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 this chapter covers roughly the action of the last chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Breaking of the Fellowship," and Book Four, Chapter I of The Two Towers, "The Taming of Smeagol." A few passages are quoted or adapted from the book.

Part 8AU: The Fellowship Divides

After the Company's departure from Lórien, they made good progress down the Anduin River. They saw no signs of orcs or other enemies on either side of the river. The weather became somewhat warmer, but there were often clouds and mists drifting over the land on the eastern shore, and the dark pine woods abruptly gave way to grey, sharp ridges of stone, unrelieved by any plant or bird. After several days, Frodo heard a distant roar and looked back inquiringly at Gandalf.

"That sound is the Falls of Rauros. It means that we shall soon have to abandon these lovely boats."

Coming within sight of the cascade's edge, the group beached their boats on a stretch of shingle on the west bank. As the others were beginning to pitch camp in a clearing a short distance from the water and to prepare the evening meal, Gandalf led Frodo a little way into the surrounding woods and sat beside him on a large fallen tree trunk. At once the hobbit asked anxiously, "Gandalf, have you noticed that Gollum is following us again? At least, I assume it is he. I have seen what I thought were his eyes glowing."

"Yes. Apparently Gollum went around the Golden Wood and managed to find us, despite our taking to these boats. Aragorn has spotted him three times, and I have seen him twice."

"What are we going to do about him?"

"Our options are more limited than they were before, and now that we are so far South he is becoming a more urgent problem. Perhaps we can devise some way to trap him. Aragorn and I have been discussing that." He hesitated. "You and I have never really talked much about how the group should proceed once we reached the point where it would make sense to cross the River and journey toward Mordor on the east bank. Well, we are now at that point. Obviously we cannot take the boats past the Falls of Rauros without enormous difficulty, and yet we shall need at least one of them to get across."

A shudder passed through Frodo. He had dreaded this moment, and he strove to think clearly and not let fear overwhelm him.

Gandalf looked at him sympathetically. "Have you given thought as to which of our group you would like to have accompany you?"

"Should I not go alone? From what the Lady Galadriel said to me, the Ring is a danger to everyone in the Company. She implied that I should not take anyone along."

"I have since talked with her about it, and after some discussion she acquiesced in my determination to go with you."

Frodo gasped and stared at Gandalf with tears welling in his eyes. "Would you? I could not bear the thought of our separating, yet I thought it was my duty as the Ringbearer. I did not dare ask you about it, because I dreaded hearing you say as much. I have been assuming that I would probably go alone."

Gandalf put his arm around Frodo's shoulders and pulled the hobbit close. "Believe me, Frodo, I have wanted from the start to stay with you, and I have pondered long and hard whether I should. I agree, though, that it is time to leave at least part of the Fellowship behind. Some will have important roles to play in the great war that will soon descend upon the kingdoms of men south of here."

"I doubt if I could convince Sam that he should not come with me as well."

Gandalf frowned sadly. "Well, I would like you to try your hardest to do so. It is bad enough that I face taking you into such frightful danger. I don't think I could bear to put him at such risk as well. My inclination is to have just you and I travel to Mordor alone. Even if the others manage to persuade me that a slightly larger group should go, our companions should be seasoned warriors, knowing what they are getting into."

Frodo nodded, trying to think how he could explain all this to Sam.

Gandalf looked at him for a moment, as if sensing his thoughts, then said, "Well, take this evening to talk to Sam and to think about the whole matter yourself. What I insist upon is that I should go with you and that Aragorn and the other hobbits should stay on this side of the River. He will have to instigate my strategies in the coming war, as well as devise some of his own. The hobbits are simply too young and untested. We shan't make the final decision until we have talked with the others. Some of them may have suggestions, and by then you may have thought of some yourself." He tilted Frodo's chin up and stared into the limpid blue eyes, darkening now in the settling dusk. He whispered, "You know that my greatest desire in the world is to protect you . .. well, to be honest, apart from destroying the Ring, of course. That must always take precedence over any personal desires, no matter how dearly held."

Frodo pondered this for a moment and gulped. He looked steadily at the wizard. "Does that mean that, if it came to a choice between saving me or destroying the Ring, you would sacrifice me?"

Gandalf stared at him with a stricken look, struggling to control his emotions. At last he managed to say, "Do you really want to know?"

"No, I suppose not-in a way. Still, I would like to think that my wizard would do the right thing, and we both know which choice would be right. After all, we are trying to save the entire world," he added with a teary little smile.

Gandalf gasped with reluctant amusement. "Middle-earth is a continent, my darling hobbit, not the entire world."

Frodo gave the briefest of laughs. "Well, whatever it is, I hope you'd save it . . . if it came to such a choice."

Gandalf clenched his teeth, and the tendons in his jaws jumped. Finally he replied, "Yes, I probably would."

Frodo looked away and murmured, "Good."

Gandalf drew a deep breath and straightened up slightly. "Well, let us trust that it will never come to that." Frodo nodded, and the wizard kissed him delicately, their soft lips brushing and pressing for a long time.

Finally Gandalf released the hobbit and stood up. "Now, we have shirked our duties long enough. Let us help the others with supper, and first thing tomorrow morning, I shall call a council."

After supper, Frodo watched for a chance to talk to Sam alone. When the other hobbit wandered down to fetch something from the boats, Frodo followed and caught up to him on the broad stretch of shingle. "Sam! I want to tell you something. I have been talking with Gandalf, and he thinks that he and I should cross the River and go to Mordor, either alone or with a very small group. He does not want you to be put in danger, and I agree with him. You have already done so much for me. I cannot ask you to do more. You should stay with the Fellowship."

Sam's mouth dropped open in dismay. "But you can't leave me behind! I came on this journey to help you, and that means until the end, until the Ring is destroyed."

"Sam, I am definitely of two minds about this. I know that you desperately want to come, and I sympathize. In a way I would love to have you with me. I couldn't go against Gandalf's wishes, though. You know that, I'm sure. And I don't see how you could force a mighty wizard to let you come along."

Sam stared at him miserably. "No . . . but maybe I could persuade him."

Despite his concern for Sam's desperation, Frodo chuckled. "Sam, you can barely bring yourself to look Gandalf in the eye when you talk to him. How could you hope to persuade him? All he'd have to do is frown at you with those eyebrows of his, and you would turn tail and run."

Sam gave him a reproachful look, but then admitted. "Well, maybe ordinarily. But this is important! I just have to explain to him!" To Frodo's surprise, Sam hesitated, took a deep breath, and walked quickly back to the campsite with a determined look in his eye. He did not wait for Frodo, who followed at a more leisurely pace, curious to see just how Sam's courage would hold up when he came face to face with Gandalf.

As he came into the clearing, he was amazed to see Sam talking to the wizard, who was sitting with Aragorn by the remains of the fire. Gandalf looked somewhat taken aback, but he nodded and rose, and the two disappeared into the woods, in the direction of the fallen tree where the wizard had talked with Frodo earlier. "Good luck, Sam," Frodo murmured doubtfully.

Once Gandalf was seated beside Sam on the log, he turned to look inquiringly at the hobbit. Sam shifted uncomfortably and stared at the ground for a few moments, then looked up at the wizard. "Master Gandalf . . . sir, Frodo says you don't want me coming along with you to Mordor. I know I'm not strong or brave, but I just couldn't bear to be left behind. I have to go along and help Frodo all I can, even if it's not in very important ways." He hurriedly looked down again as soon as he had finished.

"I do wish you wouldn't call me 'Master Gandalf,'" the wizard said abstractedly as he tried to think how to let Sam down gently. "My dear hobbit, I know how devoted to Frodo you have become, and I greatly appreciate what you have done for him so far. Still, I really cannot permit you to accompany us. You have no idea of the hideous dangers that lie ahead. I saw how quiet and frightened you and the younger hobbits were in Moria, and believe me, what Frodo and I are facing now is far worse. And ultimately, there is a good possibility that we shall neither of us be coming back. There is no reason for you to take that risk as well. I could not forgive myself if I put you in that situation."

"I know it will be dangerous and difficult and frightening, but I want to go anyway." The wizard shook his head adamantly, and Sam went on, "Tell me truly, if I were along, couldn't I give Frodo some sort of help?"

Gandalf sighed and thought for a while. He could not bring himself to lie to Sam, for there was no doubt that he could indeed be a support to Frodo in many little ways, if not in great ones. This time it was he who looked away as the hobbit's earnest, slightly teary eyes stared up at him.

Sam pressed his lips together. "That means I could, doesn't it? Please, Master Gandalf! After all, the main thing is to help Frodo get to that mountain. So much is at stake. You're obviously risking your own life by going along with him, and I'm willing to do the same. After all, I love him too-not the way you do, I mean, but as a friend. Shouldn't that count for something?"

Gandalf still hesitated. Sam was right, in a way, and yet he just did not fully understand the risks involved. He was about to speak when Sam, obviously sensing that a refusal was forthcoming, stood up and faced him. Gandalf's frown reflected worry, not anger, but it was daunting enough, and Sam gulped and forced himself to speak. "If you say no, I'll just follow you-I'll take one of the other boats and cross the river and . . . just follow you."

Gandalf finally smiled. "You remind me of Pippin saying that he would have to be carried home to the Shire in a sack to prevent his following us from Rivendell. I think that Frodo is very fortunate in his friends. Well . . ." He sighed. "Yes, perhaps you should go with us. Frodo would be undoubtedly be happier having another hobbit along. I don't want to claim that I am the only one who could aid him on this mission-that was certainly not why I wanted to leave you behind. Apart from everything else, there are practical considerations: you're quite a good cook, and it would be very helpful to have a three of us rather than two to take turns keeping watch as the others sleep." He paused and went on reluctantly. "And if, as I fear, Frodo and I ever begin to come into conflict over the Ring, perhaps your level-headed common sense will remind us of our goal and help us keep a grip on reality, help . . . banish the delusions which the Ring might induce in one or both of us. Yes, not a pretty thought, is it? You should be aware if you really want to accompany us that there are dangers other than orcs and Nazgul. The most dangerous thing of all is hanging from Frodo's neck."

Sam looked a bit startled. He said slowly, "Yes, I didn't think of that. But what you say makes it all the more important that I go--if you really believe I might be able to help in that way too."

Gandalf nodded. "It's distinctly possible. All right, then, that's settled. Now, let us fortify ourselves with a good night's sleep."

The next morning, after breakfast, Gandalf assembled the Company and addressed them. "We can put off the decision about our future strategy no longer. On which bank of the River should we travel? And which ones among us should stay together? The more I see of the situation this far south, with spies of the Enemy in the sky, the more I believe that only a small, less conspicuous group should accompany the Ringbearer. Moreover, there are enormous conflicts brewing in both Gondor and Rohan, and strong help is needed there. There is no time to waste, so I shall simply say that I advise the Ringbearer to cross the River now. I shall go with him." He glanced at Sam. "And I assume that you are still determined to accompany us."

"I am, Master Gandalf."

Even in the midst of his worries, Gandalf sighed. "Really, Sam, as I've told you, you may just call me 'Gandalf.' We shall be traveling far together, and I would prefer it. If you are brave enough to walk into Mordor, surely you are brave enough for that."

Sam blushed and nodded sheepishly. He exchanged glances with Frodo, who smiled back at him.

Gimli said quietly, "Gandalf, if you think the party should be a little larger, I would be willing to go with the Ringbearer to Mordor."

"And I," Legolas quickly chimed in.

"I know you both would-indeed all of you would, if it were necessary. My own view, however, is that three will do. Do you have anything to say, Frodo?"

"You know far more than I about all this, Gandalf. If you think that the three of us should go, then I agree."

"All right. The question remains, then, what will the other six members of the Fellowship do from here on?"

Pippin leaned over and whispered in Merry's ear, "I feel as if we should have volunteered to go with Frodo, as Sam did. Still, I don't think I could face that journey, do you?"

Merry shook his head. "I don't think I could either. And if Gandalf won't let Gimli or Legolas go, surely he wouldn't want us along."

They nodded at each other with little sighs of relief.

The others were looking thoughtful, and Aragorn seemed about to speak when Boromir said suddenly, "Wait! In the past, I have raised the possibility of the entire Fellowship's going first to Minas Tirith, and then, if necessary, making the journey to Mordor under better circumstances. We have never really discussed that option."

Gandalf turned reluctantly to him. "What would be better about our circumstances then? We are already equipped with concealing cloaks and food enough to sustain us for quite a stretch. We have the advantage that the Enemy so far seems unaware of our location and intent. Time is precious, for his ignorance may not last much longer. Such a detour as you suggest would add many days to the Ringbearer's journey-to little purpose, I think."

Boromir hesitated. "There is something that you should know, for it might change your mind. There has long been a secret known only to my father and me, but now I think I may reveal it in confidence to this group. The situation warrants it."

Gandalf glanced at Aragorn with a puzzled frown, and Aragorn shrugged slightly. Boromir went on, more confidently now that he had made his decision. "One of the heirlooms that has been kept in the White City for centuries now is a palantir. Previous Stewards have feared to test it, and they remained unaware that any other of the seven survived." He paused and glanced around at the others to gauge the effect of this news on his listeners.

Gandalf's frown remained, but his eyes had widened slightly-with something that might have been fear, Frodo sensed. The wizard quickly resumed an attentive expression. The hobbit remained silent, having made his decision and being determined to carry it through.

Boromir went on. "My father dared to test the stone, however, some years ago. He discovered that the Dark Lord has one as well."

Gandalf was breathing a bit harder by now and staring at Boromir. Aragorn had shifted his eyes back from the man to Gandalf, anxiously trying to read his reaction to this revelation.

The wizard licked his lips. "Has he spoken directly with the Dark Lord through the stone?"

"Yes, he has braved that, and he has learned many things to our benefit. He has seen much concerning the military preparations of the Dark Lord. And these are things which truly are, for the palantiri do not lie. Gandalf, Aragorn, might it not be to your advantage to come to Minas Tirith and to look into the Stone yourselves? You might learn much about troop sizes and movements-things that could possibly be important to your plans for the journey to the Mountain."

Gandalf stared at Aragorn. Frodo thought that the wizard looked a bit pale. Boromir's words had meant little to the hobbit, and he could see that the others, apart from Aragorn, could understand no more. Both Gandalf and Aragorn, however, seemed disturbed by his statements. Finally the wizard spoke in a relatively matter-of-fact tone, despite the tension that Frodo thought seemed almost to crackle in the chilly air. "It is an interesting suggestion, Boromir, but I still fear that the time lost in the journey would not be worth the potential gain in our knowledge. Our plan is to slip into Mordor undetected, and we shall simply have to spy out the situation when we arrive. I think that a simple tactic is best."

Frodo wondered what that tactic would be, but Gandalf did not say. Instead, the wizard surveyed the rest of the group, who had watched and listened closely, sensing some underlying drama to the debate that they could not grasp. "Are there any other suggestions or opinions?"

Legolas said, "I think that we are all in agreement with your plan for the Ringbearer, Mithrandir-or at least nearly all of us," he added, keeping his eyes away from Boromir.

The others nodded-all but Boromir, who sat with a dark frown but without making a further suggestion. He rose and paced aimlessly just outside the circle of the Company, but Gandalf noted that he sent covert glances Frodo's way. The wizard attempted to focus on the business at hand. "Unless any one wishes to return to his home immediately, I would suggest that most of you stick together for now. Aragorn can explain to you a little of our strategies for the upcoming war in Rohan, and you may decide then whether to continue to follow him. I would say that Merry and Pippin should return home, but the distance is great and the routes dangerous. Unless Gimli or Legolas would be willing to serve as a guide and protector-"

"But we don't want to go back!" cried Merry. Pippin nodded anxiously. "Gandalf, won't the things that Aragorn will be doing also help Frodo?"

"I very much hope so."

"Then we wish to stay with Aragorn's group. I know we haven't been much use up to now, but we want to help. Surely we can do something!"

Gandalf glanced at Aragorn, who nodded. The wizard went on, "Fine. You two shall make part of the diminished Company. Boromir's duty lies in Gondor, and I presume that he will wish to travel there directly and therefore will go on his own."

Gandalf did not wait for a confirmation of that statement by Boromir, but quickly rose. "Then everything is settled, and we must make haste. Please divide the gear and supplies carefully between the two groups, and remember to leave some aside for Boromir. Keep in mind that those on the west bank will almost certainly have more opportunities to obtain additional supplies of food than will the Ringbearer's group. Frodo, Sam, and I will cross the River in half an hour, if we can be ready by then. That's all, I think." Quickly he moved to Aragorn and whispered in his ear, "Take Boromir aside for a talk. Keep him busy until I join you. I fear that our decision has brought him to a desperate state, and if he is as enthralled by the Ring as Galadriel said-and I well believe it now-he may seize some last opportunity to try and take it. I shall warn Frodo and then join you to deal with Boromir."

Aragorn nodded shortly. "Yes, and even if Galadriel was wrong, we cannot take chances. Boromir!" he called out. He went to the man, throwing his arm around his shoulder and pointing off toward the wood, talking as he led Boromir away. Gandalf thought that the Gondorean looked very reluctant to go in the direction opposite to the one taken by the Ringbearer. The wizard turned and hurried to catch up with Frodo, who had a pack slung over his shoulder and had nearly reached the shore.

"Frodo," he said in a low voice, "go straight to the boats and wait there. Let the others do the sorting and packing, but when either Legolas or Gimli comes down to the shore, tell him to stay with you. I believe Boromir wishes to take the Ring. Aragorn is with him, and he and I shall cope with the situation. Be on your guard nevertheless, and if anything should happen, do not hesitate to use Sting and call for help."

As Sam was about to pass by with some parcels, Gandalf stopped him and said, "Hurry with the preparations, Sam. Keep a close eye on Frodo as you pack the boat. We shall leave sooner than I said, if we can prepare that quickly. When all is ready, tell the others to assemble here on the shore."

Sam nodded, puzzled at Gandalf's vehemence, but the wizard quickly walked back toward the clearing where they had held the meeting. Frodo was reluctant to reveal what Gandalf had said about Boromir, so he contented himself with stowing the bag and readying the oars as Sam transferred some items from the boat to the shore for the use of the other group.

Gandalf reached the clearing and spotted Aragorn and Boromir standing a little way into the woods. Boromir seemed to be trying to make an excuse to break away, but both men paused as the wizard joined them. Gandalf looked sympathetically at Boromir, seeing the anguish and desperation that he was trying to hide. He spoke quietly. "Boromir, Frodo is already in the boat. He is armed and well-guarded. I have warned him," he added, pausing to let the man consider this, and then put his hand on the man's shoulder. He shook it slightly so that Boromir looked at him. The wizard continued quietly but emphatically, "He is going to Mordor with the Ring, and, believe me, there now is nothing that you could do to stop that happening."

The man was scowling and fighting tears. He breathed heavily and turned his head, refusing to look either of his companions in the eye. Abruptly he tried to pull away, but Gandalf's grip was deceptively strong, and the man glanced up in surprise when he was unable to escape the wizard's hand.

Gandalf waited again, staring at Boromir intently. The man shook his head and began, "You mistake me! I never intended . . ." He trailed off as he realized that he would not be able to deceive the wizard. He glanced down in shame, but Gandalf again shook his shoulder, catching and holding his eye once more. The man stared back at him, and very gradually he felt a dawning hope that seemed to emanate from the wizard. Gradually his scowl lessened, and finally he sighed deeply.

Gandalf said quietly, "Boromir, we know that you, more than perhaps any of the Fellowship, have felt the attraction of the Ring. Be not ashamed! I have felt it myself, and I know its power." Boromir clenched his teeth, and the wizard continued, "Now, however, the long temptation is over, and you have a chance to be free of it and to play a noble and vital part in the great struggles to come-a part that will dull the memory of this madness."

Boromir looked uncertainly between Gandalf and Aragorn. He saw nothing but kindness and trust in the wizard's eyes. Aragorn also nodded encouragingly at him. After another silence during which the man struggled with himself, he finally blurted out, "Anything! Ask it of me."

Gandalf said earnestly, "There is one thing in particular, apart from your bravery and skill and strength. You have spoken of the palantir that your father secretly holds. Denethor may view it as a powerful and useful tool, but I fear it is rather a snare that has deceived him. Palantiri can be dangerous to those who know not their true purposes or who use them without the full right to do so. Peace, Boromir! I am not criticizing your father, for no doubt he saw this as a way to help his people and was unaware of the risks. He must, however, give up the palantir immediately, for it renders him vulnerable to Sauron's will. Since he trusts you, I ask you to go straight to Minas Tirith and get it away from him, by whatever means necessary. Your father may have taken some hurt from this thing, to his mind, to his senses, and to his judgment. I realize that it may seem like you would be betraying your father, but I ask that you promise to obtain it and to keep it safely hidden until Aragorn, its rightful owner, can claim it. Persuading your father to give it up may be unpleasant, but without the slightest doubt, Denethor would be much better off if he had never looked into it. Even if you need to use force to obtain the palantir, believe me, you will be helping him by ridding him of it. Once you have it, do not for any reason look into it yourself. I have heard that the palantiri exert a strong fascination for those who hold them." Gandalf gave a fleeting smile. "We can only hope that it is not quite as compelling in its attractions as is the Ring. Wrap it up and put it away someplace safe and secret."

Boromir was silent for a moment, looking to Aragorn. The Ranger assured him, "He is right, Boromir. I know something of the lore of the palantiri, and they are subtle and treacherous to most. Sauron may be doing great harm to your father."

"I believe you both, and I am grateful, Gandalf, that you do not blame me further for my designs on the Ring. I promise to do what you wish. That, and anything else I can do to help you, Aragorn, it is yours."

Aragorn said, "I simply trust that once you have done what Gandalf has asked, you will continue with all possible speed to prepare the City for war and will await my coming."

They all nodded solemnly. Gandalf looked at Aragorn, and Boromir realized that the two wished to be alone to say their farewells. He murmured that he would join the others and moved away toward the River. As they watched him go, Aragorn frowned. "Gandalf, he may truly be repentant, but dare we risk even the slightest chance that he might still in a fit of madness try to take the Ring?"

Gandalf shook his head. "I read true regret in his eyes, and the resolve to make amends. Besides," he added with a wry little smile, "the rest of the Fellowship will be there, and he can hardly overcome them all." He paused. "So, are you clear on what you must do? I believe that Saruman will attack Rohan very soon-within days. He has been creating his own army rather than gathering troops from far-flung countries, as Sauron has. Thus he is likely to finish his preparations for war before the Dark Lord does. I imagine that the Dark Lord wants Saruman to begin the conflict by eliminating Gondor's greatest ally, leaving Minas Tirith all the more vulnerable to the forces of Mordor. Thus you should go to Rohan and resolve whatever impasse has resulted from the evils that Saruman has wrought upon Theoden King. You will probably find him saddled with despair and weakness, but I believe that he could be roused from them. At all costs you must get the Rohirrim out of the capital and to Helm's Deep, where they may be able to defeat Saruman's army. If you cannot persuade Theoden to act, you must pin your hopes upon Eomer, his nephew-quite a strong and reliable young man, and one who deplores what he has watched happening to the king. When I visited Edoras last summer, Eomer told me how much he regretted the way in which I was treated. I know that he commands the loyalty of most of the country's troops, despite the lack of respect with which Theoden now treats him. The king's niece, Eowyn, also possesses a forceful personality. I believe that she could also be trusted to help in trying to bring the King out of his current condition."

"I shall do my utmost, but like Galadriel, I fear that for all the Rohirrim's skill and valor, they will be outnumbered too greatly."

"That is a problem indeed. Remember, though, what Galadriel said of the ents. Perhaps you can persuade Treebeard to send help-if you can find him. The more I have thought about the idea, the more I like it. Not that there are that many ents left, but some of the trees in Fangorn are still capable of moving about, and they are not particularly safe to be around-especially for orcs! It would not be too far out of your way to visit Fangorn on your way to Rohan, and it might prove of great help later on. Admittedly the information I was able to give you about Treebeard's dwellings is a bit vague, but ents leave very distinctive and large tracks. Basically the marks look as if a giant hand had begun to pull up a clump of earth and stopped short of doing so. Knowing the general area in which to search, an expert huntsman like you should be able to find him or at least another ent who could direct you to him."

Aragorn chuckled ruefully. "All right, I go to Fangorn, recruit the ents' help, move on to Rohan, fight a huge battle, and-assuming that we win, I travel to Minas Tirith to prepare for war."

"Exactly. And assuming also that Boromir succeeds in obtaining the palantir, I suggest that you use it."

"To challenge Sauron?"

"Yes. Try to converse with him as little as possible, obviously, but make it clear who you are and that you are claiming the throne of Gondor."

"When should I do this?"

"As soon as may be. You cannot possibly defeat Saruman's army and reach Minas Tirith for many days yet. Once you arrive, and assuming that the city is as ready for war as possible, take the stone and confront him. He has not yet finished his preparations for attack, but goad him into launching it anyway. Drive him to empty his land. Give us what chance you can."

"And then . . . hold out against the onslaught as best we can."

"Precisely. With Rohan's aid, I sincerely hope. I'm afraid that you and I can plan no further, for we have no idea how that initial battle will go. Just . . . whatever will keep his Eye and his troops away from his own land."

Aragorn stared at him, shaking his head in amused resignation. "And, my friend, remind me of just what you are contributing all this time."

Gandalf chuckled softly. "Not much, admittedly. Merely taking a walk into Mordor with only two hobbits to protect me. I shall trade tasks with you, if you like . . . but, no, seriously, only you can do some of these things, and I suspect that only I have any chance of bringing Frodo to the Mountain and the Ring to the fire-if there is really any chance of it at all."

Aragorn nodded. They stood staring down at the ground between them for a moment.

"Gandalf, if you do manage to get to the Mountain and destroy the Ring, what will happen then? And how will you get out again, do you think?"

The wizard looked up into his eyes. "I don't know what would follow the destruction of the Ring, but it will almost certainly be cataclysmal, at least within the boundaries of Mordor. I suspect that Mt. Doom would erupt quite violently. I have no idea how we would be able to get out. There may simply be no way."

After another solemn pause, the two embraced and drew apart. Gandalf smiled sadly at the man whom he loved as a son. "The next time I see you, you will be riding at the head of your victorious army, about to claim the kingship."

Aragorn forced a smile as well. "Yes, and the next time I see you, you will be hailed as the savior of a continent-you and Frodo and Sam." He paused. "You must come back, you know. I would not let anyone else crown me."

"Go in safety, my dear friend, and may you come into your birthright and the fulfillment of all your dreams."

"May the stars of Elbereth shine on you even in that dreadful land, and may you achieve success and be able to lay down the burden that you accepted so long ago."

Without another word they walked back to the shore, where the others were awaiting them. Boromir stood among them, looking subdued but determined. Gandalf clapped him lightly on the back as he moved to join Frodo and Sam by the loaded boat. He turned back to the group. He wanted no drawn-out farewells, especially for Boromir's sake. He sighed and tried to speak lightly, shrugging, "Well, we shall see you all in Minas Tirith."

He and the hobbits stepped into the boat, and the others pushed it off the shingle. As it drew away, the group watched silently, most with tears standing in their eyes. Suddenly Aragorn heard a noise deep in the woods behind them. He turned with an anxious frown, detecting the distant sounds of heavy foot-falls and clanking armor. Looking out across the water, Aragorn could tell that Gandalf's sharp ears had caught the sounds as well, and Legolas was gazing anxiously into the wood. Gandalf leaned one hand on the gunwale and strove to hear what was happening above the soft splashing and creaking as Sam and Frodo continued to row. Those sounds almost inevitably meant peril, and the wizard was reluctant to leave the group on the shore to face it without him. An attack at this point, however, would most likely be some sort of attempt to capture the Ring. Regretfully he decided to press on toward the other shore. He caught Aragorn's eye, and the Ranger nodded and waved his hand, indicating that Gandalf should take the Ringbearer away from whatever danger approached. The wizard turned and quietly told Sam and Frodo to row faster. He could only trust that the four warriors he left behind would protect the two younger hobbits and go on to accomplish their vital errands. He cast a worried look back and saw Aragorn, Boromir, Legolas and Gimli readying their weapons and moving into the woods, keeping the hobbits protectively behind them. So much depended on Aragorn, he thought, then tried to dismiss everything from his mind but the dangers that might be lurking on the rocky eastern shore that now loomed darkly ahead.

At length they came to land again upon the southern slopes of Amon Lhaw. There they found a shelving shore, and they unloaded the boat of the small amount of luggage they could carry. Sam asked, "Where shall we hide the boat? We don't want spies of the Enemy finding it." He looked around for a boulder or gully where they could conceal it.

"I think Rauros will hide it for us quite effectively," the wizard said with an amused smile, and he started to push the boat away from the shore.

"Wait!" Sam cried, "mightn't we want it again on our way back?"

Gandalf glanced at Frodo, then at Sam again. He forced another smile. "When we come back, Sam, we shall be headed for Minas Tirith to attend Aragorn's coronation. We can cross the River at Osgiliath, I hope, and that is far south of here." Sam nodded and turned away to pick up his pack, but Frodo looked keenly and sadly at the wizard. Gandalf avoided his eyes, turning away and pushing the boat as hard as he could out into the current. It heeled about and gained speed, slipping rapidly downstream toward the thundering water of the Falls. All three felt a pang as they watched it, for their last link to the Fellowship and to their other allies in the west was now gone.

Then, shouldering their burdens, they set off, seeking a path that would bring them over the grey hills of the Emyn Muil, and down into the Land of Shadow.

The three trudged on all that day through a bleak and colorless area of hills and rocky outcroppings. There was an ominous air of watchfulness and malice pervading the area, though all day they neither saw nor heard anything threatening. Frodo glanced anxiously behind them from time to time but could detect no sign of Gollum. Now that he had finally left the Company, Frodo felt as if he had been plunged into worry and fear. Before, he could banter with his companions and enjoy the beauty of the scenery along the River Anduin. Now there seemed to be no respite from dread, and Gandalf seemed almost as cowed as he and Sam.

The wizard struggled to concentrate on finding the best path through the seemingly endless tract of rocks and ravines. He was extremely disturbed to discover that once they had broken off from the group and reached the eastern shore, his awareness of the Ring had become far more intense. During the entire trip-except, perhaps, during the blissful stay in Lórien--he had frequently felt it as a tickling presence at the back of his mind and sometimes as more than that. Now, however, it suddenly asserted its presence, and he could not entirely ignore it, no matter how hard he tried. He vividly saw himself wielding it, striding confidently up to the Black Gate, ordering it opened, confronting Sauron and reducing him to nothingness. That was what he had been trying for two thousand years to achieve. How easily he could accomplish it, simply by lifting that little gold band from around Frodo's neck! Several times he found himself staring at the hobbit's chest-not with desire, but striving to detect the shape of the Ring, concealed beneath those clothes, so close . . . He struggled to occupy his mind in some other way. Realizing that the hobbits were worried by his long and unaccustomed silence, he began to tell them stories and jokes to ease their fear.

As dusk fell and the first night of this new phase of their journey began, they found a hollow in the rocks and risked a small campfire. They cooked some food, determined to keep the lembas for later. Afterward they sat staring at the fire and speaking occasionally. At last they fell silent. The dreary, sullen atmosphere of the place was affecting all three, and the hobbits were again looking scared and miserable. Gandalf was about to try and reassure them when he sucked in a deep breath as a sudden intense urge to take the Ring again swept over him. Shaken, he pushed it back into the recesses of his mind and struggled to think rationally. If the Ring was having this power over him so soon, what would it be like trying to resist it later on, as fear haunted him and opportunity for victory lay tantalizingly close? He began to wonder if Galadriel had been right. The temptation might wear him down long before they reached the Mountain. What option was there, though? He was committed to this course of action now, for good or ill. The boat was gone, the Fellowship far away--and Frodo needed him.

The wizard glanced down at his darling hobbit and saw that Frodo was looking up anxiously at him. He suspected that his inner struggle had probably displayed itself on his face more than he realized. He smiled and pulled the hobbit against his side, kissing the top of his head. He heard a grateful little moan as Frodo settled himself within the reassuring strength of the wizard's arm. At the sound, Gandalf felt a surge of joy that drove the thought of the Ring from his mind. This is what he had hoped and planned all along to do: to support Frodo, to calm his fears, and to give him the strength to go on. He felt at that moment that the Ring had no power over him. Perhaps he could resist it and aid Frodo until they reached the Fire. As he had told Galadriel, he could but try.

The wizard saw that Sam was looking forlorn and frightened. How could either of the hobbits have imagined what they would face in taking on this Quest? the wizard reflected. On impulse he spread his free arm wide and gestured for Sam to join them. Startled, Sam frowned dubiously at Frodo, who, after glancing up at the wizard in surprise, smiled and nodded at Sam. Sam crawled slowly toward them, but he still seemed hesitant and nervous. Gandalf snorted softly. "Sam, I'm not trying to seduce you!" He glanced fondly down at Frodo. "I can barely handle the hobbit that I've got, and I certainly don't need another-attractive though you undoubtedly are," he added with teasingly exaggerated politeness. "Sam, on our first night in this desolate place, we're all frightened, and I think that you could use a bit of reassurance. Come here."

Sam swiveled to sit beside the wizard, and Gandalf put his arm around the hobbit's shoulders. After a moment he felt Sam squirm closer to him, and the three sat for a long time. Both hobbits seemed to find peace and confidence in Gandalf's embrace. The wizard then began to tell them a tale that he had recounted at many a party and in many an inn, a long and involved one about a deserving but exiled prince, a very nasty dragon, and a triumphant homecoming. He embroidered the story in the telling, imitating the voices of the characters and bringing in hobbits as some of the people that the prince met along the way. By the end both of his auditors were smiling and relaxing warmly against him.

After a pause, Gandalf whispered, "You should sleep, my darling Frodo." He noticed that Sam glanced away upon hearing this endearment, clearly embarrassed. He slipped out from under the wizard's arm and resumed his place sitting on the opposite side of the dying fire. Gandalf realized sadly that a magical little interlude had ended, but perhaps they could again comfort each other like this as they made their way into the terror of Mordor. Certainly the hobbits had calmed him as much as he had reassured them. It occurred to him that during the long tale he had barely thought about the Ring. Returning to practicalities, he said, "We should take it in turns watching, three hours each. Six hours of sleep a night may perhaps be enough, at least at the beginning. Later, as the journey takes its toll on us, we may not be able to get by on so little."

Sam nodded. "I'll take the first watch tonight, Gandalf, if you like."

The wizard nodded gratefully. The fire was now nearly out, and Gandalf lit up the tip of the new staff that Celeborn had made for him. Its faint glow was just enough to allow them to see shapes around them. The wizard followed Frodo to a relatively flat little patch nearby, pulling the blanket closely around his body and kissing him tenderly. To his relief, the hobbit was so exhausted that he quickly drifted off to sleep as Gandalf stroked his hair. The wizard winced as a thought came unbidden to him that it would be particularly easy to remove the Ring from its hiding place while its Bearer was asleep and helpless. He looked upward, hoping to see some stars, but the overcast sky left none visible. So much for his deceptive, romantic hopes for easy resistance with Frodo's help. He should have known that the Ring would not be so easy to brush aside.

Eventually Gandalf freed himself of such worries and was about to turn in himself. Then he thought for a moment and went to sit by Sam, leaning against the rock outcropping. The hobbit looked up earnestly at him. Gandalf was glad to see that there was already far less of the air of slightly nervous deference that Sam had adopted toward him on the rare occasions when they were alone together.

The wizard drew a deep breath. "Sam, I realize that with the three of us traveling together, there will occasionally be moments of awkwardness. We shall get to know each other's intimate habits all too well, I suspect! As our situation becomes more frightening and the Ring becomes a greater burden to Frodo, I shall try to reassure and comfort him, to hold him as we eat or sleep. I hope you will not feel embarrassed by such things. After all, our little group will be thrown very closely together for a long time, and we need absolutely to depend upon each other."

Sam nodded. "I understand, Gandalf. I know how much Frodo needs your love and support. And . . . well, I-I, well, I'll try to make myself scarce when you two want to . . . have a little privacy. It's only natural that you would. Just let me know."

Gandalf put his hand on Sam's shoulder and squeezed it briefly. "Thank you, Sam." He surveyed the bleak, forbidding rocks around them. "I can't imagine that the places and circumstances that we shall encounter would be very conducive to. . . um . . . dear me, now I'm the one that's getting embarrassed! Conducive to, shall we say, 'romance.' Still, a bit of romance might occasionally provide Frodo with a little diversion, a respite from his worries and fears-and me as well, to be sure. Obviously, though, we cannot do anything that would put us at greater risk. But I do appreciate your offer. Well, I should get some sleep. Wake me when your watch is over or if you start nodding off." He paused as he was about to get up and smiled at the hobbit. "I'm very glad to have you with us, Sam. I claimed at Rivendell that friendship will be of more aid to Frodo than physical power could be, and I still believe that. I must say, I have been impressed and indeed touched by your loyalty and devotion to him."

Sam blushed and hung his head at that, but Gandalf could see a little smile play about his lips. The wizard rose and looked down at him with a speculative frown. "Yes, I fear that you will never give me occasion to turn you into a spotted toad. A pity. I haven't used that spell in so very long." They both chuckled quietly, and Gandalf went over to lie down beside Frodo. Sam noted how carefully the wizard gathered the sleeping hobbit into his arms and cradled him against his body before joining him in slumber. He did not think that he would ever again feel embarrassed by anything that these two did.

They went on for two more days, trudging through gullies and clambering over sharp ridges of rock. Once, they paused for a breather while Gandalf decided the direction of their route, and Frodo saw a movement out of the corner of his eye and heard a faint gasp. He turned just in time to see a small, thin creature disappear behind some rocks. It was the clearest glimpse he had caught of their pursuer yet. He looked at Gandalf, who had clearly seen the same thing.

The wizard sighed. "Certainly Gollum, though there was little doubt before. He must not have realized that we had paused, and so he caught up with us accidentally. It's a bit early to stop for the day, but we should discuss this problem. Let us get down to the bottom of this slope and set up camp in that low area over there."

When they reached a suitable place, the three set down their packs and squatted down to talk.

Gandalf said reluctantly, "I have been thinking that we probably should try and do something about Gollum."

Frodo frowned. "Do you think we really need to? He still does not seem inclined to attack me or try to sneak up and take the Ring, even though we are such a small group now."

"I imagine that much of what is holding him back is his fear of me. I'm sure that he remembers our three days together in Thranduil's realm with considerable terror."

Frodo hesitated, then asked, "What did you do to him?"

Gandalf sighed grimly. "As I told you last April, I threatened him with fire. Do not worry! I did not actually hurt him, but . . . well, I gather that Sauron's torturers used fire in their interrogation of him, and from some of his scars, I do not think they used it only to threaten him. Just the sight of the flaming torch that I held before him was enough to daunt him into telling me what I so desperately needed to know."

"Well, if he's terrified of you, then I'll be safe from him as long as we're together, won't I?"

"Perhaps, but I doubt that so far he has any suspicion whatsoever of our goal. It seems very unlikely that he is aware that the Ring can only be unmade by taking it to Mount Doom, so he is also unlikely to suspect that we seek to destroy it. Still, once he realizes that we are going to enter Mordor, he will know that we are behaving in a way that might allow its former Master to capture us and regain it. He is not a particularly intelligent creature, and yet through long brooding over the Ring, he has become very clever where it is concerned. And, if we ever do succeed in reaching the Mountain and he is still following us, he may finally grasp our intention. At that point I don't believe that any terror could outweigh that of having the Ring go into the Cracks of Doom. He would attack, fiercely and desperately, whether I am with you or not.

"Then, too, there is always some possibility that you and I shall somehow be separated-not that I would leave you or you me, but I can hardly tie you to me! Climbing a steep cliff, say, or one of us taking a wrong turning could part us briefly, and Gollum might be quick enough to seize that opportunity. We hadn't been stopped very long just now before he accidentally caught up to us, so he can't have been following all that far behind.

"On the whole, I am becoming convinced that we should try and capture him now, for we shall have to do so sooner or later. It would probably be better for us to have him under our direct surveillance. There is another consideration that has occurred to me as we move south. I have traveled in some of the areas close to Mordor, but mostly along its western edge and always with Aragorn. He has told me that there is a vast, dangerous, nearly impassible bog called the Dead Marshes, and from the odors that I have been detecting for the past few hours, we shall arrive there soon. I certainly have no notion about how to get through the Marshes. Perhaps Aragorn does, and ideally he should be here to guide us, but he is doing vital tasks elsewhere. I had thought to detour far to the east to avoid them, but that could lose us valuable days. I think that Gollum quite possibly might be able to conduct us to the Black Gate much sooner by going through the Marshes." The wizard hesitated. "I am also beginning to get some inklings of a plan that we might use to trick our way into Mordor, and he might actually be able to play quite a useful role in it. He is not a pleasant companion, to say the least, and I dread the thought of traveling with him. I don't see any other option at the moment, though . . . short of killing him." He sighed and shook his head.

Sam listened to all this unhappily. He had already heard something about the miserable creature at the Council of Elrond, and he was far from pleased at the prospect of adding him to their group. He could see, however, that Gandalf was determined to try and capture Gollum, and Frodo would not go against what the wizard decided. He looked back and forth between their faces, then asked, "How are we to go about catching him? At the Council you said that you and Aragorn had spent years searching for him, and as I understand it, the two of you have failed to trap him during this journey."

"Quite right, Sam. I hate to propose it, but I believe that we must use Frodo and the Ring as bait. If we can convince Gollum that I am leaving the two of you and going off on some separate journey of my own, perhaps he will be emboldened and approach you to try and take the Ring."

Sam looked as though he was about to protest, but he seemed to realize that if Gandalf was willing to put his own lover in this danger, he must be very confident about the plan.

Frodo shook his head slowly. "But why would you leave us at this point? Won't he suspect a trap?"

"Not necessarily. Remember, Gollum has no idea why we are here or where we are going. All of our actions must thoroughly puzzle him. If I should strike out on my own and leave you two to continue together, it would probably seem no stranger to him than anything else that we have done. The main thing is to make him believe that I am truly leaving you for good. I should depart, carrying my share of the gear and supplies, in quite a different direction from the one that we have been pursuing up to now-presumably back west toward the River."

Quickly they planned the simple ruse: Frodo pretending to fall asleep and Sam sitting on watch, but nodding as if drowsy. Sam pulled out the rope that Galadriel had given him and laid it beside him, concealed beneath his cloak. Frodo took Sting from its scabbard and put it under his blanket. They would capture Gollum, bind him, and signal for Gandalf to return.

Frodo looked around. "How are we to signal you, though? I doubt our voices would carry as far as you would need to go to convince him that you are leaving us."

"You are right." The wizard thought for a moment and smiled. "It would be very handy right about now to have one of my fireworks here. A small flare, just enough to let me know."

Sam volunteered, "I could bang on one of my cooking pots with a spoon. You should be able to hear that a fair distance off."

"Very clever, Sam. Yes, that should work. I think it would be safe enough to make such a noise. Fortunately, so far I have noticed no sign of such patrols anywhere in the region. I suppose the Marshes are thought to be an adequate deterrent to anyone approaching from this direction. The one spy that I have detected passed high above, traveling rather than searching. Something is going on west of the River," he added thoughtfully, recalling with a pang the ominous sounds in the forest as he and the hobbits had parted from the Company.

The sun was low in the west. "We should try and induce him to attack before dark," Gandalf said, looking reluctantly at the two hobbits. "I certainly do not feel pleased at leaving the two of you on your own. Still, between you I suppose you'll manage. Hit your pot once, loudly, if you need help, Sam. If you have succeeded, hit it twice. All right?" He picked up his pack and called out a farewell as he began walking toward the River.

Gandalf seldom used his staff for support, but now he swung it and brought it down lightly on the stone underfoot with a distinct click at each step, trying to alert Gollum to his supposed departure. He forced himself not to look back but strode quickly along until he found a small ridge of piled boulders behind which he could hide. With a sigh he sat down and forced himself to wait quietly. He wondered how fast he could get back to the hobbits if Sam signaled him for help. Running in this rough terrain, he could probably make it in two, perhaps three minutes, he estimated. Two minutes was a long time with a desperate Gollum if the two hobbits failed to subdue him. If he had had any pipeweed, he would have been tempted to smoke as he waited, but he had run out days before.

The next twenty minutes seemed more like hours. Suddenly he heard a distant piercing, shrill screaming. It was a dreadful sound, but after a moment's panic he realized that it was Gollum, not one of the hobbits. A good sign, he thought, as his heart-rate slowed a bit. It was definitely a cry of pain, not triumph, but it went on for a surprisingly long time. The wizard hoped that the hobbits would not have to hurt Gollum too badly-or even kill him. In a way, that would settle the problem, but he really had begun to believe that the creature might prove very useful to them. He began to pace, expecting at any minute to hear the signal. As the time stretched on, he wondered whether he should risk botching the whole endeavor by going back to check on what was happening. If he returned and Gollum was not yet tied, the creature would undoubtedly flee and become even more cautious and elusive. At last, just as he was nearly convinced that he should return to the camp, he heard two faint clanging sounds and let out a great sigh of relief.

Gandalf picked up his staff and the pack and walked quickly back to the campsite. As he reached the edge of the clearing, he stopped dead in his tracks. Gollum was crouched near Frodo, and Sam stood uncertainly nearby, the elven rope looped in his hands. Seeing the wizard, Gollum cringed and turned as if to flee. Frodo grabbed his arm. "Sméagol! Stay with me! He won't hurt you! Do you hear me? He won't hurt you." Gollum sank down , trying to put Frodo between himself and Gandalf.

Quickly Gandalf sat down on a rock on the edge of the clearing, tossing his staff onto the ground and folding his arms. "Frodo is right, Sméagol. I shall not hurt you. Remember, I did not actually hurt you the last time that we met, and I never intended to. If you had voluntarily told me what I needed to know, I would never have threatened you at all." He quickly assessed the situation and realized that Frodo had somehow quickly gained this creature's trust-unless Gollum was simply being very devious. Gandalf went on, " If you want to stay with Frodo, you must accept the fact that I shall be traveling with him. I promise that I shall not deliberately hurt you or threaten you again-as long as you do not try to harm any of us." He glanced appealingly at Frodo to back up his words.

Frodo looked down at Gollum and spoke earnestly, "Yes, he promises, and I know that he will keep that promise. He has kept every promise he has ever made to me, and at any rate, I would protect you from him-not that I would ever need to. Really!"

Gollum sat casting suspicious glances at Gandalf, who remained quiet and unmoving for a while. Finally he sensed that an uneasy truce had been reached, and very slowly he stood and walked to the campfire that Sam was lighting, preparatory to cooking the evening meal. He exchanges glances with Sam and realized that they shared a profound mistrust of Gollum. The wizard sat cross-legged by fire and started to cut up some food and otherwise assist in making the modest repast. As the two worked, Frodo came and squatted by Gandalf, quietly explaining what had happened: how Gollum had crept up on them and they had overpowered him as planned-though it was touch and go, far more difficult than they had anticipated.

"Did you injure him? I heard a ghastly screaming that seemed to go on forever, but he doesn't seem to be wounded."

"That was when we tied him with the elven rope. Apparently it hurt him awfully. He said it burned him."

Gandalf nodded. "Quite possibly it would. How did you gain his confidence so quickly? I would almost say that he looks like your devoted dog."

Frodo looked unhappy. "I used the pain that the rope was causing. A bit like your threats with the fire, I imagine. He agreed to swear to be good and to serve me. Wait, I know he's a devious creature, but he swore on the Ring itself. The Precious, as he calls it."

"Surely you didn't show it to him!"

"No, of course not. I should say, he swore by the Ring. Obviously he knows I have it concealed on me."

Gandalf looked doubtfully at Gollum and then at Frodo. "Do you really think that you can trust him?"

"I don't know, but as soon as we took off the rope, he seemed to become a different creature. He was, well, happy, capering about. He is very friendly to me, though suspicious of Sam-and obviously of you. I remember your saying that there is a slight chance of his being cured. Maybe just having contact with someone who can be friendly to him has started him in that direction. And besides, he knows I have the power to use the Ring to destroy him."

Gandalf stared at Frodo. "How do you know that? You've never used the Ring except to become invisible, have you?"

Frodo looked confused. "No, but . . . somehow, I just know."

Gandalf thought for a moment. "No doubt you could-but you must not use it, Frodo, especially for such a cruel purpose. It may have gained more of a hold on you than I realized, and if you used it, it would certainly gain even more."

"No, of course I wouldn't use it against him. But he believes I would, so I think he will obey me. At least until, as you said, he discovers what we intend to do with it. For now, though, he seems almost happy to be with me and not sneaking about alone."

"You may be right about us being able to trust him-and that he might possibly be cured. I certainly hope so. Of course, it's quite likely that he simply welcomes the chance to travel so closely alongside the one has the Ring, waiting for an opportunity to snatch it. Still, I suppose that things have turned out quite well, really. You two have captured him without being seriously harmed yourselves-I see that he gave you a few scratches, though-and you seem to have handled him remarkably well. Perhaps all this means that our problem is temporarily solved. I do not doubt, though, that later on we shall have to contend more urgently with his desire for the Ring. Well, let us partake of this splendid concoction that Sam has prepared," he added with a teasing little grin.

Sam shook his head slowly. "You may scoff, but this is the last of the dried meat. I advise you to enjoy this humble stew while you have it. I expect after a steady diet of lembas we shall get to the point where we would welcome such a dish."

"I'm sure we shall, Sam. It smells, well, better than one might expect under the circumstances." He passed the bowl that Sam handed him along to Frodo, then took the second for himself. Frodo cuddled up against him to eat and at intervals reached up to kiss him. Both of them glanced over to see Gollum watching them. He had refused the stew with a sneer but accepted a handful of nuts, which he was slowly eating, one by one. Gandalf realized that the hobbit was trying to convince Gollum that the wizard was not threatening, and he caressed and kissed Frodo gently as they finished their meal and sat staring into the dying embers of the fire. It was unnerving to have Gollum staring at them so fixedly, and soon the pair retired to their blankets. Even then the creature followed them, and he and Gandalf executed an elaborate set of maneuvers, trying to get as close to Frodo as possible while staying away from each other. Finally the hobbit told Gollum to go and sleep on the opposite side of the small ravine, and the wizard breathed a sigh of relief and lay down beside Frodo. "Even less chance of a little 'romance,'" he muttered.

"Pardon?" Frodo said. Gandalf just grinned and pulled the hobbit against himself for a leisurely, thorough kiss before they drifted off to sleep.

The next morning Gollum seemed a bit less wary of Gandalf, apparently realizing that he and Frodo had both survived the night without the wizard setting either of them on fire. At the hobbit's order, he sat still as Gandalf asked him about a passage through the Dead Marshes.

At once the creature turned to Frodo, answering as if it had been the hobbit who had asked him for information. He said eagerly, "Yes, yes. There's only one way across between the North-end and the South-end. I found it, I did. Orcs don't use it, Orcs don't know it. Orcs don't cross the Marshes, they go round for miles and miles. Very lucky you came this way. Very lucky you found Sméagol, yes."

Frodo looked at Gandalf, who had been watching Gollum intently. Finally the wizard nodded. Frodo smiled at the creature and said, "Very well, we shall follow Sméagol's lead." Sam was frowning, but he said nothing as they picked up their packs and prepared for the day's hike.

Gollum moved quickly, with his head and neck thrust forward, often using his hands as well as his feet. The three companions were hard put to it to keep up with him, but he seemed not to have any thought of escaping, and if they fell behind, he would turn and wait for them. Quickly he led them down out of the rocky ridges and ravines of the Emyn Muil. They began the long journey across the treacherous bogs of the Dead Marshes, twisting and turning to follow the path that the creature had found, toward the Black Gate of Mordor.

TBC in Chapter 9: The Black Gate is Open

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