraged howl, Gandalf threw the Ring into the fiery abyss. He could hear Saruman give a feeble cry when he saw the Ring whistling through the air and even reached out his hand for it. It was far away from Saruman's reach, though, and neither of them would ever see the Ring again. Nor would Sauron. It was over. Finally, it was over!

Gandalf sank into a heap next to Saruman when the task had been completed and wrapped his arms around his fellow wizard. It took a while, but Saruman began to hug him back, and together they cried.

Gandalf wasn't sure whether they cried for the same reason, though. He for once cried solely with relief, but Saruman possibly had other reasons. But he no longer acted like a zombie and that alone was progress. The Ring, being destroyed, had lost whatever hold over him it had gained.

Tears pouring down Gandalf's cheeks created little rills through the black soot and dust that stuck to his face. Saruman could see genuine joy in his eyes, despite the dire circumstances. He had not discerned that in Gandalf once since their first meeting at fortress Barad-dûr. There had been hope, defiance, stubbornness, and sympathy, but never happiness or true relief.

"Come, let's leave this place before we die of the poisonous fumes," Gandalf said and helped Saruman getting to his feet. He was no longer as feeble and exhausted as when bearing the Ring, but Gandalf thought it safe to support him anyway. At least until they got out of the mountain.

"Is it really over now?" Saruman murmured, resting his cheek against his shorter fellow wizard's temple as they stumbled on through the darkness.

"It is over," Gandalf breathed in reply. "Sauron is defeated. He no longer has any power. We are free. Middle Earth is free."

The Istari reached the gate that led out of Mount Doom, and they were both gulping for air by the time they did it. The outside air was not exactly fresh either, but it was tolerable compared to the fumes inside the mountain.

Gandalf was worried that Mount Doom would erupt violently in response to the Ring's destruction, but so far there were no indications of that. Perhaps even the Mountain of Fire is happy to finally be rid of the Ring? Gandalf thought amusedly. The same surely applied to the Nazgûl and the peoples Sauron had coerced into slavery. The only one who wasn't happy was Sauron himself.

"And what now?" Saruman asked when they had caught their breaths and were slowly sliding down the slopes of Mount Doom. "What are we to do now?"

"Now we must try to help restore Middle-earth to its former state," Gandalf replied. "There is much to be done, though I think we should start by releasing Sauron's prisoners."

"And what about Sauron himself? Will you let him live?"

Gandalf sighed. "Yes, we must. His fate is not for us to decide. He must be taken back to Valinor. You know that."

"He deserves to be punished!" Saruman said between clenched teeth.

"I know he does, but he is to be judged by the Valar, not by us. Saruman... you know I'm right," Gandalf added in a warning tone.

Saruman sighed heavily in reply. "Yes, I do, and I always hate it."