Thrice Returned, the AU version

by Nefertiti

Rating: NC-17

Pairing: Gandalf/Frodo

Summary: This story breaks off from the original Thrice Returned series and offers a different narrative in the second half. The story begins as Thrice Returned (and its prequel Twice Given) did, and remains the same until the end of Chapter 6, "Stealing Away in Moria." With the new Chapter 7, "Escape to the Golden Wood," it diverges into an alternate plot, based on one radical change of events: Gandalf is not killed in his fight with the Balrog.

Disclaimer: No rights, no income.

Author's note: Book-canon. The action of both the prologue and the beginning of the main story take place on March 5, 3019. In the novel, this is the day when Gandalf the White, Theoden and the others visit Isengard and Gandalf deposes Saruman and breaks his staff. On that same day, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum hide outside the Black Gate and depart for Ithilien.

Part 9AU: The Black Gate is Open

Prologue: Interlude at Isengard

Saruman stared moodily out from an upper window of Orthanc, looking at the sodden wreckage of his great domain. How could this terrible double defeat have occurred? Helm's Deep and Isengard. It seemed impossible that all his power had been wiped out so quickly and thoroughly. He was weary, not just with anger and puzzlement, but from his latest conversation with the Dark Lord through the palantir. Such contacts always left him feeling drained of energy, but today had been worse than usual. Sauron had been furious over the losses of the two battles, and Saruman had barely been able to endure his reproaches. To make matters even worse, the news that Sauron had imparted was very worrisome. The palantir of Minas Tirith had suddenly gone dark.

For years Sauron and Saruman had worked in tandem to drive the two leaders of the great southern realms to despair. Saruman had succeeded with Theoden through the sly insinuations and accusations of his agents, while Sauron had reduced Denethor's hopes of resistance by showing him frightening images of the growth of Mordor's might through his palantir. Suddenly the link between Barad-Dur and the Tower of Ecthelion had been ruptured, and the wrath of the Dark Lord had been terrifying to perceive. Sauron seemingly had not noticed a connection among all these events, but it hardly seemed possible that mere coincidence was at work here. And where was Gandalf? Saruman's spies had heard from the orcs of Moria that the Fellowship had escaped through the eastern door and taken refuge in Lorien. Their trip down the Anduin had been duly reported as well, and Saruman had sent out his Uruk-Hai band to intercept them and to capture the hobbits and Gandalf, killing the others. He had never learned the result, since the troops of Rohan had slaughtered the entire group. Another defeat, he reflected. A small one in terms of the number of soldiers lost-but perhaps the most crushing blow of all. If the Uruk-Hai had taken no prisoners, the Ring presumably had now gone to Minas Tirith, out of his reach forever. And if the prisoners had been killed along with the Uruk-Hai, then Gandalf was dead. If that were true . . . what point was there in struggling on? But no, he could not believe that his fellow wizard was dead. What else might have happened? Saruman tried to force his tired mind to focus on possible links among all his setbacks.

Suddenly the whole thing made sense to him, and he dropped into a chair, panting and frowning. All these events spoke of an enormous increase in power both in Minas Tirith and Rohan. Who could be wielding such power? Gandalf. And a Gandalf much mightier than he had previously been. The thing that had haunted him for years must have finally come to pass. Gandalf had claimed the Ring for himself and was operating from Minas Tirith. He had ousted Denethor and wrenched the city's palantir from the control of Sauron. He had masterminded the use of the Ents to attack Isengard and of the huorns to come to the aid of Rohan. Trees, he thought with a bitter little chuckle. Leave it to Gandalf to fight battles using trees. And hobbits. Those two who had arrived with the ents must have been directing them according to Gandalf's orders. He snorted. Absurd, the other Istar's fondness-even love, in one maddening case-for these silly little creatures! And yet, he had to admit that the whole scheme had worked remarkably well.

The white wizard pondered this devastating development. If Gandalf had the Ring, there was nothing he could do. He retained only Orthanc and its contents. In many ways the palantir was now more a liability than an asset. He shuddered at the prospect of being summoned to speak to Sauron again and again, yet never having anything useful to offer him. How he longed to have the Ring and wreak his vengeance upon his implacable master!

After a while he stood and paced, pouring himself a glass of wine. Some faint noises outside led him to return to the window. He stared at a group of soldiers that had appeared at the gate. From the emblems that they wore and the standards they carried, he realized that these were the victors from the Helm's Deep battle. Eomer of Rohan with a small troop of men, and a tall, dark figure who seemed to be the leader.

Saruman turned and snapped, "Grima!"

The skinny, pale man was dozing in a chair by the cold fireplace. His head snapped up, and he looked at Saruman warily.

"Come over here. Look, down by the gate-or what used to be the gate. Do you know that tall man who is just getting off his horse?"

Grima pulled a wry face. "That is the man I told you of, the one who came to Edoras and tried to pull Theoden out of his melancholy-and when that failed fomented the rebellion. Aragorn, son of Arathorn was the name he gave. Yes, and there are the elf and dwarf that accompanied him."

Saruman gritted his teeth. The heir to the throne of Gondor--Gandalf's right-hand man. Naturally he would lead the forces in the field while the new owner of the Ring stayed behind to glory in his victories. Aragorn was talking with the halflings. There were two ponies with empty saddles being led by one of the soldiers. Aragorn presumably had come to fetch these little fellows-and no doubt to gloat over Saruman's downfall and then go back in triumph to Minas Tirith and report all this to Gandalf.

His mind was racing. There must be some way that he could take advantage of this situation before the group left. Perhaps one tiny chance remained for achieving the goals toward which he had worked for so long. He had to get to Minas Tirith. Once near Gandalf, there might be some way that he could seize the Ring before the other wizard could learn to wield it fully and effectively. The Grey Istar had had so little will to dominance that it would almost certainly take a while for him to master the Ring, whereas Saruman had studied the Great Rings so much and come to desire the One so greatly that he could use it effectively from the start.

Or, he reflected, if he could not take the Ring from Gandalf, he could at least put on a show of humility and repentance and somehow persuade the Grey Istar to accept him once more as a colleague-a subordinate colleague to be sure, but that would be something. He might even be able to accomplish something that he had dreamed of for centuries. As Gandalf became corrupted, he might be more receptive to the idea of taking Saruman as a lover. Probably not his only lover, not by a long way . . . but again, it would be something. If he remained here in Orthanc, he would have nothing at all.

From Saruman's studies, he knew that the Ring could give its owner-if he so wished-an enormously enhanced libido, as well as a prodigious capacity for having sex tirelessly. Ironically, it had been the discovery of that fact that had first led him to consider seeking the Ring for himself. Much good it had done him! Well, if he could not gain that power for himself, at least he could be the recipient of the pleasure that Gandalf could give. He paused and toyed with a few images of possible situations. He had to admit to himself that the idea of a sexually insatiable Gandalf requiring his services was quite . . . intriguing. He tried reversing his fantasies of the past, picturing himself held captive in the grey wizard's bed, with Gandalf pinning him, exploring his body, thrusting mercilessly into him, fucking him long and hard. He gulped and felt a trifle dizzy at the idea. Having to pleasure the other Istar, taking his cock deep into his throat. Yes, all that might be nearly as good as the old fantasies. He was so used to the idea that he would have to force Gandalf to have sex with him. Having Gandalf desire him and demand such things from him excited him more than he would have predicted. It was definitely worth a try. What had he to lose? The ents could eventually starve him out if they wanted to. No, staying was not a real option, and he wrinkled his nose at the idea of himself as a wandering conjuror.

The way to begin, presumably, was to surrender to Aragorn and convince the man of his penitence. He glanced down at the ring on his finger. It had been his most successful essay in making a new ring of power. His long research had given him valuable clues as to how the elves had made some of the lesser rings, though he never had uncovered the secrets of the Three. He had forged this ring, pouring into it much of his persuasive power, seeking to enhance the effectiveness of his voice in controlling others. He had lured Gandalf to Orthanc and imprisoned him in the hope that it would allow him to seduce the other wizard. Gandalf's resistance had proven too great, but Aragorn and these others were mere mortals. If he could just be in the man's presence for a while, he had no doubt that Aragorn would eventually come to trust him.

Glancing down from the window again, Saruman saw that the group at the gate were arranging an impromptu meal from the contents of his storerooms. Good. That would give him time to devise the best way to stage his surrender. First, he would have to rid himself of Grima. He hardly wanted to have so obvious a reminder of his part in the decline of Theoden King lurking about, in case Aragorn took it into his mind to enter the tower. What would be a good place to hide the body? he wondered, pouring himself another glass of wine. Why not dump it out of a window on the side of the tower opposite to the entrance. The standing water would hide it for as long as necessary, provided that he weighted it sufficiently. Yes. Simple and effective.

After eating a surprisingly lavish meal made up of the foodstuffs that Merry and Pippin had diligently been scavenging, Aragorn, Gimli, and the two hobbits were sitting and smoking as they took it in turns to relate what had happened since they had last seen each other. Legolas sat beside Gimli, sipping from a goblet containing some of Saruman's most treasured vintage. Eomer and his men were resting in preparation for their departure, but they watched in curious amusement as the four sucked on their pipes. Pippin had just launched into a long and comic version of his own doings during the attack on Orthanc when he suddenly stopped laughing and pointed toward the looming tower. Aragorn looked around and saw a tall, lone figure on a white horse, riding carefully toward them across the pitted, flooded path. He looked very like Gandalf, and, after a moment of shock, Aragorn realized that it must be Saruman. The two hobbits stared at the White Wizard with anger and suspicion in their eyes. Gesturing to the others to stay where they were, Aragorn strode forward and halted near the edge of the flood until the horse stepped out onto the wet pavement.

Saruman's face wore a sad, rueful smile. "Hail, Heir of Isildur! For you are Aragorn, son of Arathorn, I presume." Aragorn inclined his head briefly, and the wizard continued, "I congratulate you on your part in the Rohirrim's victory. You have deprived me of my troops, and the ents have . . . well, you can see for yourself that they have deprived me of my base of operations. I have few viable options, and indeed have concluded that the most sensible thing to do would be to surrender to you, unconditionally. I realize now that my great schemes were merely built upon sand and that Gandalf has out-maneuvered me. I place myself under your-and ultimately his-protection. Wait! I know you will say to yourself, how can I trust one who has done my neighbors and allies so much harm? Allow me to give you some considerable tokens of my good faith."

Aragorn watched tensely as Saruman dismounted and held up a neatly wrapped parcel. It appeared to be very heavy, despite its small size.

The wizard spoke in a low voice that was audible only to Aragorn. "This, my lord, is the palantir of Orthanc. I presume that I need not explain what such a thing is to the Heir of Isildur. I would advise you not to unwrap it or show it to the others. I should also warn you that the lure of the stone is great, but you must not look into it casually. It is currently linked strongly to Sauron's palantir. It would be extremely difficult to wrench it free of his control-but as the rightful king you might well be able to do that, if you try your utmost." Secretly Saruman rather hoped that Aragorn would look into the stone rashly. If he became caught in Sauron's thrall, that would eliminate one who was perhaps Gandalf's strongest aide-or even give Sauron a spy within Gandalf's court. Saruman could always claim later, if he ever communicated with Sauron again, that he had merely loaned the stone to Aragorn for that very purpose. He watched the man's face closely but could read nothing of his reaction.

Aragorn stared at him for a moment, then took the heavy bundle carefully. Its considerable weight and perfectly spherical shape left little room for doubt that the object was indeed what Saruman had claimed. Upon touching it he became aware of a powerful curiosity and desire to examine the stone immediately, but with an effort he held the impulse in check.

Saruman next brought forth from his pocket a large steel ring with two black keys on it. "Here are the keys of Orthanc, and may this great tower, built by your forebears, serve your kingdom for many years-better than it has recently served me."

Despite the wizard's apparent humility and resignation to his fate, Aragorn said softly, "It served you well enough as a prison for Gandalf the Grey."

Saruman blanched slightly, wondering how much Gandalf had told the man of his time on Orthanc's roof, but he managed to adopt a pained expression. He sighed sadly. "Truly, and now I much regret that whole incident. I hope to have an opportunity to apologize to him. Indeed, in his current position, he obviously need not fear me-or anyone else in Middle-earth. In the meantime, if you manage to seize control of this stone, you can use it to communicate with Gandalf. That should make the execution of his great strategies easier . . . yes, you see the possibilities there. Please remember that I have offered you such aid."

Aragorn struggled to maintain a neutral expression as he stared at the White Wizard. He was greatly puzzled as to what Saruman meant, and his mind frantically sought an explanation. Communicate with Gandalf? How could he--? It dawned on him suddenly and with a rush of excitement that Saruman must believe that Gandalf now controlled the palantir of Minas Tirith. And if he believed that and that the Grey Wizard was invincible and that he and Aragorn were involved in "great strategies," then . . . perhaps he even believed that Gandalf was now wielding the One Ring. Aragorn was not sure how useful such a misconception might prove, but he was determined not to let Saruman realize his error. He swiftly decided that he had no option but to accept the wizard's surrender. They certainly could not let him go wandering about the lands unsupervised.

Cautiously he said, "Yes, this Stone might well aid our cause, and I thank you for it, as well as for these keys." He spoke more loudly, so that the others might hear. "As to your surrender and request for protection, I accept them, on condition that you also yield to me your wizard's staff."

Saruman had expected this, and indeed had deliberately not offered the staff along with the other surrendered items in order to make a final show of how obedient he was. Without hesitation he bowed slightly and extended the staff to Aragorn, who took it and went on, "I am in haste now. You shall ride with us as a prisoner of war to Minas Tirith, and when the great battles to come are finally won or lost, Gandalf and I, and perhaps others, will have time to consider your fate."

Saruman felt a surge of anger and indignation at being so addressed, but he simply inclined his head respectfully and with a slight smile. "I hope, my lord Aragorn, that you will allow me to offer such assistance as I can during our travel and then in Minas Tirith. I hope to make amends in some small measure for my past opposition."

Aragorn paused, then turned away without replying. Merry and Pippin, who had watched all this along with Eomer and the other Rohirrim, glanced at each other in confusion and worry. "Well, I'm sure Aragorn knows what he's doing. How can Saruman do anything without his staff and his tower and all his soldiers?" Merry whispered reassuringly. "And with all these powerful warriors guarding him? It'll be fine, Pip. You heard what Aragorn said: he'll be a prisoner. He's defeated, and we helped do that-so don't worry."

Pippin nodded and tried to look determined and unconcerned as Saruman rode forward to join the small band. Merry and Pippin climbed onto the small horses that had been brought for them, and the entire group set out at a brisk trot back down the valley that led away from the brooding tower.

Gandalf had been sitting perfectly still for hours, his elven cloak hiding him from any eyes that might glance up at the rocky ridge over which he was peering. Frodo, Sam, and Gollum were lying in a depression nearby, resting and occasionally whispering. Gandalf had told the two hobbits that he wanted to watch the troop movements through the Black Gate-always going inward-and see if there was a pattern to them.

Finally the two hobbits heard the soft crunching of the wizard's boots on the loose stone and sat up as he rejoined them.

"Sam, pass us some lembas, would you please? We can eat while we talk. Thank you. Now, I have been thinking of a tactic by which we could get in through the Black Gate-"

"No, no! No use that way! No use! Don't take the Precious to Him! He'll eat us all, if He gets it, eat all the world." They all turned to stare at Gollum, whose panic had apparently conquered his lingering fear of Gandalf. At this point, however, he again spoke directly to Frodo. "Not this way, master!' he pleaded. "There is another way, darker, more difficult to find, more secret. But Smeagol knows it. Let Smeagol show you."

Frodo glanced at the wizard with an inquiring frown. Gandalf was staring calculatingly at Gollum. "What other way?" he asked gruffly, and his sudden question quite unnerved the creature. It was not easy to get any clear account out of him, amid his mumbling and squeaking, and the frequent interruptions in which he crawled on the ground and begged them to be kind to "poor little Smeagol." After a while he grew calmer, and they gathered bit by bit that, if a traveler followed the road that turned west of Ephel Duath, he would come in time to a circle of dark trees. On the right a road went down to Osgiliath and the bridges of the Anduin; in the middle the road went southward.

"On, on, on," said Gollum. "We never went that way, but they say it goes a hundred leagues, until you can see the Great Water that is never still-"

"Yes, yes, that's all very well," Gandalf said, taking care to speak more gently. "But what of the turning to the east? Where does that lead? Is that the secret way by which you mean to guide us?"

Gollum looked swiftly at Gandalf and as swiftly away again. "Yes, at once that road begins to climb up, up, winding and climbing back towards the tall shadows. When it turns round the black rock, you'll see it, Master, suddenly you'll see it above you and you'll want to hide."

Frodo shook his head in puzzlement. "See it, see it? What will you see?"

"The old fortresss, very old, very horrible now. We used to hear tales from the South, when Smeagol was young-"

"I don't doubt that you did," Gandalf said softly. "Minas Morgul is a place of great evil, and rumor of it has spread wide. Including rumor of a dark terror that haunts the pass of Cirith Ungol above the city. Frodo, Sam, you must realize that Minas Morgul used to be Minas Ithil, a fortress-city built by the Gondoreans to guard against the evil of Mordor. Sauron took it long ago and gave it over to the Nine. No, Smeagol, that is not an option for us. We shall go in by the Black Gate."

Gollum let out a long sigh. He seemed about to speak, but Gandalf stared at him with a slight frown. Daunted, Gollum subsided and crouched, grumbling softly.

At the wizard's request, Frodo sent Gollum to sit a little way off so that they could confer without his hearing. Gandalf watched him as he went. "Perhaps you trust that creature, Frodo, but my suspicion is that he was hoping to lure us to follow him up into the pass and have Sam and I conveniently disposed of by the orcs, or the Nazgul, or possibly some other evil that guards the way. Then he would have you to himself. No, we shall enter Mordor through the Black Gate."

Both hobbits asked at once, "How?"

"There are frequent troop movements in through the Gate, all coming from the west, but these soldiers have traveled far, coming up that road that Gollum mentioned that leads down to the Sea. They typically come in fairly large groups, and most of them wear very similar uniforms. I would imagine that they are coming from further south in ships. I think that if we could get hold of one of those uniforms for me, as well as some smaller orc armor for the two of you, we could enter Mordor in disguise, trailing a short distance behind one of those groups.

Frodo looked doubtful. "Where could we get such disguises? Ambush some soldiers and kill them and take their clothes?"

"That's too dangerous. They do not travel in small enough groups for that. No, I shall take care of procuring the disguises. My plan is that we would take Gollum with us, bound as if he is a prisoner whom we are bringing to the dungeons of the Dark Lord. I would pretend to be an officer charged with his delivery, and you would be two small orcs helping me. Given how many soldiers are entering, the guards obviously don't have time to check them all closely."

Frodo shook his head. "But what if they try to talk with us? Won't they catch on to the deception at once?"

Gandalf stared at him with a small, amused smile. "You forget, Frodo, that I speak the Black Tongue. I fancy that I could even manage to speak it with a bit of a Southron accent. You two, as lowly subordinates, would simply keep quiet."

Frodo and Sam looked at each other worriedly, and Gandalf went on. "Yes, I know it is risky, very risky. No method of getting into Mordor would not be. I certainly don't think there is any hope that we could sneak in without disguises and not be spotted at once."

Frodo still looked appalled. "Is there no way to get around these mountains? I seem to recall that on its eastern side Mordor has no mountains."

Gandalf nodded. "You are quite right. To get to the end of this range, however, we would have to travel about four times the distance that we have covered since we crossed the river-and nearly as far again back as well, since Mt. Doom now lies roughly south of us. Moreover, the Dark Tower is to the east of the Mountain, and we would have to pass by it-or give it a wide berth by going far to the south before turning west again. We would have to go nearly three-quarters of the way around Mordor by that route! No, the further we travel, the more opportunities we give the enemy's guards to find us. I really think, Frodo, that disguise offers us a chance of entering the Black Land as close to the Mountain as possible. I trust in the simplicity of the tactic, in taking the most direct route-and in the lack of intelligence and imagination on the part of Sauron's guards.

"As to where we shall obtain the disguises, I know some Gondorean soldiers who patrol a wooded area called Ithilien, a little way south and west from here. A friend of mine commands them, and he would either have some enemy clothes and armor or be able to procure them readily. It means a bit of a detour, but not nearly so great a one as going to Cirith Ungol or around this mountain range." He glanced at Sam, who was looking dubious but resigned.

Sam sighed. "Well, we'd best ask this friend of yours for some ordinary rope if we're going to bind Gollum like a prisoner. With him screeching the way he did the time we tied him with elven rope, the orcs at the Gate would not be able to tell whether you were speaking the Black Tongue or not."

Gandalf smiled and nodded. "Good thinking, Sam. Well, there's not much left of the day, but let's at least get away from this noisome place before we stop for the night."

As soon as the group had passed far enough away from the Morannon to be free of its reeking fumes and acrid air, they made camp. The next day Gandalf urged them on at as quick a pace as the hobbits could manage, hoping to reach the secret shelter of Hennen Annun before nightfall. Gollum kept up, though the stretch of travel during which he had had no food was telling on him. Occasionally they had to hide as more groups of Southron soldiers passed by. In some of these groups they saw soldiers wearing improvised bandages or limping along. Gandalf smiled grimly. "Apparently the troops of Gondor are still able to make some inroads on the strength of Sauron's forces. Only a tiny diminishment of his power, but it does not hurt to have the Dark Lord realize that there is still resistance to him."

By late afternoon the hobbits were so fatigued that they began to stumble occasionally. Gollum was actually looking stronger, because since they had entered the forest, he had darted aside a few times and captured various insects and small creatures that he could eat. Gandalf knew that they were getting close to the hidden cave of the Ithilien Rangers. He and Aragorn had occasionally found hospitality there when they were hunting for Gollum. Suddenly they heard noises all about them, and a group of soldiers dressed all in green appeared as if from nowhere and surrounded them with their weapons drawn. Gollum made as if to flee, but Frodo ordered him to stay still, and he reluctantly obeyed. One of the soldiers stepped forward and brusquely demanded to know who they were.

Gandalf smiled in a friendly fashion. "I'm afraid I do not know you, my good fellow, but I do know the password that has in the past been used by your troops and perhaps is still current."

The soldier frowned in surprise. "Whisper it in my ear, old man, if indeed you know it."

Gandalf leaned forward and spoke softly beside his ear.

The man curiously glanced into the wizard's face. "That is not the password we use these days, but it was until recently. Do they know that password?"

Gandalf's smile faded as he realized that this visit might not be as easy to arrange as he had hoped. "No, but they are with me."

"It is not permitted for any who knows not the password to enter. To accompany one who knows it is not sufficient."

Gandalf muttered something under his breath. "Is Faramir about? I'm sure that he would permit it-for friends of mine."

The officer paused reluctantly, then said, "He is within the shelter. I shall send to ask."

"Tell him that your guest is called 'Mithrandir,' and that he has two trustworthy companions with him . . . well, three trustworthy companions," he added reluctantly, and exchanged looks with Sam, who pressed his lips together and frowned at Gollum.

The man's eyes widened slightly as he recognized the name. "I shall go myself and tell him. Guard them well," he added to the other soldiers and disappeared quickly into the surrounding foliage.

After about ten minutes a very tall young man who instantly reminded Frodo of Boromir came into the clearing, almost at a run. He briefly glanced at the hobbits but gave a delighted smile and moved to Gandalf, embracing him tightly, and the wizard grinned and hugged him. Frodo was surprised that he felt no doubt or jealousy at seeing them cling so closely to each other. The young man's enthusiasm and admiration were open and friendly. They reminded him of his own fascination with the wizard when he had been a child. He liked this fellow at once.

The man drew back and said, "Mithrandir! This is luck beyond imagining! You are the last person I would expect to see in this perilous area-though I do not know why I say that, since ever you wander this world, and ever you put yourself in danger for our cause. You are certainly the most welcome unexpected guest who could turn up on my doorstep! Have you come to aid us in our struggle against the Shadow of Mordor? Have you visited Minas Tirith and devised some new strategy with my father?"

"No, Faramir, I have not been to Minas Tirith. In a sense, yes, we do come to aid you-but not by force of arms. Let us go to your headquarters, where we can discuss our doings in private. I shall tell you of our mission, and we would thank you if you could provide us with a good meal and beds for tonight-and some items that I shall explain."

"Of course, Mithrandir. You and your companions may have anything that we can afford you." He turned and looked at the hobbits and Gollum. "Ordinarily these three would be required to wear blindfolds to enter our secret headquarters-but I take it that they are your trusted friends?"

"Indeed they are, at least two of them are." Gandalf he held out his hand to Frodo, and the hobbit gripped it as he stared curiously at Faramir. "Sam, Frodo, this is Faramir, Boromir's younger brother. Faramir, these are two halflings-hobbits, I should say, to use their own term. That is Samwise Gamgee, known as Sam, and this little fellow is Frodo Baggins-who, I should tell you, is considerably more to me than a friend."

Faramir seemed quite taken aback but than nodded with a slight smile as he studied Frodo's face. "I see. And who is this?" he asked, looking dubiously at Gollum.

Gandalf hesitated and spoke softly into Faramir's ear. "This is Sméagol. He is not exactly a friend of ours, but he has been helping us in our travels. I shall explain that as well. I don't think we should show him the entrance to your cave, but perhaps with your permission he can sleep and forage for food nearby and be waiting for us in the morning. If you have a bit of raw meat or fish to spare, and perhaps some nuts and fruit, I'm sure that he would be quite happy."

Faramir smiled. "It goes against every rule I can think of, but I'm sure you would not ask this of me if you did not have a strong reason. Well, let us go now, for you all look exhausted and are probably hungry as well. I long to learn the strange circumstances that bring four such companions to this troubled part of the world."

"Hungry, yes, that we are, and I should warn you that hobbits are capable of depleting your stock of food quite surprisingly! And while we eat, I shall give you a full account of why we are here."

As they set out walking, Frodo wondered whether Gandalf would truly tell Faramir everything about their quest, and if so, why this young soldier-whom the wizard had never mentioned to him--merited such trust. He again wondered that he felt no jealousy, for clearly the wizard and Faramir were very close. Still, Gandalf had not appeared to be the least bit awkward while introducing him to Faramir. Somehow he sensed that Faramir enjoyed a relationship with Gandalf that was more like Aragorn's-a sort of admiring son rather than an ex-lover. He briefly rubbed the back of the wizard's hand against his cheek as they walked, and Gandalf glanced warmly down at him.

During dinner, Faramir watched with growing amusement as the wizard and hobbits seemed to have a competition as to who could eat the most. Simply by dint of size Gandalf won, but the hobbits put away a surprising amount of food. Finally the three joined Faramir in his private room to talk. To Frodo's surprise, Gandalf gave Faramir a detailed account of their Quest, including mentioning the One Ring and how they meant to destroy it. Faramir listened to this with growing concern and fascination, but he seemed less surprised than Frodo would have expected. Then Frodo recalled Boromir saying at the Council that the prophetic dream about the Ring had come to both him and his brother. Finally Gandalf explained the plan to try and slip into Mordor disguised as enemy soldiers. He requested that Faramir supply him with the uniform of a Southron officer, as well as two orc disguises, as small as could be found-and a length of rope. The young man at once sent out some soldiers to accomplish the grim task of salvaging and cleaning some clothing, armor, and weapons from the nearby scene of a skirmish.

By this point it was late in the evening, and both the hobbits were nodding. The wizard said, "I shall put these two to bed." He looked fondly at Frodo. "If it's not too much trouble, I would appreciate it if one of those beds could be in a private room. I hope I'm not asking too much." Frodo grew a bit more alert at that, blushing and looking drowsily up at Gandalf through his eyelashes in a way that made the wizard very much hope that Faramir could indeed provide them with such sleeping accommodations.

Faramir thought for a moment and replied, "I think that I can arrange a private room-though not a very elegant one."

Soon all was ready, and after seeing Sam settled in a large room that was shared by a number of Faramir's soldiers, Gandalf took Frodo and tucked him into a bed that had been moved into a storeroom after some of the soldiers had partially cleared it. The wizard noted that it contained a small fireplace-a welcome feature after several chilly nights in the open. "You look as if you can barely keep your eyes open, my sweet hobbit. Why don't you nap now, and perhaps later, when I come back, you will feel like using this elegant and luxurious bed for something other than sleep."

Frodo chuckled, for the bed was merely sturdy planks nailed together and a simple pad for a mattress. "Still," he whispered, "it's better than anything we've seen since Lórien."

"Indeed," the wizard replied, sitting on the edge and placing his hands on either side of Frodo to support himself as he leaned down to kiss the hobbit. As his mouth pressed and moved, he felt the tip of Frodo's warm little tongue brush gently against his lips, and his cock twitched and began to swell. Quickly he sat up, suppressing his urge to try and rouse the hobbit to similar desire. "Later," he told himself resolutely and rose as Frodo's eyes closed and he settled into the pillow with a contented little sigh.

Gandalf returned to Faramir's room and sat down beside him by the fire. Out of habit, he pulled out his pipe before remembering that he had no pipeweed. He pocketed it again and took the mug of ale that Faramir held out to him.

They talked long, with Faramir telling of the successes and failures that his troops had experienced in recent years. "It is discouraging, I must admit," he concluded quietly. "We have killed so many of the Enemy's soldiers over the years, and yet more come, endlessly. There has never been any way to strike a decisive blow. Perhaps your mission will end with that blow, and all our long efforts will finally lead to peace."

Gandalf stared into the fire. "Perhaps. It will be a decisive blow, I deem, for good or ill. Either we shall succeed, or the Enemy will regain the Ring. Thinking back, it is strange how one crucial clue in the long mystery surrounding the Ring came from my researches at Minas Tirith and that discovery in the scroll of Isildur. I had considerable other evidence that Frodo's Ring was the One Ring, but that scroll provided the positive proof. Who would have thought it, back in those pleasant early days when you would come so often to visit me in the City's archives and I would tell you that you would be better off playing and running in the open air?"

"Yes, I always thought that your readings were very remote from anything to do with the world outside. I was fascinated, though, by the things you showed me and told me. I realized years later that you had been teaching me about the history of my own country and those of other peoples with whom we now share the burden of defeating the Enemy. You were very kind to take the time to answer the questions of a bothersome young fellow like me."

"Not at all. It was a pleasure to find such a curious lad-though I may not always have seemed all that welcoming if I was interrupted in the midst of perusing a particularly important or puzzling text. I have seldom encountered a young person with as much curiosity and eagerness as you displayed. And you learned so quickly! I assure you, whenever I found it necessary to travel to Minas Tirith to do some of that research, I looked forward to seeing you again. I remember one time when I arrived and began work-and you did not appear for days! I was quite disappointed, and finally I inquired after you. It turned out that you were ill-not, as I had feared, that you had lost interest in me and the esoteric topics that I pursued."

"Hardly." Faramir was silent for a moment, then raised his eyes from the fire and looked directly at Gandalf. "Mithrandir, how will you and the others get out of Mordor if . . . when you accomplish your mission? If there is anything that I can do, anything at all that might aid you in that, please, tell me, for you know that I would be eager to do it."

"You are very kind, but if we do manage to return from our Quest, it will have to be by some means that I cannot imagine at this point, let alone plan for. Believe me, I have thought over many possible consequences of our throwing the Ring into the fire-and none of them bodes well for our escape."

He glanced over at Faramir and was touched to see tears spring quickly to his eyes as the young man struggled with his emotions. "Faramir, do not take it to heart so. As a soldier you know that all who struggle against the Enemy encounter great risks. Even if we perish in destroying the Ring, the result will be worth it, don't you think? I certainly do."

"I realize that, and yet I cannot help but feel . . . I remember that when I was young, I looked forward to your visits so much, not just because you taught me fascinating things but because . . . well, you were fascinating. You had traveled and could tell stories so wonderfully, and you had such a wit! And I . . . I could talk to you in ways that I have never been able to talk to anyone else. Boromir was away on military matters so often, and my father . . ." Faramir looked down for a while. "I could very easily have fallen in love with you then . . . nay, I should not deceive either myself or you-during some of your visits, after I had grown old enough to have such feelings, I knew that what I felt for you went beyond admiration and friendship. I was so in awe of you, though, that I never would have dared to hint at it to you. I confess that I very much wished that you would give some sign of being attracted to me, but you never did. I suppose that I still am in love with you, though not with the rather fevered and desperate longing that plagued me then, as a very young man experiencing his first love and feeling it to be the greatest crisis that the world had ever known. Perhaps I should not say such things to you now, but . . . if we are never to see each other again, if you will not ever . . . well, then this will not matter much-at least not for long. Please forgive me if I have said too much. I just want you to know how grateful I am to have been able to see you one last time."

Gandalf sighed and finally replied, "I must admit that during that time I was greatly attracted to you as well, though I tried to hide it-apparently quite successfully! You were very young, only 18 the last couple of times I visited before my relationship with Frodo began-though what am I saying?" He smiled ruefully. "I must have a proclivity for very young men. Frodo was a mere 24 when I fell in love with him-and that is considered quite young among his kind. Still, to my credit, I did not declare that love until he was fully an adult." He chuckled softly. "Besides, he threw himself at me quite shamelessly, which you never did. Seriously, though, Faramir, it was not really your age that I considered the main obstacle to loving you. At the time I had fantasies, I must admit, that if, after a few years, you still felt the same way about me, I could return your feelings. Even then, though, I realized that those fantasies must never come true. The real obstacle was your father. You know better than I that he has a jealous, suspicious side to his nature. He conceived the idea that I wanted to take your love for him away and draw it to myself. I felt that I had no right to confirm his suspicions and drive him into greater anger. I have no doubt that you would have suffered even greater estrangement from him-or worse. He has quite a temper beneath that cold demeanor."

Faramir stared into the fire, then swallowed and again looked into the wizard's deep-set, dark eyes. They held the wisdom of ages, but beyond that they seemed to suggest, as they had ever since Faramir had grown old enough to perceive such things, an enormous capacity for passion and delight. He sighed. "So you nearly came to love me as I loved you. Perhaps it is just as well that I never knew it. Still, it may sound unkind and ungrateful to say so, but at the time I would have traded such love as my father afforded me for the love that I sensed you could have given."

Gandalf pressed his lips together. "Perhaps that would indeed have been better for you. Neither of us, however, has ever been free to do exactly as we wish or indeed what might be best for ourselves. You are the son of the Steward of Gondor-not his heir, to be sure, but second in line. And I, well, I was a guest in the City, and apart from everything else, I dared not risk alienating one of the most powerful rulers among those aligned against the Enemy. Moreover, I simply could not be responsible for dividing a son from his father, however much that son might wish it-and believe me, I sensed that you did." The wizard thought for a while. "Perhaps I made a mistake. Perhaps despite all the betrayals and risks involved, I should have accepted your love and given you mine, but even now I do not think so." He looked sadly at the young man, who was staring at him with brimming eyes. "Still, I regret what might have been. You are one of the most admirable people that I have met in my many, many years in Middle-earth. Indeed, in those days I found that I told you more about myself than I had revealed to any but a few-who I am and whence I came. I have not even discussed such things with Frodo."

Faramir tried to smile. "Despite the regret that this conversation causes us both, I am also very glad to learn how you felt about me. It makes me proud to think that you would find something to love in a young fellow who pestered you so much-and that you have retained such a high opinion of me. I do know that I have grown into a better man for having known you." He added with difficulty, "I am glad that you have found such happiness with someone, Mithrandir."

Gandalf clenched his teeth and nodded, avoiding the melancholy eyes that were staring at his. Finally he took a deep breath and murmured, "You are very generous." Silence fell between them.

The wizard eventually stood up. "I must get some sleep. We shall need to travel quickly again tomorrow . . . back toward the Black Gate."

Faramir winced and rose to face him. "You are going into the heart of the Land of Terror, Mithrandir. This parting will be bitter. All that I can do is supply you as well as possible and hope that, through some glorious bit of luck, we shall meet again someday. Well, I think that we should say our farewells here, for tomorrow there will be much activity, and we shall have no chance for privacy."

Gandalf nodded. "Never forget how I trusted you, and why. If the Quest succeeds, you must play a great role in building the new age to come. Your father may not fully appreciate your worth, but I know that the new king will. He will take over the burden of protecting Middle-earth that I have borne. Help him as you would help me, and you will fulfill all the hopes that I have ever had for you."

Faramir nodded. "I much admired Aragorn when I met him a few years ago, and if he is playing such an important role in the events that you have described to me tonight, then I know that he will deserve my utmost efforts and loyalty. Mithrandir, as I serve him and Gondor, I shall think ever of what you would have advised me, and your teachings will guide me well, I have no doubt."

"I would like to think so, Faramir. Talking with you like this will help give me hope as we climb the mountain and face the end. Hope that a new age will begin, whether or not we live to see it."

Gandalf moved forward and put his arms around the young man, and they embraced tightly. The wizard murmured, "I am glad that we have told each other of our feelings, painful though the knowledge may be. I hope that you too will find happiness with someone-if the West has enough of a future for that to be possible." On impulse he kissed Faramir's lips, lingeringly but softly.

Gandalf started to go, then turned back briefly, "If you do meet Aragorn, please tell him that you saw me here. Tell him that I strongly advise him to give you some high position of trust in his new government. And tell him . . . no, there is nothing more to add to what I last said to him."

Gandalf walked sadly and thoughtfully back toward the room he was to share with Frodo. He went in and saw by the light of the small fire that the hobbit was sleeping soundly. He leaned on the mantle and stared into the flames, thinking back over his last visits to Minas Tirith. They had occurred earlier in the same year that he had returned to the Shire for Bilbo's farewell birthday party and discovered that Frodo loved him. Up to that visit he had deliberately stayed away from the Shire for nine years, trying to shake off the intense attraction that he had felt toward Frodo. He could not but be thankful that he had never given his love to Faramir, for he found unbearable the thought that he might never have experienced all the joys that he and Frodo had found together. Yet it hurt him deeply to think that such a wonderful, deserving young man as Faramir should be so alone, so forlorn-and that he could perhaps have prevented that. Well, many young people experience such disappointments over their first love, he thought. Perhaps when the war ended, Faramir would find another, more feasible lover. Certainly at the very least he would find a good friend in Aragorn.

The wizard lit a lamp and crossed to the bed. Frodo was sleeping peacefully, curled up on his side. The room was very warm, since apparently the hobbit had got up after Gandalf had tucked him in and added fuel to the fire. After sleeping outdoors for so long, the wizard could hardly blame him, even though Frodo's face was slightly flushed and glistening from the heat. A real bed, Gandalf thought with a smile that soon faded. Quite probably the last bed they would ever share. Perhaps the last lovemaking as well. Struggling to dismiss that notion, he sat down on the edge of the bed and leaned down to kiss the pink cheek softly. If it was truly their last time together, he could not pass it up just to allow the hobbit a little more sleep. Frodo stirred but did not open his eyes.

Frodo often took some time to wake fully, and the wizard always found the heavy-lidded eyes and the little sighs and moans that his caresses elicited from the drowsy hobbit intensely erotic. He loved being able to make Frodo hard and needy by the time that he was fully aware of what was happening. Already his own cock was growing rapidly as he brushed his lips across Frodo's neck and ear. This time he was rewarded with a faint grunt, and the hobbit turned his head a bit. He was breathing through his mouth, and Gandalf ran the tip of his tongue lightly between those temptingly parted lips. Frodo's eyelids fluttered halfway open, and as the wizard pulled back slightly to gaze at him, the hobbit sighed happily. Gandalf continued to restrain himself, feathering the cheeks with little kisses and softly brushing strands of the curly hair, damp with sweat, off Frodo's forehead. Though thoroughly aroused by now, Gandalf still avoided trying to hasten the hobbit's awakening.

When Frodo seemed about to speak, Gandalf put one finger lightly on his lips, hoping to prolong his quiet enjoyment of the hobbit's logy state. Frodo's eyes slid closed again, and he pursed his lips against the tip of the finger, kissing it and then accepting it inside when Gandalf pressed down slightly. The wizard moaned as Frodo began sucking it, his warm tongue lapping around it until Gandalf was trembling with need. He chuckled breathily, thinking that he had fastened his trouser-laces far too tightly that morning, and he reached awkwardly with his free hand, managing to undo the knot after a brief struggle. Quickly he pulled at the laces and pushed the loosened cloth down. He bent his knee and rested his thigh beside Frodo's head, so that his erect member sprang out and bobbed slightly with the wizard's little squirming movements. He savored the exquisite agony of soaring desire and pulled the blanket down a few inches to reveal the hobbit's nipples, moving so that he could kiss and lick them avidly. By now he wanted Frodo wide awake, and he worked to send the hobbit into a state of arousal as great as his own.

Frodo let the finger slide out of his mouth and keened as Gandalf shifted to lie beside the hobbit, slipping one hand under the blanket. Frodo rolled partway over, straightening his legs a bit to facilitate the wizard's finding his penis, which was moist and hot from being tucked inside the curled body as the hobbit slept. Gandalf groaned as it swelled between his fingers. As he slowly stroked it, he lifted his other foot off the floor and lay on his side along the edge of the bed. His member was inches from Frodo's face, and the hobbit twisted his upper body so that he could run his tongue over the tip before kissing the veined column wetly.

Gandalf continued to squeeze and pull at the hobbit's growing erection, but he decided that he would have to come himself before he could really concentrate on Frodo's pleasure. He found that he had begun whimpering softly with desperation and felt the hobbit respond by seizing his shaft in both hands and pumping hard while his lips sank down over the tip. Gandalf propped himself on his elbow so that he could watch the deep hollows that came and went rhythmically in Frodo's cheeks as he sucked hard. "Yes," he whispered, trying to caress the hobbit's erection as best he could while his face tightened into a grimace, anticipating the approaching burst of ecstasy. Frodo pumped the loose skin of the shaft even faster and gulped as thick hot liquid gushed against the back of his mouth. Gandalf emitted tight groans, his hips jerking against the mattress in a series of spasms until he uttered one long moan as he sank into repletion.

Frodo slowly licked the end of the shrinking penis, cleaning it of the last few drops that had oozed from it at as Gandalf's orgasm faded. The wizard had climaxed so hard that the hobbit could hardly expect him to turn his attention to Frodo's need immediately. Gandalf resumed caressing him, but the strokes were short and uneven. Slowly the wizard's panting eased a little, and his hand moved up and down more rhythmically and firmly, returning Frodo to full erection. Finally he pushed Frodo's bent legs to lie flat on the mattress so that he could lean forward and bring his mouth down to lick and kiss teasingly along Frodo's throbbing length. As Frodo moaned in frustrated pleasure, Gandalf stretched the member up along the hobbit's belly and flicked his tongue tip rapidly back and forth across the ridge on the underside of the shaft, causing Frodo to writhe and buck slightly upward. The wizard sucked the entire testicle sac into his mouth and licked it firmly until Frodo was uttering shrill, whimpering pleas for Gandalf to suck him dry. After teasing him a bit more, the wizard obliged, swiftly drawing in his entire length and clamping his lips tightly around it as his head rose and sank along it. He went slowly enough to prolong Frodo's final climb for a few minutes, then increased the speed and force until the hobbit quivered and at last thrashed as his balls tensed and come spurted into Gandalf's mouth. Frodo uttered a series of soft moans of contentment and kissed the wizard's cheek once he had pivoted to lower himself and lie beside Frodo, embracing the hobbit tightly.

After a moment of silence, Gandalf said, "I see that you are not wearing the Ring. I presume that it is in your trouser pocket."


Gandalf nodded. He pulled the covers over them both and was beginning to settle down to sleep when one of the all-too-familiar intense urges to take the Ring swept over him. He had a vision of taking it-so easy now that the hobbit was not even wearing it-and going on to complete victory without putting Frodo in any peril at all. He strove mightily to think of something else, anything else. The pleasure that he and Frodo had just given each other, the sadness of Faramir's earlier revelation, his plan to sneak into Mordor, the struggle that Aragorn was presumably making against such overwhelming odds far away. Gradually the vision faded.

Frodo had drawn back slightly to watch the struggle reflected on the wizard's face. Suddenly his expression, so loving and contented before, went hard. "You want to take it, don't you? And this is not the first time. Don't try to deny it!"

The sudden coldness in the hobbit's voice disturbed Gandalf as much as did his words. Reluctantly he replied, "I feel its lure from time to time, yes, sometimes quite strongly. I have never denied it."

Frodo stared at him, panting slightly, and he seemed to withdraw a bit, though the wizard detected no actual movement. "Remember, I am the Ringbearer."

"Of course, Frodo. Have I ever tried to take the Ring from you?" Gandalf tried to speak soothingly and to hide the worry that he distinctly felt.

Frodo replied sullenly, "Not yet." He allowed Gandalf to take him in his arms again, and they nestled down into the warmth of the bed. After a few minutes Frodo twisted his head slightly to kiss the wizard's neck. "I'm sorry, Gandalf. I know you're doing your best to resist the Ring. I've tried not to worry you about it, but . . . as we move closer toward the Black Land, it's more and more in my mind-the idea that you would take it from me. I'm sure that it's the Ring trying to make me distrust you. ."

Gandalf sighed. "I have feared all along that it would strive to drive a wedge between us. I must say, the visions that it puts into my mind do not make me hate or distrust you . . . so far anyway. It's just that I become convinced-for only a little while, mind you-that it would be so much better for you if I took the Ring. I have to keep imagining what would really happen if I did that-how you would despise me. That, as much as anything else, helps me banish such thoughts. Still, it is not going to get any easier for us as we go on. Well, let us get some sleep. We should depart as early as may be tomorrow."

In the event, getting into Mordor proved surprisingly easy. In the middle of the next afternoon, Gandalf sat near the road to the Black Gate, holding the rope binding Gollum, and the two hobbits crouched beside them. Frodo had explained the plan to Gollum, and after a long stretch of cajoling and ordering him to cooperate, the creature had reluctantly agreed, realizing that it was his only chance to remain with the hobbit. The hearts of all four were pounding as a fairly large troop of soldiers wearing uniforms similar to the one that Faramir had supplied to the wizard passed by them. A few glanced at their little group, but most were staring in fear and awe up at the Black Gate.

Gandalf had initially worried about concealing his white hair and beard, but the Southrons' uniforms seemed to suggest that they came from a desert area. They included scarves, and he had wound his around the lower part of his face. The blowing fumes and dust made that seem quite natural, and indeed, he was glad to have such protection. Some of the soldiers had done the same thing, he noted. Surreptitiously he made little adjustments in his clothing and armor to match more closely the way the soldiers wore theirs. Once the entire group had passed, Gandalf took a deep breath, rose, and walked down to the road. He let the van of the group get about a hundred feet beyond them, then whispered to Gollum to resist and try to escape. Difficulties with their "prisoner," he calculated, might suggest a plausible reason why they would be lagging behind the rest of their unit. The two small "orcs" followed, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible while pretending to help control Gollum.

When they reached the Gate itself, three of the guards lounging against the edge of its frame looked curiously at them and came forward. The leader held up one hand to stop them. Frodo tried to control his frightened panting and held in check his impulse to turn and flee, and he sensed that Sam was nearly fainting with fear. Gollum was jerking in earnest against his bonds now. Only Gandalf appeared relaxed, shaking his staff threateningly at his "prisoner," as if it were merely a length of wood he was using to goad and control the creature. He rotated his other hand to wrap the end of the leash more firmly around it.

The leader of the three said something in the gruff, ugly tones of the Black Speech, and he pointed and stared at Gollum. The wizard replied in the same language, and Frodo wrinkled his nose in disgust at hearing that beloved voice distorted so. The orc nodded, and he and his fellows stepped closer to Gollum, inspecting him and apparently making jokes to each other at his expense. Finally, still laughing and watching Gollum's fearful reactions, they moved away again, the leader casually waving one arm to send them on their way. Gandalf tugged on the rope and moved forward, pausing only a tiny moment before stepping over the threshold and into Mordor for the first time. After they had taken several steps, they heard the dull, deep, ringing thud of the doors closing behind them.

They trudged along without incident for a few hours, crossing the Udun, a plain encircled by the grim mountains that bordered Mordor. Gandalf set a pace that gradually allowed them to fall further and further behind the soldiers that they were ostensibly accompanying. Finally the wizard looked around to ascertain that they were well out of earshot of anyone. "I chose to enter Mordor fairly late in the day. For one thing, I very much hope that this group of soldiers that we are following will be the last ones to arrive today. For another, we shall soon have the cover of darkness to aid us in slipping away and finding someplace to camp."

Frodo nodded. "I must admit that I was skeptical about this idea of disguising ourselves, but it worked beautifully. I would never have believed that those guards wouldn't catch on right away."

Gandalf smiled. "Well, I hoped that the guards we encountered there would be as bored and indifferent as soldiers usually are in such tedious and repetitious situations." He sighed. "Even evil can become mere routine. As I anticipated, they were quite intrigued and amused by Gollum, and therefore disinclined to look closely at us. He provided a welcome little break in their dreary day."

"What did you talk about with them?"

"I told them that we had captured Gollum along our route through Ithilien and that an officer named Magburz had ordered me to take him to the Dark Tower."

"How did you know that there was an officer called Magburz?"

"It's a common orcish name. There's likely to be at least one stationed somewhere in that large an area--and if there isn't, those guards would not be likely to know it. At any rate, they started making foul jests about what would happen to Gollum once he got to the dungeons of Sauron. Unspeakably cruel creatures, orcs." They went on in silence.

Another narrow pass loomed ahead, leading into the plain of Gorgoroth. The land was, if anything, even bleaker and more barren than the stretch before the Black Gate, and the fumes had them coughing and spitting frequently.

The clouds overhead darkened the scene as if a great thunderstorm were above them, but Gandalf continued to follow the troops at a distance until an angry red glow beyond the mountains to their right indicated that the sun was near to setting. Then the wizard slowed down and allowed the troops whom they had been following to get even further ahead. By the time they had gone through the pass, they were alone on the road. Gandalf halted and surveyed the vast plain before them. The mountain lay due south, but in between there were the fires of encampments of the tens of thousands of soldiers that Sauron had pressed into his service. Suddenly the scene brightened as the sun appeared in the west, between the edge of the dark clouds and the silhouette of the jagged mountains below. Its rays suddenly picked out the Dark Tower, standing on a huge plateau off to their left. It was so vast as to be clearly visible even at a great distance. The hobbits stared at it with wide eyes, and Gollum looked away and covered his face.

This was Gandalf's first sight of Barad-Dur. He had always known that it was huge and formidable, but now he realized that it easily dominated the vast landscape of Mordor in a way that no building should naturally be able to do. The sight of it sent a thrill of fear through him such as he had never felt in all his years in Middle-earth-not even when confronted by the Balrog. The wizard felt that the Lidless Eye within that Tower was surveying its entire domain and must inevitably see them, exposed and alone on the open road. Suddenly their quest seemed hopeless. How absurd it had been to believe that it had the remotest chance of succeeding! He was far too weak to guide and protect Frodo through this dreadful land. Without a doubt the hobbit would be discovered and seized. He gritted his teeth as relentless, vivid images of Frodo being tortured and raped by gangs of pitiless orcs crowded into his mind. The hobbit would be doomed to such unthinkable pain and brutality forever-and it would all be Gandalf's fault. Dizzy with fear and despair, he frantically struggled to think of how he could prevent such horrors.

There was only one way he could defeat Sauron and save his darling Frodo. At that thought, his mind finally snapped completely out of his control, and he turned and seized the hobbit, spinning him around. He could just see a short stretch of the chain that held the Ring, lying against Frodo's neck. He was about to reach for it when the hobbit twisted out of his grasp with surprising strength and backed away, staring at the wizard with wide eyes and bared teeth, his hand on the hilt of Sting. He shook his head.

The look of hatred, fear, and defiance that twisted Frodo's features was so shockingly unfamiliar that Gandalf felt his agonizing visions and his urgent desire for the Ring fade quickly, replaced by concern and self-recrimination. It had been so easy to sit in Lórien and say blithely to Galadriel that he would do his best to resist the Ring. He could never have imagined how fierce its deceptions and its pull would become once it reached its home country. He squatted down and closed his eyes, hugging himself tightly and panting. He dreaded to look up at Frodo again and see that horrible expression, but he forced himself to face the hobbit. Fortunately Frodo was looking less shocked and hostile. He seemed to see that Gandalf's fit had passed, though he was clearly wary and poised to run if the wizard tried again to touch him.

Gandalf hardly dared to move, and he realized that they both needed help. He looked appealingly at Sam, who was holding Gollum's leash and staring at them fearfully. The other hobbit licked his lips and took a couple of steps toward the wizard and Frodo. "This . . . this is what you said would happen, Gandalf, as we got further along. Surely you know that you don't really want to take the Ring-it's not you that's making these thoughts. And Frodo, you know that too, don't you?" He looked uncertainly back and forth at their faces, then glanced around worriedly. "I think we shouldn't be stopped here, right in the road like this. Maybe no more soldiers will arrive today, but I reckon that those orcs move about day and night, carrying messages and such, and we don't want to run into any. What had you planned to do now that we're in here, Gandalf?"

Forcing his mind to concentrate on Sam's practical question seemed to help further diminish the Ring's pull, and after glancing doubtfully at Frodo, Gandalf turned and looked off to his right. He spoke with some difficulty but managed to sound fairly matter-of-fact. "There appears to be a stretch of very rough ground over there-sharp ridges and valleys that don't offer good campgrounds for large groups. They might make an effective hiding place for us while we consider what to do next. There could even be some streams coming down from the mountains, and we shall need them soon, especially if we have to hide for days. Shall we move on? Sméagol, I think that you should keep that rope on until we get hidden. As Sam says, we might run into some orc patrols."

The wizard looked again at Frodo, whose expression now indicated only weariness and a general fear of their surroundings. Gandalf was relieved to see that the hobbit immediately followed him as he set out toward the series of ridges at the foot of the dark mountains. It took about an hour to reach them, and they did not encounter anyone along the way. There were no roads or paths in this area either, the wizard noted. They soon found a twisting valley, little more than a deep gully, that was sheltered from sight in all directions. They set down their packs and took out a bit of the food that Faramir's men had given them that morning. The wizard frowned sadly as Frodo moved to perch on a nearby rock to eat, rather than sitting beside him as usual. He glanced at Sam, who quickly looked down and concentrated on his food. They finished the meal in silence.

After they had laid out their blankets-Frodo putting some distance between his own and the wizard's-Gandalf asked both hobbits to sit down for a brief discussion of their situation. "At this point I see no way to cross the plain and reach Mt. Doom. There are just too many troops stationed between us and it. I considered trying it with the help of these disguises, but it would be almost impossible to sustain our ruse, I fear. Men camping and idle are likely to be more curious about an odd-looking group like ourselves than were men marching, tired and anxious to reach their journey's end. Besides, it would hardly make sense for us to take a prisoner intended for Sauron's dungeons toward the mountain instead, so that excuse is lost to us. No, it is a grim prospect, especially given how few supplies we have, but I think we must remain here for awhile. Our only real hope, as I have anticipated from early on, is that Sauron will launch his war against Gondor soon. Clearly he is not ready yet, for there are many more troops arriving each day, and they would instead be flowing outward through the Gate if he were fully prepared. We must depend on Aragorn to do what I asked him when we parted, to challenge Sauron, to goad him into attacking prematurely. That could not possibly happen sooner than two or three days from now, but it could easily take a week or more. It all depends on how long it takes Aragorn to reach Minas Tirith."

There was a grim silence. Finally Sam asked in a discouraged voice, "What if he never does get there?"

Gandalf stared at him. "There is always that possibility. He has so much to accomplish, so much danger to face. In that case, we must hope that Sauron's preparations are nearly finished and that he will launch his campaign before we run out of food. And if he does not . . . I suppose that we shall just have to take our chances and try to cross the plain using these disguises." He hesitated and looked at Frodo. "My darling hobbit, you and I must be constantly together during this dreary and frightening wait. Perhaps I am too optimistic, but I still think that you are safer with me than if I were to leave you and Sam. Obviously I cannot guarantee that the fit of madness that came over me a while ago will not return. As you can imagine, the Ring has been giving me visions of how I might gain the power to defeat Sauron, the ability to heal the damage to Middle-earth, the opportunity for wonderful times together with you. It has also used you in other, more terrible ways to lure me-showing me vivid images of you captured, tortured-and making it seem as if only the Ring would enable me to prevent that. All I can do is assure you, as always, that I am trying my utmost not to let such thoughts control me. Can you possibly trust me again--at least, enough to do what we must and finally to accomplish our mission?"

Frodo eventually looked him straight in the eye for the first time since their earlier stand-off. He swallowed and pressed his lips together. The wizard began to think that he would refuse to speak. He held out his open hand toward Frodo in mute appeal. At last Frodo nodded and slid close enough to him to grasp his hand. The hobbit murmured, "Believe me, I know how the Ring works. I have had visions-but simpler, less grandiose. It has used you to lure me as well . . . to make me suspect you and want to leave you."

Gently Gandalf pulled on Frodo's arm until the hobbit moved against him. He embraced him, kissing him eagerly, not with desire but with relief that he had not entirely alienated Frodo. Almost at once Frodo threw his arms around the wizard's neck and returned the kiss, almost fiercely. At last they drew apart, and Gandalf smiled sadly. "So you forgive me?" Frodo nodded at once, and they resumed kissing, now more tenderly. Sam had watched all this closely, not embarrassed at all but seeking any signs of lingering distrust. Finally he sighed, seeing none.

"I'll take the first watch, if you like," he said to them as they finally broke the kiss. Gandalf nodded. Sam glanced uncertainly at Gollum. "Shall I untie him now?"

"Yes, he has to be allowed to forage for some sustenance, if any is to be had." Sam removed the rope, and Gollum squatted, rubbing his stiff arms and muttering to himself.

Gandalf wondered for a moment if he dared lie close to Frodo and felt inclined to try it. The memory of the hobbit's horrified face when he had reached out to take the Ring was so vivid in his memory that its temptation seemed remote for the moment. He didn't see that lying a few feet away from Frodo rather than cuddled against him would make all that much difference in the Ring's attraction. He also longed for more reassurance that the incident on the road had not separated him from his darling hobbit, and he sensed that Frodo needed the same thing. "Sleep with me, Frodo," he said in a tentative and questioning tone. Frodo hesitated only briefly before smiling and nodding.

They moved the two blankets next to each other and wrapped themselves in them. As he nearly always did, Gandalf took the hobbit in his arms and cradled him against his body, waiting to make sure that he went to sleep. The wizard thought back to the lovemaking of the night before and wondered if it really had to be their last. He speculated that their enforced stay in this dreary hiding place might possibly afford him the opportunity to find a private spot for another bit of "romance." He smiled to himself. Yes, distinctly a good sign, to be tempted by a gorgeous hobbit rather than by the Ring. With that happy thought he drifted off to sleep.

TBC in Chapter 10: Where the Shadows Lie

Story Navigation:

Escape to the Golden Wood ~ The Fellowship Divides ~ The Black Gate is Open ~ Where the Shadows Lie ~ The Wizard and the King ~ The Scouring of the Shire