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. This first AU chapter begins at the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm, January 15, 3019, TA. (Chapter V, Book Two, The Fellowship of the Ring). Some passages are quoted from the book, with minor changes to make them conform to the new storyline.

The final conversation about cram was inspired by an unused passage in an early draft of The Lord of the Rings.

Part 7AU: Escape to the Golden Wood

"I've broken my staff."

That was Gandalf's first thought. He felt dizzy, and staring down into the abyss as the Balrog tumbled and bled and burned far below him was not helping. A second thought came dimly to him: if he was going to faint, he should move back from the edge a little or he would follow his foe into the depths. As he tried to turn, something weighed down his right hand-his sword, which had never seemed so heavy. It was smeared, he noted with a vague sense of satisfaction, with the Balrog's steaming blood, drawn by the fatal cut that he had dealt to the beast's neck as it fell past him. His left arm felt slightly numb from the impact of the staff on the stone bridge, a blow that had shattered both. His right arm ached where he had twisted it in stabbing the Balrog. The sword dragged him down on one side and increased his dizziness. With a great effort, he staggered a couple of steps backward.

Immediately strong hands seized his shoulders, and he tried to shake them off. "Stop it, you foolish old man!" an emphatic voice tinged equally with fear and amusement growled in his ear, and he felt himself lifted by arms that had wrapped around his waist. "Take his sword, Boromir," Aragorn shouted, and he awkwardly turned to carry the wizard off the broken bridge. Bearing Glamdring, Boromir followed, and within seconds of their stepping onto the solid floor, the remainder of the slender span of stone behind them collapsed.

The rest of the Fellowship was waiting by the mouth of the tunnel into which Gandalf had ordered them to flee when he stopped to confront the Balrog. Aragorn lowered the wizard to the floor, where he sat against the wall, trembling and panting. The Man quickly doffed his cloak and wadded it into a cushion, easing it behind Gandalf's head. As the wizard gasped, ashen-faced, he felt a frantic little body pressing against him and arms go around his neck, restrained with difficulty from squeezing tightly. Frodo buried his face in Gandalf's thick beard, whimpering with relief. The wizard falteringly put his arms around his lover and hugged him as hard as he could.

Gandalf raised his eyes to Aragorn's. The fear was fading from the Man's face, and he managed to smile at the wizard. Gandalf said weakly, "We should move on immediately. Twice now I have held you back, and the danger is far from over."

"Yes, and twice now you have saved us all from that demon. We can wait a few minutes for you to recover. Besides, the fall of the Bridge has cut us off from the orcs and trolls. No doubt they have another route to bypass the chasm, but it should take them far out of their way. Rest now. We still need your guidance, you know, and you are in no shape to move. You are as white as a fastidious hobbit's sheet on wash day." Frodo turned his head to smile shakily at the Man. As he spoke, Aragorn knelt and rummaged in Gandalf's small bag, bringing forth the flask of miruvor.

The wizard accepted it and then immediately tried to hand it back, shaking his head. "It's nearly gone. We shouldn't-"

Aragorn pushed his hand away, snorting with exasperation. "We'll soon be in Lórien and able to obtain more-or something like it. Besides, if ever there was a situation that warranted a dose of miruvor, this is it. Drink it, all of it, or this hobbit and I will pour it down your throat!"

Frodo sat up, frowning and nodding in what he hoped was a convincingly threatening manner. Gandalf shook his head and sighed but opened the flask and drained it of the few sips that remained. Watching anxiously, Frodo noted that after a minute or so, color slowly started seeping back into the wizard's face. Gandalf's ragged panting eased, and his eyes looked distinctly more alert. The wizard turned to stare at Aragorn, pressing his lips together sternly-though there was a hint of a suppressed smile about his mouth. "You called me a foolish old man."

Aragorn chuckled but looked slightly embarrassed. "Well, you were behaving like one with your stubbornness. Just how did you expect to totter off that bridge without pitching over the edge, may I ask? You know perfectly well that I would never have presumed to carry you if I weren't convinced that you badly needed help."

Frodo glanced up at Aragorn gratefully, then turned back to the wizard, who smiled weakly at him. Frodo stretched up and kissed Gandalf's lips and cheeks lightly, the tears that fright had held in check welling up in his eyes. The others turned away, whispering among themselves as they allowed the lovers a tiny stretch of peace while the wizard rested. As his strength gradually returned and his left arm regained some feeling, he hugged Frodo more firmly to his chest and kissed his soothingly warm mouth. With a rueful little smile he murmured, "I think that I was a little overly confident earlier this morning."

Frodo smiled briefly, then asked anxiously, "Are you hurt? Aragorn is right, you looked so pale, and you are not nearly back to normal even now."

"I am quite bruised and sore, but I don't believe that any bones are broken. Certainly the Balrog did not wound me in our fight. I had to use another word of Command to break the Bridge, and as a result, I am very, very tired--but it is passing. Don't look so worried, Frodo! The worst is over. At least I should think so! We are very close to the East Gate, and I cannot imagine that another such foe will pop up to threaten us. As Gimli said, that was Durin's Bane, the danger that Aragorn foresaw. And, frightening though he was, you may note that a certain wizard of your acquaintance made short work of him."

Frodo nodded reluctantly. "Yes. Even though I was terrified for you, I was amazed at your bravery. I couldn't believe that you could possibly stand up against such a huge foe. No wonder Aragorn talks about all the tales that are told of your deeds. I never really understood what sorts of dangers you have confronted in Middle-earth."

"Well, I assure you, I don't make a habit out of confronting Balrogs! That was probably the single most perilous encounter I have ever had." Gandalf's hand ruffled Frodo's curls. "Almost worthwhile, though, if I could impress my darling Hobbit so."

Frodo laughed softly. "Believe me, I was impressed enough with you already. You needn't show off to me."

"Oh well, in that case, I suppose I should avoid such battles in the future. But after all, as I predicted this morning, once again I have managed to survive," he concluded smugly.

"Thank goodness!" Frodo said, hugging him more tightly now that the wizard seemed to be recovering.

Gandalf took a moment to savor having the hobbit in his arms, then drew a deep breath and, giving him a quick final kiss, pried Frodo's arms from around his neck. "All right," he said, loudly enough for the rest of the group to hear, "I think I am ready to press on." He struggled to his feet, swayed slightly, and looked around in some brief puzzlement. "Oh, yes, no staff," he said, smiling at Frodo. "I might as well take that, though," he added, holding out his hand to Boromir, who was still holding Glamdring. Boromir looked a little uncertain as to whether he should return the heavy burden to Gandalf, but after a pause he handed it over. With some exertion the wizard managed to get it into its scabbard, watched closely by the two Men and Frodo, who checked their impulses to offer him assistance. Finally Gandalf turned to Aragorn expectantly.

Although the wizard still looked pale, Aragorn nodded, realizing that they needed to get out of Moria quickly. The group moved along the tunnel, Gandalf leaning as before on Gimli's sturdy shoulder. The distance was not far, and the only trouble they encountered was a skirmish with a group of orcs guarding the East Gate. The skilled use of sword, axe, and bow soon turned all opposition aside and allowed them to emerge at last into the immensely welcome sunlight after four days of gloom and terror.

Once outside they paused again to rest. When Gimli insisted on visiting the mysterious lake, Mirrormere, Aragorn agreed. He was eager to press on toward Lórien, but Gandalf was looking paler again and he was glad for an excuse to let the wizard sit down for a while. Gandalf urged Frodo to accompany the dwarf: "It is truly a beautiful and wondrous sight, and you should not pass up the chance to see it." Sam followed along as Frodo went with Gimli.

When the three returned, Frodo was relieved to see that Gandalf was looking much better. He was talking with Aragorn about the next phase of the journey, and the two seemed almost cheerful as Frodo slipped his hand into the wizard's. Gandalf smiled tenderly at him. "Remember the wonderful elven enclave that I told you about?"

Frodo nodded. "Where we can sleep in a real bed?"

"Yes. Well, you see that golden glow over there on the horizon? That is where it lies, and we should reach its edge around nightfall."

The wizard rose and insisted that the Company move on quickly and put some distance between them and Moria before stopping for a longer and much-needed rest and a meal. Aragorn led them on for some miles. Eventually, however, Sam's and Frodo's wounds caused them to fall behind, and Gandalf was leaning so heavily on the dwarf that they too slowed down.

Finally the group stopped, delighted to find a little stream after the short rations of water in Moria. The uninjured members of the Company washed, lit a fire, and began to lay out a meal from their nearly depleted stock of food. Telling Gimli to boil some water, Aragorn tended to the three invalids. Sam's wound was not deep, but it looked ugly, and Aragorn's face was grave as he examined it. After a moment he looked up in relief.

"Good luck, Sam!" he said. "Many have received worse than this in payment for the slaying of their first orc. The cut is not poisoned, as the wounds of orc-blades too often are. It should heal well when I have tended it. Bathe it when Gimli has heated water."

He opened his pouch and drew out some withered leaves. "They are dry, and some of their virtue has gone," he said, "but here I have still some of the leaves of athelas that I gathered near Weathertop. Crush one in the water, and wash the wound clean, and I will bind it. Now it is your turn, Frodo!"

"I am all right," said Frodo, reluctant to have his garments touched. "All I needed was some food and a little rest."

Gandalf snorted and shook his head. "No!" said Aragorn. "We must have a look and see what the hammer and anvil have done to you. I still marvel that you are alive at all." Gently he stripped off Frodo's old jacket and worn tunic, and gave a gasp of wonder. Then he laughed. The silver corslet shimmered before his eyes like the light upon a rippling sea. Frodo looked quickly at Gandalf, whose eyes narrowed. The wizard shook his head and grinned reluctantly. "No wonder you didn't want me to-" He broke off, glancing briefly at Aragorn. "Really, Frodo, you might have told me that you had such a thing! It would have made me worry somewhat less about you all this time."

Frodo looked at the ground. "I'm sorry, but I promised Bilbo. He insisted." The hobbit shrugged.

Gandalf's face softened, and he nodded. "I see. Well, some of your finest qualities are honesty and loyalty, my dear Frodo. They are among the reasons why the Wise have put such trust in you."

Frodo beamed with pleasure, and Gandalf muttered, "On the other hand, I shall have a thing or two to say to Bilbo . . . if we ever see him again."

Frodo's smile faded. Carefully Aragorn took the shirt off and held it up, and the gems on it glittered like stars, and the sound of the shaken rings was like the tinkle of rain in a pool.

"Look, my friends!" he called. "Here's a pretty hobbit-skin to wrap an elven-princeling in! If it were known that hobbits had such hides, all the hunters of Middle-earth would be riding to the Shire."

"And all the arrows of all the hunters in the world would be in vain," said Gimli, gazing at the mail in wonder. "It is a mithril-coat. Mithril! I have never seen or heard tell of one so fair. Is this the coat that you spoke of, Gandalf? Then you undervalued it. But it was well given!"

"I have often wondered what you and Bilbo were doing, so close in his little room," said Merry. "Bless the old hobbit! I love him more than ever. I hope we get a chance of telling him about it."

There was a dark and blackened bruise on Frodo's right side and breast. Under the mail there was a shirt of soft leather, but at one point the rings had been driven through it into the flesh. Frodo's left side also was scored and bruised where he had been hurled against the wall. While the others set the food ready, Aragorn bathed the hurts with water in which athelas was steeped. The pungent fragrance filled the dell, and all those who stooped over the steaming water felt refreshed and strengthened. Soon Frodo felt the pain leave him, and his breath grew easy, though he was stiff and sore to the touch for many days. Aragorn bound soft pads of cloth at his side.

"The mail is marvelously light," he said. "Put it on again, if you can bear it. My heart is glad to know that you have such a coat. Do not lay it aside, even in sleep, unless fortune brings you where you are safe for a while; and that will seldom chance while your quest lasts." Gandalf nodded during much of this.

As Frodo carefully dressed himself, Aragorn turned to Gandalf, who was sitting on a boulder, shifting uncomfortably. Frodo knelt behind him and helped Aragorn remove the wizard's cloak, jacket, and shirt. The hobbit grimaced sympathetically as he saw the ugly purple bruises that had appeared on Gandalf's body. There was a particularly large one on the left side of his back. Aragorn carefully prodded the wizard here and there, and his patient winced and flinched.

Frodo brushed his fingers over some of the smaller bruises with a feathery touch. "That was quite a fall you took, old fellow."

Gandalf managed to replace his grimace of pain with a self-satisfied little grin. "Yes, but not nearly as big a one as the Balrog did, young fellow. I have had my revenge for these bruises."

Aragorn straightened up. "Yes, you certainly defended yourself well. The Balrog doesn't seem to have left a scratch on you. The fall down the stairs, however, took its toll. I am afraid that you probably cracked a rib or two when you landed, not to mention picking up some nasty bruises on the way down. I can try some athelas to ease the pain a bit, but there is not much I can do for the ribs. You will just have to put up with being sore for a while. You should not engage in any vigorous activities for at least a week-" He broke off, blushing suddenly as he glanced up at Frodo, and then looked away with an awkward little chuckle.

Despite his discomfort, Gandalf glanced at him mischievously, then grinned at Frodo. "I understand. I shall tie my trouser-laces with a particularly complicated knot to protect myself from a certain eager hobbit." Frodo gasped with surprised and embarrassed laughter as Aragorn turned a deeper shade of red and concentrated intently on applying the athelas to the wizard's bruises. Quickly he daubed the warm liquid over the purple blotches on the skin, then left Frodo to help Gandalf dress, moving away to assist the others with the food.

Frodo looked at the wizard with mock reproach. "You shouldn't tease Aragorn like that-the poor fellow. Trouser-laces, indeed!"

"Well, I'm not the one who found something salacious in the innocent phrase 'vigorous activities.' Believe me, making love is far down on the list of things I hope to do in the immediate future. I'm sorry, my darling hobbit. I hope I haven't embarrassed you as well. Perhaps after all this time, I'm still tempted to flaunt the fact that a beautiful young creature like you would want an old chap like me. And you do, don't you?" he added affectionately, nuzzling against the hobbit's neck.

"Mmmmm, yes. It won't be too many days before we both feel well, and by then I shall be so desperate that no knot in your trouser-laces, no matter how complicated, could foil me."

"Good! And I have a plan for how we can pleasure each other at great length when we are ready."

"What plan?!" Frodo asked with delighted curiosity.

"Oh, you'll see, young fellow."

"I shall definitely look forward to that, old fellow."

Thanks to Aragorn's healing skills, the wizard and the two hobbits were soon much better able to travel. The group set out in the direction of the golden glow, although their progress was a bit slower than Gandalf had predicted. That night, long after darkness had fallen, they neared the edge of the Golden Wood. Gandalf and Frodo were walking together at the rear of the group. Suddenly Frodo heard the padding of following feet. He whirled and thought he saw two tiny gleams of light behind, which vanished instantly. Gandalf looked inquiringly at him.

"I heard footsteps and saw lights-like eyes. I have thought so often, since we first entered Moria."

The wizard frowned as they walked on. "Yes, Aragorn and I both noticed them several times in Moria. Aragorn is a wonderful huntsman, but even he has not been able to get close enough to the creature to determine what it is. We both have a strong suspicion, however, that it is Gollum."

Frodo wrinkled his nose. "But surely we shouldn't allow him to keep following us, if it is indeed he."

"Well, it's not so easy to decide what to do about him. As I say, he is extraordinarily skillful and elusive, after centuries of hiding and sneaking about. After all, it took years for Aragorn and me to find him before, and he certainly was not a captive in Mordor for anything like that entire period. Even if we could catch him, what would we do with him? I really could not allow him to be killed in cold blood, and obviously taking him along with us is not an option. The lure of the Ring is too great to allow any threats that we might make to deter him. Aragorn and I have decided that as long as you are with such a large group, you and the Ring are safe enough. After all, he has had experience of both Aragorn's capture and my interrogation of him, and he fears us more than the rest of the Fellowship. Note that after more than four days he has made no attempt even to get close to you. If he had openly attacked you, we might have been justified in killing him, but . . . Well, later he may prove a real problem, but we shall face that when the time comes. If he follows us deep into Lórien, perhaps we can catch him with the help of the elves and they can imprison him. And if he skirts around the edge of the Golden Wood, he may not pick up our trail on the other side."

Frodo nodded, and they moved faster to catch up with the Company.

Only a short distance into the Wood they were challenged from above by a voice speaking elven. Legolas called up a greeting in the same language. Gandalf stepped to his side and shouted, using the Common Tongue. "Haldir? Is that you?"

"Mithrandir!" The voice sounded quite delighted. "Come up-you and the elf with you. And the perian, Frodo. The others should remain below for now."

Legolas climbed quickly up the silvery rope ladder that was lowered, with Gandalf following more slowly and gasping occasionally as his ribs pained him. Frodo climbed last. Gandalf explained in a low voice that they had reached one of many sentinel posts dotted along the edges of the Wood. "Living so close to the Misty Mountains and Moria, the Galadhrim must be extremely vigilant. They are reluctant to allow any strangers inside their borders. No doubt these guards will question me closely about our group. Luckily they must have heard something about us, since they know your name."

When Frodo emerged onto the flet, which was in near darkness, Legolas was talking with two elves, while the third stood greeting Gandalf. With a pang the hobbit realized that he was greeting the wizard very warmly indeed. More beautiful elves, he thought with a sigh.

The wizard turned to Frodo, and the hobbit thought that he detected an uncharacteristic hint of hesitancy in his demeanor as he said, "Frodo, this is Haldir. He oversees the boundary patrol in this part of Lórien."

Haldir inclined his head with a little smile as he stared curiously and closely at the hobbit for a moment before introducing his brothers Rúmil and Orophin. He turned back to Gandalf. "Mithrandir, we have had messages from Imladris explaining something of your mission. Now, tell us of your companions."

Quickly Gandalf named and described each of the six waiting below. Haldir nodded and smiled again briefly when Aragorn's name was mentioned, but when Gandalf told of Gimli, he frowned. "A dwarf! That is not well. We have not had dealings with the dwarves since the Dark Days. They are not permitted in Lothlórien, as you well know, Mithrandir. I cannot allow him to pass."

Frodo blurted out, "But he is from the Lonely Mountain, one of Dáin's trusty people, and friendly to Elrond. Indeed, Elrond himself chose him to be one of our companions, and he has been brave and faithful."

Gandalf nodded approvingly as he spoke. "Very true, Haldir." He sighed and shook his head exasperatedly, "Really, I cannot allow this ridiculous antagonism between elves and dwarves to interfere with our vital mission. I shall vouch for Gimli, and I'm sure that even your northern kinsman will do so as well."

Legolas looked a bit reluctant, but he murmured, "Yes, of course."

Haldir looked doubtfully between the two and finally said, "All right. I shall make an exception in this case. The dwarf must wear a blindfold, though, during the journey to Caras Galadhon."

Gandalf snorted slightly. "Don't be ridiculous, Haldir! He will do nothing of the sort. Our Company represents most of the free peoples of Middle-earth, and all races are going to have to cooperate against our common enemy if we are to defeat him. Please, put aside such prejudices."

After a moment, Haldir smiled reluctantly at the wizard and nodded, "All right, Mithrandir. If I did not know you so well . . . All right, fine."

"Thank you. As for tonight, is there enough room for at least Frodo and me to sleep on this flet? As I recall, there is a larger one nearby, but we have both sustained injuries recently, and I would rather not climb down and up again right now."

Haldir looked at them with a concerned frown. "Yes, there is room for you both here with us. Legolas, you and the others can use the larger flet in the next tree. You must answer to us for them. Call us, if anything is amiss! And have an eye on that dwarf!" Gandalf sighed quietly but said nothing.

There was a light, plaited screen on the windward side of the flet, and Haldir's brothers moved it to divide off a portion of the platform to create a sleeping area for Gandalf and Frodo. The three elves then disappeared down the rope ladder. Gandalf managed to kneel and tuck the hobbit in. Brushing Frodo's tangled hair off his forehead, the wizard said, "I shall not lean all the way over to kiss you, Frodo. I have enough aches and pains as it is. Do you know, I think that I shall sit up for a while and have a smoke. I could not sleep until I calm down a bit. These manifestations of distrust between elves and dwarves always upset me. Haldir is a wonderful fellow, but like virtually all elves, he shares that traditional bias." Frodo nodded sympathetically, and the wizard went around the screen to the opposite side of the flet and sat on a folding stool beside a small heater that cast a faint pool of light. He pulled out his pipe.

Frodo lay quietly for a while, sleepy but unable to drift off as he relived the scene at the Bridge in Moria and thought about how close he had come to losing his lover earlier that day. He carefully rolled onto his side so that he could see Gandalf through the coarse weave of the screen. He smiled as the wizard amused himself by blowing smoke of various colors into strange shapes. Gandalf seemed gradually to relax. Frodo was just beginning to hope that he would come to bed soon when he became aware that an elf had come silently up onto the flet and moved toward the wizard. Frodo recognized Haldir, and he raised himself onto his elbow. He watched with growing concern as the Elf put his hand on the wizard's shoulder and when he looked up, leaned down to kiss his mouth. Frodo suddenly felt cold and could hardly catch a breath. The kiss seemed to go on for a long time, though in reality it could have lasted no more than a couple of seconds. Suddenly the threat of rivalry from "beautiful Elves" did not seem so funny.

As Haldir stood up and looked inquiringly into Gandalf's eyes, the wizard smiled and patted the hand on his shoulder, then lifted it away and held it. He spoke so softly that Frodo had to stretch his neck forward and strain to hear him. "You have reminded me of joyous times, Haldir. Joyous indeed, and I treasure their memory." He released the Elf's hand and went on, "They must remain memories only, however, for I have one now who claims all my love."

Haldir stood looking down at him with a tiny smile. "It has been long since I last saw you, but I have heard vague rumors that you had forsworn all others because you had become enamored of one of the periannath. It seemed so strange, though, that I found it hard to believe-and I must admit, I hoped that it was not true or at least that it was over by now. Well, I must accept it, then, but I also treasure the memory of our times together. I take it that Frodo is the one who has captured your heart? He is a lucky little fellow!"

Staring down into the fading embers of tobacco in the pipe that he held, Gandalf replied quietly, "I am the lucky one."

Tears had sprung to Frodo's eyes as he listened to Gandalf gently rebuffing this exquisite creature, and they overflowed at his last, simple declaration. Despite his trust in the wizard, he had to admit to himself that he had never been able to suppress the last bit of anxiety about various shadowy lovers from the past-especially during the lengthy periods when the wizard had to be away from the Shire. He lay back down and wept quietly for joy for a short while, then drifted off to sleep. He was dimly aware when Gandalf gingerly lowered himself to the floor and maneuvered his aching body under the blanket to lie beside the hobbit. Frodo squirmed slightly closer to his lover, thinking again how near he had been to never having that thin, warm body next to him again. He took the wizard's hand in his and felt lips brush briefly against his cheek as he fell deeply and peacefully asleep.

Frodo awoke the next morning and found the wizard drowsily looking at him with half-closed eyes. He smiled tenderly at Gandalf as he remembered the little scene he had witnessed the night before. "So you and Haldir were lovers-long ago, of course."

Gandalf's eyes opened fully at that, and he stared at Frodo for a moment. "I did not realize last night that you were still awake, my sweet. Well, I suppose it was quite obvious that, yes, Haldir and I were lovers occasionally when I visited Lórien. I had not seen him in several years, because I have not entered the Golden Wood from this direction during that time."

Frodo slid over next to him and kissed his cheek. The wizard grinned suddenly. "Now you see what I gave up for you."

The hobbit swirled his finger around in Gandalf's beard. "Yes. Still, you should see some of the beautiful hobbits I gave up for you."

Gandalf guffawed but immediately winced and stifled his laughter. "You have me there, my darling Frodo!" He studied the hobbit's lovely face. "Yes, I look forward to our being able to remind each other more vividly just why both of us gave up all those beautiful lovers."

Haldir was true to his word, and Gimli walked freely along with the other Fellowship members on the way to Caras Galadhon. Frodo noticed that Haldir's two brothers stayed close to him, however, and they watched him more carefully than they did the other members of the Company. When the group paused to rest or for meals, all three of the Lórien elves watched the dwarf and exchanged looks and smiles occasionally. Gimli clearly noticed all this, for a faint frown played about his face, but otherwise he hid his irritation. The hobbit knew that Gandalf noticed as well. Apart from that subtle undercurrent of mistrust and resentment, however, the journey was glorious. Frodo fell deeper and deeper under the spell of the beautiful forest. At times Haldir or Gandalf would point something out to him, but for the most part he walked quietly hand in hand with the wizard all that day.

At last, as dusk was falling they reached the City of the Trees and Haldir led them up a long flight of stairs to the heights of an enormous mallorn tree. They entered a huge house and Haldir ushered them into a chamber of oval shape, in the midst of which grew the trunk of the great mallorn, now tapering towards its crown, and yet still making a pillar of wide girth.

The Lord Celeborn and the Lady Galadriel greeted each in turn, and the many elves standing or sitting around the edges of the room cast welcoming smiles and curious looks upon them. They sat on carven stools placed in a semi-circle before the seats of their host and hostess. As Gandalf lowered himself carefully onto his stool, the Lady at once noticed his discomfort. "Mithrandir, your group has passed through great hardships and risked great dangers. From the hurts that some among you have taken, it is apparent that you were not entirely able to avoid those dangers."

Gandalf gave her a wry smile. "Not entirely, no. In fact, we were forced to make our way here through Moria after a blizzard blocked the pass of Caradhras." He paused as a little murmur of consternation ran through the group of listening elves. "Well, I thought it best that we not travel out in the open, and I must say in defense of my plan that we did nearly come through without incident." He broke off again, looking into Celeborn's and Galadriel's faces. "Did you know that there has been a Balrog lurking about in the depths of Moria all this time? No? It came as quite an unpleasant surprise to me as well."

This time the elves sat for a few seconds in stunned silence. Gandalf looked down and shook his head thoughtfully. Celeborn stared at him with an exasperated little smile. "Mithrandir, much as I normally enjoy your flair for suspenseful storytelling, in this case I would rather hear a quicker and more straightforward account! Aragorn, what is this about a Balrog?"

Aragorn told of the brief battle in the Chamber of Mazarbul and the arrival of the Balrog outside the door. He moved quickly on to the race across the great hall and told of how the Balrog had nearly caught up to the group. The Man smiled at Gandalf and went on, "Our wizard has a flair for the dramatic as well. He managed to confront the creature right in the middle of the bridge, and after a mercifully short contest, sent it, bleeding and dying, into the abyss."

As expressions of relief passed around the room, Frodo grinned proudly. Gandalf, however, sat with a little smile, looking at the floor until the commotion died down. Celeborn stared solemnly at him. "We long have feared that under Caradhras a terror slept. We are grateful indeed, Mithrandir, that you have rid us of such an enormous danger, lurking all too near our land. Once again you have put yourself at great risk for the common good."

Gandalf nodded briefly but did not reply. Although the wizard certainly had no false modesty, Frodo had sensed at the Council of Elrond that he felt uncomfortable receiving such praise, especially in front of a group. Galadriel seemed to realize this, for she changed the subject. "One phase of your journey is over, and we hope that you will tarry awhile with us here among the mallorns where you will be safe. Further dangers still lie ahead, of course. Your Quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of us all. Yet hope remains while all the Company is true."

And with that she held them with her eyes, and in silence looked searchingly at each in turn. None save Legolas, Aragorn, and Gandalf could long endure her glance. She looked last at the wizard, then suddenly suppressed a laugh and narrowed her eyes briefly at him and shook her head before composing her face and turning and speaking to the others. Gandalf was wearing a particularly innocent expression. Frodo wondered what was going on, but he doubted that the wizard would ever tell him.

A thought began to tickle at Frodo's mind. He remembered that the wizard had once said that he used to sleep with women as well as men. Why couldn't he stop worrying about Gandalf and those beautiful elves? It was all clearly in the past. It didn't matter. His worry as he glanced between Galadriel and Gandalf must have been apparent, however, for Aragorn leaned over and whispered very close to his ear, "Those two can speak directly from mind to mind, you know." He added with a little grin, "It's all right, though. Celeborn can too!" He winked at the hobbit.

Frodo bit back a laugh, but then whispered back the question that had been in his mind, "How long have Galadriel and Celeborn been married?"

Aragorn's grin widened. "Since the First Age of Middle-earth, young Frodo. Thousands of years. You worry too much! You've got your wizard all to yourself."

There were not enough empty bedrooms for such a large group in the buildings where Celeborn and Galadriel and their people lived, for the Galadhrim were not accustomed to visitors. That night, therefore, the Company slept upon the ground, much to the satisfaction of the other hobbits. The Elves spread for them a pavilion among the trees near the fountain, and in it they laid soft couches.

As at Rivendell, however, Gandalf had his own bedroom, kept always empty in case he appeared unexpectedly. It was much smaller and more simply furnished than his Rivendell room, which essentially served as his headquarters in Middle-earth. After saying good-night to the others, the wizard and Frodo wearily climbed the steps and entered it. Gandalf put down his things and shed his clothes and began to wash. While he was occupied, the hobbit unpacked his few items of clothing and put them into a drawer. He had been enormously relieved when, upon wishing him good-night, Galadriel had discreetly given him a sturdy-looking little box with a key. Understanding at once what it was for, he had simply nodded with a grateful smile. Now, glancing to make sure that Gandalf was not watching him, he locked the Ring inside it and hit it deep in the drawer, under the garments. He fastened the key onto the chain where the Ring has been and thereafter kept it in his pocket. He knew that Gandalf was nervous about making love to him when he had the Ring on his person-and he certainly did not want to discourage that.

Having finished washing, Gandalf crossed and sat heavily on the bed, watching with a tired smile as Frodo examined the room, which was simple but elegant in its design, high in the giant tree and commanding a view out over the moonlit forest. He drifted over to stand before Gandalf, his hands on the wizard's knees. "A real bed," he murmured.

Gandalf lay back, settling into the thick pillow and pulled the blankets over himself. "Yes, well, I have quite a bit of influence here. And you may have noticed that you have quite a bit of influence with me. Ah, this is luxury! I hope that you don't want me to pleasure you right away. I still feel fairly weak and sore-and remember, no 'vigorous activities' so soon."

Frodo smiled and shook his head, staring lovingly at Gandalf.

The wizard grinned at him. "Of course, I wouldn't mind falling asleep with an extraordinarily beautiful hobbit in my arms-though not held too tightly against this aching body. Never mind. Soon I shall take you somewhere delightful and make love to you for hours."

"Somewhere more delightful than this beautiful room?"

Gandalf whispered, "I think so-or at least what we do there will make it so." Aloud he added, "But in the meantime, come here, you unreasonably gorgeous little creature, and pamper your poor, bruised wizard a little."

Frodo crawled up on top of the blankets and pressed himself as close to Gandalf as he dared, then reached up and rubbed his lips slowly across the wizard's. Finally Gandalf pulled back. "You can finally take off your mithril coat, my dear hobbit. You are perfectly safe here in the heart of Lórien, and light though the mail is, it can't feel pleasant having it pressing down even slightly on your ghastly bruise when you sleep."

"Yes, I'll be delighted not to wear it for a while. I'm very glad that I have it, though."

Gandalf softly stroked his cheek. "So am I."

Frodo sat up and removed his tunic and the mithril coat. He was still wearing the leather shirt underneath, but as he was about to unbutton it, he looked teasingly down at the wizard. "If I take this off, though, what is likely to happen?"

Gandalf shook his head. He eyelids were beginning to droop slightly. "I know what I would wish to have happen, but we would need to touch each other so gingerly that I doubt we would get much out of it. You can go ahead and remove that shirt without fear of me . . . what was it, 'pouncing on you and ravishing you,' as you once said in a somewhat similar situation."

He watched with keen interest, however, as Frodo unbuttoned and doffed the shirt, wincing slightly as he looked at the large bruise, the edges of which extended beyond the pad that Aragorn had put over it. The wizard did not remark on the absence of the Ring, and Frodo wondered if he had asked Galadriel to help him hide it. Gandalf's eyes slid to the delicate pink buds on Frodo's chest. "Torment," he muttered, "not being able to touch those after such a long time. But if I did, I'm afraid you'd become so excited that you'd pounce on me and ravish me."

Frodo grinned and shed his trousers. "Probably. No, let's just lie together a bit." He lifted the blankets and carefully lay down beside the wizard's body until their torsos were just touching. They caressed each other's faces softly with their fingertips for a while before drifting easily to sleep, feeling completely safe at last.

Frodo had expected that the Company would move on from Lórien as soon as Gandalf's bruises and cracked ribs had healed sufficiently-in the week initially recommended by Aragorn. Instead, he was soon fairly sure that they had been in the Golden Wood at least that long, though none of the other members of the Fellowship could tell him exactly how many days had passed. When Frodo asked Gandalf why they were staying so long, the wizard said it was partly so that he could take counsel with Celeborn and Galadriel and partly so that the group could rest and recover thoroughly before tackling the next stage of the journey. "As we move south from here," the wizard added, "we shall be entering more dangerous areas and shall need all our strength and endurance." The hobbit sighed sadly. The encounter with the Balrog had shown him just how dangerous their quest could be. Nothing he had imagined beforehand had prepared him for the daunting reality of the journey. He shrugged, thinking that he should try to shake off such worries at least for the moment and enjoy his time with Gandalf. He had not forgotten that the wizard had a plan to take him to a delightful place for lengthy lovemaking. As their bruises faded, he watched curiously for signs that Gandalf was going to carry out that plan.

One morning as Frodo was washing, Gandalf entered the bedroom weighed down by an armful of mysterious objects-so many that he could barely carry them. As the wizard lowered them to the floor, Frodo patted himself dry and crossed to get a closer look. There were two thick blankets, two thin rolled-up pallets, a lamp, a small screen rolled around two poles, a cylindrical metal object that he recognized as similar to the heater on Haldir's flet, and covered baskets that proved to contain bottles of water, a jug of wine, and enough food for a substantial meal.

"I hope that between the two of us we can carry all this for some distance," the wizard said doubtfully, surveying the heap of things. "If it were only a warmer time of year, we would not need so much equipment. Still, I suppose it's no more than we have been accustomed to carrying on our journey. And I assure you, it will all be more than worth the trouble," he added, winking at Frodo, who was hurriedly dressing.

After a careful distribution of the burden between the two of them, they set out, walking out of Caras Galadhon and through the mallorn groves. They paused at intervals to marvel at the beauty of the huge trees, but for the most part Gandalf pressed on, obviously with some specific destination in mind. They walked for half an hour or so, and as he began to weary of his load, Frodo asked with a touch of impatience, "Do we really need to go this far?"

"We do if we want to be guaranteed of absolute privacy."

A grin spread across Frodo's face, and he sighed happily in anticipation. At last the wizard found the spot he had been aiming for. The end of a delicate grey-rope ladder dangled before them in the air, and Frodo looked up to see a large flet high in one of the mallorns. Tying part of their burden to the end of the ladder, they carried the rest as they climbed, and Gandalf pulled the ladder up, along with the baskets attached to it. As the wizard dropped the ladder on the floor in a heap, Frodo realized that they were entirely cut off from the world below. He watched with fascination as Gandalf unfurled the screen and fastened the two slender poles at its ends so that it stood up from the floor in a slight curve. He then opened the metal cylinder and lit something inside, positioning it carefully in front of the screen. As he and Frodo unfolded the blankets, unrolled the pallets, and created a bed on the floor, a pleasant warmth spread over the flet, hovering there rather than dissipating into the air beyond.

"Is that elven magic?" Frodo asked.

"Magic? Well, it is an elven invention, used for heating spaces that have no walls-like flets." Removing his cloak, hat, and boots, the wizard sat in the middle of the blankets and opened his arms. "Come here, my darling hobbit. Yes, take off your jacket-but not the rest of your clothes, not yet. I want that pleasure for myself."

Frodo moved to stand in front of his lover, placing his hands on Gandalf's shoulders and leaning down to kiss him. He pulled back and looked around. "You've found us a beautiful spot for this, my darling wizard. How wonderful after all that time on the road with the others to be so far away from everyone for a while!"

"Yes, as different from that sad little session that we had in the dark of Moria as one could imagine. Light, air, warmth, privacy, plenty to eat and drink, both of us freshly washed. Best of all, I can see my beautiful, beautiful hobbit . . . and how he becomes aroused as I touch him."

A little shiver of excitement passed through Frodo. "Yes, and no armor for me to keep secret from you or to stop you from doing anything you like with me."

"Yes, there's that as well." The wizard pulled Frodo down onto his knees beside him and brushed his lips over the hobbit's, taking so much time about deepening the kiss that Frodo pulled back to stare at him inquiringly. The wizard smiled. "We've plenty of time, my pet. Just relax."

Frodo tried to curb his eagerness, closing his eyes and feeling the warm lips moving slowly over his cheeks, down behind his jaw to the side of the neck, and up again to tease behind the ear. They had not made love in two days-a deliberate strategy on Gandalf's part, he now realized--and he immediately began to get an erection He turned his head to the side to catch the wizard's mouth with his own. This time the kiss slowly deepened, until the pair were ravenously pressing their open mouths together.

At last Gandalf lowered Frodo to lie on his back and moved above him, supporting himself on his elbows and running his tongue and lips over the hobbit's ears, blowing into them occasionally, until Frodo was keening softly with longing. At last the wizard raised his head and looked into the hobbit's eyes. "I am going to open the top button of your shirt," he announced solemnly, as if it were a momentous event. Indeed, by now it seemed so to Frodo, who quivered with delight and delicately stroked the backs of Gandalf's hands as the fingers slowly pushed the button through its hole and pulled the collar slightly open. The wizard examined the hollow at the base of Frodo's throat and licked his lips. "Mmmm, succulent hobbit flesh. How appetizing!" He twisted the end of his tongue delicately around the little depression. He continued until Frodo uttered a little whimper of frustration, at which point the wizard rose again to kiss the hobbit, whose parted lips welcomed his probing tongue eagerly.

After a leisurely kiss that left the hobbit dizzy, Gandalf returned his attention to Frodo's shirt. He hesitated with a little frown. "Dare I open another button?" he mused, "or would that drive me so mad with lust that I would ravish you too quickly? Dear me, that would defeat the purpose of our picnic. We want our pleasure to last, don't we?" He glanced into Frodo's eyes with a teasing little smirk and ran his fingertips lightly over the hobbit's shirt. Frodo stared at him suspiciously, then surrendered himself to desire, arching his body and pushing his chest up toward the wizard. "Well, in that case. . ." Gandalf added, undoing the second button and dragging his tongue across the skin languorously for long minutes.

The hobbit moaned softly and looked around. The flet was indeed more delightful than Gandalf's bedroom in Caras Galadhon, at least for this sort of activity. The wind kept the forest canopy in constant motion, the yellow light shifting as the leaves moved above. They were high enough in the huge tree that its limbs moved majestically at the stronger gusts, and the platform swayed slightly each time this happened. That movement added to the giddiness that Gandalf's slow, sensual lovemaking was inducing. Every little contact of the wizard's tongue and fingers with his skin set off an intense tingle of pleasure, more intense perhaps than during any other time they had ever made love. Whether it was the tantalizingly languid movement of the wizard down his body or some special quality of the light and air that existed only in Lórien, he could not tell.

Gandalf paused again and hooked a finger into the V of the partially opened shirt, pulling it away from Frodo's body to peer inside. After a thorough inspection, staring to right and left, he glanced up and waggled his eyebrows at the hobbit. "Oh, yes, I must open this shirt a little further," he murmured, trying to sound casual, though his voice was becoming thick with arousal. To Frodo's surprise, the wizard undid two buttons. Now he could spread the shirt wide, and Frodo relaxed his head against the blanket, sighing happily. To his surprise, though, Gandalf simply stared at his nipples. The wizard clutched the hobbit's shirt, restraining himself from touching the little pink mounds with fingers or mouth. His breath became deep and shuddering. "So beautiful," he murmured, and one hand moved down to squeeze Frodo's thigh.

Frodo's body wriggled with longing, and finally he squeaked, "Gandalf!" Suddenly the wizard brushed the smooth little mounds with his fingertips. Frodo jerked and groaned as the aureoles tightened and the centers rose into hard little beads. Gandalf rolled and stretched them, sending jolts of pleasure into the hobbit's hard cock. Frodo's erection struggled to straighten up within his tightening trousers, but Gandalf ignored this, flicking his tongue over one little pink nub while he pinched the other delicately. By now the hobbit was mewling with growing need, and he gripped the wizard's shoulders anxiously. Despite Frodo's eagerness, Gandalf became absorbed in sucking and tonguing the hobbit's sweet nipples. Wonderful though this felt, Frodo bucked his hips and gasped more loudly, "Please, Gandalf!" His eyes were closed and his face drawn up in a frown of intense concentration and need.

At last Gandalf shifted further down along the hobbit's body. Frodo writhed slightly, watching as the wizard moved onto his side. Propped on one elbow, Gandalf studied Frodo's torso as he undid the last two buttons and pulled the shirt slightly up out of the hobbit's trousers. He spread it further to reveal Frodo's belly. As if to test the hobbit's desire, Gandalf drew the backs of his fingers over the bulge below, causing Frodo to squirm. "Please," he whispered again.

Glancing into his rapt face, Gandalf lowered his head and moved it so that his rough beard slid over Frodo's skin, rasping very slightly and catching on the sensitive little peaks on his chest. Frodo squirmed again and keened with growing desperation. His hips rose off the rug a couple of times until Gandalf reached down and pressed one long hand down on Frodo's thighs to quiet him. The wizard slid the tip of his tongue slowly over the silky belly, pushing insistently into the deep navel and moving on.

Just as Frodo was beginning to despair of the wizard's ever relieving him, Gandalf unlaced his trousers-very slowly, to be sure, but it was a blessed bit of progress as far as the hobbit was concerned. He moaned happily. The wizard reached inside and gently explored Frodo's entire length, savoring the delicate, throbbing veins, the smooth skin, the velvety tip, and the firm balls shifting within their tight sac. His tongue continued its slow exploration of Frodo's belly while his other hand pinched the pink buds until Frodo was whimpering shrilly. "Gandalf, please!" he said more loudly, realizing dimly that it would probably do no good. It certainly hadn't up to now! The blood was roaring in his ears, and he felt weak. Time seemed to stop, leaving him drifting in a trance of frustrated bliss. His fingers were buried in the wizard's thick white mane of hair, and distantly he could hear his own wordless, ineffectual pleas.

He was abruptly wrenched out of this haze of desire by wet heat seizing the tip of his aching erection. He grunted and paused in suspense, gulping as the warmth slowly engulfed him entirely. His face clenched as he tried to will the mouth holding him so firmly to move, to pull and drive him that last little distance upward. He snorted in frustration and then drew in a deep breath as the wizard's tongue swirled exquisitely up his length. Once again only the tip of his cock was left inside those skillful lips, and he hovered in dread of them releasing him altogether. After a shuddering pause, heat engulfed him once more, and Gandalf's hands gripped his hips and held them resolutely against the floor as his body left his control and tried to thrust into the sucking, pulling, flicking, thoroughly delightful grip of the wizard's mouth. Suddenly his desperation shattered and fell away. His heels scrabbled against the blanket, and ecstasy poured into him, wave after wave of pleasure making him lightheaded as the wizard took him into his throat and sucked his seed from him hungrily. The sensation was overwhelming, and yet inevitably it slipped away all too soon, leaving him drained and limp.

Gandalf sat back and grinned benignly at the exhausted, contented hobbit. His own erection was throbbing insistently, but he forced himself to be patient as Frodo caught his breath and his heart-rate slowed to something close to normal. The wizard murmured, "Come, my darling hobbit, take your revenge upon me." He lay down on his back and glanced downward to where his cock was very obviously straightening upward along his belly inside his trousers. His eyebrows rose, and he stared challengingly at Frodo.

Still panting slightly, the hobbit knelt for a moment, surveying his lover's body with a thoughtful grin, then leaned forward, supporting himself on his hands, and said, "All right, then close your eyes."

"Close my eyes. Why?"

Frodo tilted his head and said cockily, "Because I tell you to."

Gandalf raised an eyebrow in mock surprise and pouted slightly, considering this doubtfully. "Because you tell me to? Well . . . all right." He closed them.

Frodo waited a bit. Gandalf frowned but did not open his eyes. Finally, with great deliberation, the hobbit pushed the beard aside and pulled the wizard's shirt up away from his body, so that he could open the buttons without his fingers grazing Gandalf's skin. He pulled the shirt open and knelt looking down at the wizard's body. The brown nipples stiffened slowly, as if the wizard was aware that Frodo's eyes were upon them. Suddenly the hobbit skimmed his fingers lightly across Gandalf's chest, grazing the tightly puckered nubs in passing. The wizard flinched and gasped, struggling to lie still as Frodo's fingers delicately explored the prominent muscles of the upper belly and down the slope to his navel, which he teased before running a finger along just inside the top of the trousers. Gandalf grunted and shifted slightly. The hobbit stopped, then slowly licked and kissed up the side of the wizard's torso, lapping at the neck wetly, then withdrawing for a moment. He leaned down and flicked a nipple once with his tongue. Gandalf waited anxiously. Frodo licked it again and again withdrew. Gandalf murmured in a tight voice, "Frodo . . ."


"Please . . . !"

Frodo chuckled. "That didn't do me any good. Why should you hope for mercy?" He again flicked his tongue over the hard brown peak twice quickly, then paused once more.

Gandalf continued to press his eyelids closed, but he gritted his teeth and muttered, "You maddening little-"

"Oooh, look who's talking!" Gradually Frodo teased the nipple more firmly with his tongue, lingering as he pinched the other until Gandalf was writhing slowly on the blanket, panting and completely absorbed in the tiny movements of the hobbit's tongue and fingers. He glanced downward, and the straining trouser-front indicated that the wizard was by now fully rampant.

The hobbit's lips explored every bump and depression in the abdominal muscles that stood out so starkly on Gandalf's thin torso. Finally he rose to kneel beside the wizard's hips, putting his hands flat against his body on either side of the impressive bulge in the trousers, pulling the cloth tightly down onto it. He slid his hands up and down, making the trousers knead the hard flesh within. Glancing upward, he saw the mounting pleasure registered on Gandalf's face.

At last Frodo unlaced the trousers and slid his hand inside. As he expected, the warm, moist erection within was rock hard. The veins pulsed at a rapid rate under the single finger that he rubbed along the side of it. Gandalf was breathing slowly and deeply, no longer making any other sound, his face grimacing tightly as he focused on that fleeting, teasing touch. Frodo reached the large balls and massaged the loose sac containing them gently. Shifting slightly lower, Frodo pulled the trouser-front down and began to place feathery kisses along Gandalf's length. The wizard's panting became uneven and he begged hoarsely, "Lick it, Frodo. Oh, yes! Please, again! . . . Frodo!" He gasped in frustration as Frodo's tongue touched and withdrew, at intervals that seemed to the desperate wizard to be increasingly lengthy. The hobbit's mouth moved down the shaft, touching it only intermittently, and he began to stroke and pull it between his fingers. As his tongue lapped fleetingly over the testicle sac, Gandalf's cock jerked like a live thing under his hand. The wizard began whimpering. His need was so great that Frodo nearly sped up. He forced himself to hold back. "I can't let him off that easily," he admonished himself.

Soon the wizard was trying to push his erection up against the elusive hands and mouth, striving vainly for any pressure that could help him gain relief. Finally Frodo licked more firmly, pausing to blow on the wet patches he created. At last he rose to his knees again. Gandalf was so hard that Frodo had to pull the rigid column upright and hold it firmly to prevent its slapping back down against the wizard's flat belly. The hobbit lowered his mouth over the tip and sucked gently. His hands moved up and down at a leisurely rate on the high-veined shaft. Gandalf lay still once more, savoring the more regular rhythm of Frodo's caresses. "Now we're getting somewhere," he whispered. The hobbit wondered if he should contradict this optimistic statement by withdrawing again, but he took pity on the wizard. After all, he had been very good about keeping his eyes closed. Frodo pushed his mouth down until the entire tip was inside, then steadily increased the force and speed of his sucking and pumping until Gandalf gave a single long, loud groan of release and sent gushes of hot, salty liquid into Frodo's throat. The wizard flinched and moaned harshly at each diminishing spasm until he lay limp and exhausted and distinctly woozy.

After their bliss faded a little, they began to feel the cool breezes despite the heater, and they pulled their clothes back on loosely. Gandalf drew the upper blanket over himself and drifted off into a nap. Frodo rolled onto his back, his hand resting on the wizard's arm, and stared up into the golden clouds of leaves above. Now that his attention was not riveted on his own pleasure or that of his lover, he noticed the rushing sound of the wind in the trees, like a distant, powerful river. Birds called, and they came closer and closer once the pair stopped moving. Several swooped overhead, and a few perched briefly in nearby branches or even on the edges of the flet. Perhaps due to the intensity of his climax Gandalf napped a bit longer than usual, but Frodo was content simply to admire this lovely place. What a joy to see leaves everywhere, after the bare trees that they had left behind in Rivendell!

The scene reminded Frodo of the few times that he and Gandalf had dared to make love in the woods of the Shire, having walked far away from the villages and fields. Being here was so different, though. In the Shire there had always been the slight nervousness that despite the seclusion of the spot, some one might possibly disturb their intimacy. Here they were deep in the forest and far from the ground, with the ladder drawn up. No one could find or interrupt them. They were as isolated as they could possibly be, he reflected. It was a wonderful sensation.

He had lost all track of time once again, as frequently happened in Lórien. The feeling of being so alone with his lover, so distant from the worries of the Quest, eventually led him to think about when they might be ready to make love again. He glanced over to find the wizard wide awake. They smiled at each other as the lingering afterglow of their lovemaking slowly faded. Their hands reached out to caress each other, and they edged closer together. Gandalf's eyes admired Frodo's beautiful face and slid down his torso. "So small a body to contain so much love and joy! Speaking of which, shall we have something to fortify ourselves for what is inevitably going to happen soon?"

The hobbit nodded cheerfully. They drank some water and ate some fruit, enjoying the movements and sounds of the Wood. They talked of their times together in the past, resolutely ignoring the unknown hardships and dangers ahead. At last Gandalf sighed and looked around. "I have always loved this forest so-the most beautiful of all the wooded areas of Middle-earth, I think." The wizard told Frodo much about Lórien, and tales of Galadriel and Celeborn reaching back into the mists of time. Eventually, though, the wizard's voice faded to silence, and they exchanged inquiring looks that hinted at returning desire.

Frodo pressed his body against the wizard's and murmured, "I never realized just how cruel you could be. I thought you would never grant me release."

Gandalf chuckled. "Well, you were quite the little tyrant yourself, you mild-looking fellow. Who would have known? You certainly gave as good as you got. I was getting quite anxious there by the end."

Frodo snorted in mock disdain and complacency. "Well, you deserved it!"

Gandalf glanced down in equally mock contrition. "Yes, I was so mean to you. I can be quite unpleasant, I'm afraid."

Frodo gave him an utterly delighted smirk. "Oh, I didn't say it was unpleasant."

Gandalf lay back on the mattress and grinned slyly at him. "On the other hand, you are maddeningly provocative, with those seductive blue eyes and inviting lips. You bring these things on yourself."

Frodo feigned surprised puzzlement. "Oh, really? Do I?" He rose onto spread knees and supported himself with his hands on his thighs as he leaned toward Gandalf, his shirt sagging open and his trousers bagging low on his hips. Gandalf's mocking expression began to give way to desire. Frodo continued, "I can't think what you mean." Gandalf smiled in response to this, but his eyes had slid away from Frodo's, and he was panting slightly as he stared at Frodo's nipples, barely visible as dusky pink smudges deep in the darkness of the hobbit's partially buttoned shirt. Frodo leaned even further toward him, moistening his lips, and Gandalf seized his arms and pulled him into a deep kiss.

"That's exactly what I mean. You have taken a placid, contented wizard and turned him into a lustful beast!" Suddenly he rolled Frodo onto his back, and the hobbit emitted a shrill little squawk of surprise. At once Gandalf was on top of him, pressing and clutching and kissing eagerly, though he took care not to place his full weight on the smaller body. Playfully he growled and nuzzled hard against Frodo's neck, nipping his delicate skin and ears. He paused for a moment only to strip the hobbit quickly, then moved above him again, his mouth and hands again wandering eagerly over Frodo's body. The hobbit giggled with delight and hugged Gandalf, reveling in the vigorous caresses, so different from their first, agonizingly slow lovemaking.

Eventually the wizard flipped him over onto his belly, biting his buttocks gently and tickling his balls. Sensing what was to come, Frodo gasped and bent his widely spread knees, raising his bottom and offering the cleft as openly as possible to Gandalf's mouth. The wizard's long fingers clutched his buttocks and spread them further. He eagerly kissed and licked the little brown depression with its puckered opening, then thrust hard against it with his tongue. Soon he slipped a finger inside, spending a long time loosening the tight ring and stroking Frodo's hidden pleasure point as he tickled his testicles. The hobbit was trembling as he strove not to move and diminish these exquisite sensations. As Frodo's entrance relaxed, Gandalf withdrew his finger and wiggled the tip of his tongue slightly inside for a while, then again thrust his finger in, deeper and more insistently. The side of Frodo's face was pressed against the blanket, and his eyes were closed. Ordinarily Gandalf relaxed him immediately with his little spell, and the hobbit had not felt this particular sensation for a long time. He savored it, reaching somewhat awkwardly under his own chest with one hand and rolling his nipples between finger and thumb. As he pressed Frodo's pleasure point slowly and firmly, Gandalf tilted his head slightly to watch the hobbit touching himself, then moaned with desire. The wizard withdrew his finger and licked Frodo once more, then rose and rolled him onto his back again, reciting the spell to further prepare the hobbit as he pushed his own trousers down, allowing his rigid member to spring free. He knelt between Frodo's bent legs, allowing the hobbit's feet to rest on his thighs. Gandalf drew long, shuddering breaths as he gripped the shaft and slid the tip slowly into Frodo.

Initially he took Frodo firmly but shallowly. Gandalf had not gone into him since Rivendell, and the hobbit's arousal soared as the wizard overwhelmed him with pleasure. Frodo looked up into Gandalf's face, which was tensed as he gave himself over to the immense delight of the tight passage in which he was embedded. Having come once, the wizard delayed finishing for a long time, pressing into Frodo at a moderate pace and gently stroking the hobbit's length. Finally he opened his eyes to gauge Frodo's excitement. His lover moaned rapturously and managed to murmur, "I definitely like the beast in my wizard." Gandalf smiled and leaned over him, supporting himself on one arm. Immediately the hobbit wrapped his legs around Gandalf's waist and pushed himself more forcefully and quickly onto the wizard's erection. Gandalf jerked as Frodo's thrusting hips pulled hard at him and the hobbit's heels dug into his lower back. He tried to smile. "No wonder you drive me wild, you little . . . . oh, Frodo! No-not yet!" He sought to pause, struggling to master himself, but it was hopeless. The hobbit's tightness continued to tug at him, and he grunted as he resumed thrusting rhythmically. He gripped the hobbit's cock hard and pumped it quickly as he lost all control, groaning loudly as he spilled into Frodo. The intense spasms of ecstasy made his whole body shudder. Dimly he was aware that Frodo was keening shrilly with fulfillment and riding his shaft even harder. The wizard's movements slowed as dizziness overtook him, but he thrust weakly to prolong the lingering jolts of pleasure that continued to tease at his cock. Dimly he heard Frodo's cries lessening, replaced by little moans of declining bliss and finally the silence of sheer contentment.

Gandalf withdrew and lowered himself onto his back next to Frodo, his arms crossed under his head. He grinned at the hobbit. Frodo summoned his energy and rose, climbing onto the wizard's body until he lay face down along Gandalf's torso and thighs. He wriggled against the rough, thick beard, and the wizard hugged him with one arm. A gust of wind sent flickering highlights of yellow across their bodies and Gandalf's white hair and beard.

Gandalf lazily asked, "Well, my darling, golden hobbit, what do you think of this as a way to spend a day?"

Frodo surveyed the swaying branches all around them. "I would say, my darling, golden wizard, that so far it is ideal. I feel as if it will go on forever, too, though I suppose that time must really be passing-somewhere, far away. No doubt this will have to end-but I wish it wouldn't." He paused and looked mischievously at Gandalf. "After we rest a bit and have something to eat, we have time to do it again, don't we?"

Gandalf smiled fondly. "Yes, Lórien does tend to give you a wonderfully deceptive feeling that you can go on pleasuring each other forever-and I wish it were true! It will end eventually, but yes, this is as close to ideal as I can imagine a day being. We shall eat some of that mouthwatering food that we carried here with such effort, and then I'm sure I shall fancy a tantalizing morsel of hobbit as a final course. And yes, we have time. We shall not return to Caras Galadhon tonight. I want to sleep with you, utterly alone. Speaking of sleep, you have worn me out for now, my pet. If you can possibly wait, let's eat a little later, shall we?" Once again he drifted into a nap, and Frodo was so exhausted that he joined his lover in sleep.

By the time they woke again, darkness was falling quickly, and Gandalf lit the lamp as Frodo unpacked the picnic supper and laid it out: a cold game bird of some sort he did not recognize, a purée of winter root vegetables and herbs, fruit, cheese, and a flask of the best wine that Lórien could provide. The lamp tinted the leaves surrounding them a stark yellow, in contrast to the soft golden sunlight that had filtered down through the many thick branches during the day. Beyond the bright leaves there was pitch darkness, and they felt even more cut off from the rest of the world than before. They ate as slowly as they had initially made love, for the taste of every bite was vivid and intense. They paused often to kiss and drank the heady wine, toasting each other, the Fellowship, their hosts Galadriel and Celeborn, and many of Frodo's friends and relatives until they had drained the flask entirely.

Finally the food and drink were gone. Frodo patted his stomach and reclined on his elbows. "This was all so delicious!"

Gandalf slid close to nuzzle against his neck. "Not half as tasty as the next and final course, however."

"I think you must have had more than your fair share of that wine. You're really ready again, old fellow!?"

The wizard chuckled softly, his lips moving over Frodo's neck. "I don't need wine to make me desire you, young fellow," he breathed into the small, shell-like ear as he unbuttoned the hobbit's shirt once more. "You intoxicate me quite effectively. As I think I have demonstrated many times over the years." Soon his open mouth was sucking at the hobbit's neck and moving down to devour the pink nipples

They stripped each other completely and made love again, even more slowly than before-but not this time to tantalize and torment each other. Their desires were now banked, and their build was slow and quiet at first. Much later they reached thorough arousal, clutching at each other's bodies more passionately, striving to achieve ecstasy one more time--though it was a lengthy process. Their skin became shiny with sweat as satisfaction hovered repeatedly out of reach. At last they achieved it, moaning and jerking and pressing desperately against each other until their pleasure faded.

Afterward both felt as thoroughly satiated as they ever had, and they lay embracing and staring contentedly at each other. Finally Gandalf said quietly, "For years now I have hoped that someday I could come with you to Lórien and we could make love like this, deep in the mallorn groves on a flet. This day has been every bit as wonderful as I dreamed it would be."

Frodo sighed and nodded, but then he stared at the wizard speculatively. "You've done all this before, haven't you? You knew exactly what to bring and where to go and how to make this the most splendid day we have ever spent together."

Gandalf raised his eyebrows slightly, considering whether he should answer this question. Eventually he shrugged and said, "You're right, I have done it before, more than once in fact. And yes, yes, you need not bother to ask. It was with beautiful elves. Who else?" He looked up into the branches above dreamily, with a reminiscent little smile. "Beautiful . . . beautiful blond elves."

Frodo suppressed a smile and instead frowned suspiciously and shook the wizard's shoulder rather hard. "And when was all this?"

Gandalf looked into his eyes once again, as if to reassure him. He said soothingly, "Oh, many, many years ago. At least, let me see . . . well, twelve or thirteen, I suppose."

Frodo's mouth dropped open and he snorted in feigned indignation. "It had better be eighteen years or more, Master Wizard, or you are in deep trouble!"

Gandalf frowned and pretended to think back. "Oh, yes, I suppose it must have been at least that long." He sighed. "It just seems more recent because it was so very . . . memorable."

"Gandalf!" Frodo snorted again and shook the wizard's shoulder even harder. They both laughed. Gandalf took the hobbit into his arms and pulled the upper blanket over them, reaching to turn the lamp down to a tiny glow. Cuddled in complete security and bliss, Frodo whispered, "Memorable. This day will certainly remain vivid in my memory forever." They drifted quickly to sleep, rocked gently in the branches of the Golden Wood.

Days and weeks passed, and although Gandalf and Frodo made love nearly every day, they did not again go out into the forest and pleasure each other on a flet. Both knew without speaking of it that that one golden day should remain unique in their memories and that to try and repeat it would only diminish its luster.

One afternoon Gandalf said to the Company, "I believe we must finally face up to our departure. I have not regretted our stay here in Lórien, but time now begins to press upon us once more."

The wizard arranged that he and Aragorn would meet with Galadriel to exchange some final counsel. Gandalf and Galadriel were a trifle early and sat together in a small library by a fire, waiting. Speaking directly from her mind to the wizard's, Galadriel said, "Before the Fellowship arrived here, I had thought it strange indeed that you should have fallen in love with a hobbit. Indeed, to me hobbits were almost mythical beings, I'm afraid. Now that I have met some, I am still a little baffled-yet Frodo is truly exceptional."

Gandalf nodded delightedly.

Galadriel's keen eyes looked into his. "Did he tell you that he offered me the Ring?"

Gandalf sobered immediately. "When was this?"

"That night when I showed him and Sam my Mirror. I had assumed that he gave you an account of that."

"Yes, but he did not mention that part of your conversation." The wizard shook his head with a rueful little smile. "He is not supposed to do that. He swore not to. Show it to you or allow you to handle it, yes, since you are one of the Wise. But give it to you!? Of course, he offered it to me as well, but that was early days-long before he swore the oath at Rivendell. I shall have to remind him of that."

Galadriel laughed softly. "Well, he is hardly offering it to everyone he meets! It cannot be mere chance that the two people to whom he has offered it each bears one of the Three. And I must admit, I had just been telling him about how much the Elves would regret losing their lands. Perhaps he understands us better than we would anticipate. That was how I felt, at any rate, when he suddenly made that offer. It was as if he was testing me, in somewhat the way I had tested him that night when you arrived in Caras Galadhon."

The wizard looked at her skeptically. "I have never felt that Frodo understood me better than I anticipated. I love him for many reasons, but insight and keen intelligence are not among them."

Galadriel smiled comfortably. "Perhaps someday they will be."

Gandalf stared thoughtfully at her for a moment. "Perhaps. In the meantime, I would admire his intelligence a little more if he stopped offering the Ring to all and sundry."

"Don't take it to heart so! I doubt he will make a habit of it."

Gandalf chuckled reluctantly. "I suppose not."

A voice greeted them from the doorway. "I hope that you two will not conduct this meeting entirely in silence, or I may as well leave."

They turned to see Aragorn entering. "No, no, join us," Gandalf said aloud. The Man crossed and sat with them. The wizard did not wish to reveal what Galadriel had said about Frodo and the Ring, so he steered the conversation toward the difficulties that lay ahead.

After they had discussed several possible threats, Galadriel sighed. "I must say that my worries include not only outside enemies that might attack the Fellowship, but also those close to Frodo who might be tempted to take the Ring from him by force."

Aragorn asked, "Oh? That is always a danger, of course, but have you anyone specific in mind?"

Galadriel hesitated. "From my probing of the Fellowship that first night, I came to wonder if the heir of the Steward of Gondor might not find the Ring a very appealing weapon to bring to his father."

Aragorn frowned. "I wondered about the same thing at the Council of Elrond, and yet since then he has seemed to accept the goal of the Ringbearer without question."

"Perhaps only because your road so far takes you as much toward Minas Tirith as toward Mordor. Still, although Boromir may prove a problem later on, he is not likely to be a great one-providing that both of you are vigilant. I do believe that he is struggling against the Ring's lure, and perhaps his resistance will hold fast in the end." She hesitated again. "To be frank, I am somewhat more worried about you, Mithrandir. Do you still purpose to accompany Frodo into Mordor, to the Mountain itself?"

"Yes, I cannot imagine doing otherwise."

"Forgive me, but I have doubts about that strategy. Might you not succumb to the Ring's temptation yourself?"

"Yes, of course, I have to admit that that is a real possibility. Still, I could not bear to let him walk away, unprotected, into such supreme danger. I must go with him. I feel that it is right, and I can only try my utmost to resist the Ring."

"I am sure that you will, yet I know all too well how tempting the Ring is. We have seen what it has done to Saruman, despite the fact that he has never even been in its presence. If you are near it constantly, especially when you come within the realm of the Enemy and feel how easy it would be to defeat him by using it, might you not be even more likely than others to give in to its draw?"

Gandalf shrugged. "I cannot but agree with you. Saruman's downfall seems swift and inexplicable, and it should serve as a lesson to us all. Still, I feel that I should go. After all, quite possibly Frodo himself might yield to it in the end and seize the Ring. If he did that within Mordor, Sauron would know instantly and certainly would have the ability to annihilate him and retake that which he desires most. After all, Frodo might claim the Ring, but he would have little idea of how to wield it. I think that I might be able to prevent such an outcome by staying with Frodo and encouraging him to resist and persevere until the end." He paused and spoke again only with difficulty. "And if he does seize it, I would obviously be powerful enough to take it from him and try to destroy it myself . . . though that might well break his mind and heart."

All three were silent for a long while. At last Galadriel said quietly, "Of course, I have always had a great deal more confidence in you than in Saruman. Perhaps you could indeed assert your will so powerfully that the Ring would not seduce you. As you say, we can but hope that you are strong enough. If you are not, then no one is, and we are lost."

Gandalf sighed. "Yes. I must say, I counsel this course because I see no other. I do wish that there was one among the Wise more powerful and insightful than I to whom we could entrust this task, but alas, such candidates as there might have been have slipped away one by one over the years." He glanced into her eyes with an amused but sad smile, then down at the floor. "At any rate, for want of any better, I'm afraid that you are left with me as the Ringbearer's guide." He paused and added quietly, "And Frodo's and my love for each other may help us both to resist the Ring's lure."

Galadriel smiled warmly at him. "As always, Mithrandir, you remind me of why I trust you so much. Yes, you have convinced me that your plan is best. Yet if you leave the rest of the Company to go with Frodo, what will happen concerning the situation in Rohan? Every indication is that Saruman will soon attack Theoden's realm with overwhelming force."

Gandalf nodded. "Yes, no doubt the preparations that I saw underway at Isengard last summer will be ready soon, and Saruman will help Sauron triumph in his assault upon Gondor by annihilating its closest ally."

Aragorn took a deep breath and looked at Galadriel. "I must take on the burden of dealing with the military strategy. Mithrandir has been kind enough to say that he thinks me powerful and wise enough now to shoulder more responsibility in this great struggle." He turned and laid his hand on Gandalf's arm and continued, "Certainly that is what you have trained me for, my dear friend, and being who you are, you have trained me well."

Galadriel said, "Oh, I agree with Mithrandir. I wonder, though, if even with such leadership the forces of Rohan are sufficient to resist the great army that Saruman has been gathering."

Gandalf nodded slowly. "I very much wonder that myself. Have you any suggestions?"

Galadriel paused. "I have thought long about this question. There are few areas in that part of the world where we have any allies. It occurred to me, however, that there are the ents."

Gandalf stared at her, blinking in surprise. "True. It has been so long since they made any active contribution to our strategies that I tend not to think of them as a power. And yet clearly they and the forest that they control could be very useful. Given what I saw at Isengard last summer, Saruman has given them considerable reason to hate him. You are right, they might possibly be of considerable assistance."

Aragorn was watching their faces with a puzzled frown, and Gandalf and Galadriel took it in turns to tell him about these ancient and powerful beings that dwelt in Fangorn Forest and how he might go about finding their leader, Treebeard. Gandalf had been friendly with the old ent for many years and knew where his various dwellings were. Galadriel concluded, "If you carefully explain the situation to him and tell him that both Mithrandir and I ask this aid of him, I cannot believe that he would refuse."

The two Men nodded., and she continued, "Fine. Mithrandir knows far more that I do about the current situation in the royal family of Rohan, and he can counsel you about that during your journey, Estel. We should think now about when you might depart and what you and your companions will need along the way. A goodly supply of lembas, of course."

Aragorn grinned teasingly at the wizard. "Perhaps Mithrandir would prefer a supply of cram."

Gandalf frowned in surprise and Galadriel in bafflement. She asked, "What is cram? Is it as dreadful as its name sounds?"

"The durable bread that the men of Esgaroth make for journeys, much used by the dwarves of Eriador as well. Quite bland in its taste and pasty in texture once one has chewed it diligently--and yet Mithrandir claims to like it when it is soaked in water."

Gandalf's mouth dropped open in indignation. "I never said that I liked cram! I only said that I preferred it when soaked in water. It is easier to chew that way, and hence takes less time to eat-so that the ghastly stuff does not linger on your tongue quite so long. Something that is bad can be better than something than is even worse. I shall be quite grateful to have lembas instead."

TBC in Chapter 8: The Fellowship Divides

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