From the Ashes a Fire

by Nefertiti

Rating: NC-17

Pairing: Gandalf/Aragorn

Summary: Gandalf and Aragorn develop a deep love during their time spent working to counter the forces of Sauron, and they struggle to maintain it once the Ranger becomes engaged to Arwen.

Disclaimer: No rights, no income.

Archiving: Meddling in the Affairs of Wizards; LoM; others please ask.

Author's note: With this chapter, the plot reaches the action of LOTR itself; it begins a little way into "A Long-expected Party" in FOTR. The action of the hunts for Gollum and Gandalf's interrogation of him come from the Wizard's tales to Frodo in "The Shadow of the Past" and to the Council of Elrond, filled in with information from the chronology in Appendix B. The scene of the search for the scroll of Isildur, as well as the references to Saruman, expand considerably upon Gandalf's account at the Council. A few passages of dialogue and the content of the scroll are taken directly from the Council scene.

Thanks to Elanor for her beta work and sage advice, and to Sarah for her comments and encouragement.

Part 4

The September of 3001 TA had been a particularly fine one in the Shire, with warm, sunny weather. About three weeks on, some threatening clouds had appeared over Hobbiton, only to disperse and give way to a beautiful day on the 22nd, Bilbo Baggins' eleventy-first birthday, which he celebrated with a magnificent outdoor Party. Within a few days, however, a cold snap set in, and wind drove sheets of rain hard against any traveler unlucky enough to be on the Road.

The inclement weather outside made the warm taproom of the Golden Cockerel Inn in Whitfurrows seem all the more welcoming, and it was crowded and noisy. Half the town apparently had taken the excuse to leave their work early-or never to start at all-and to gather for socializing and entertainment. Aragorn, sitting alone at a small table at one side of the huge fireplace, reflected on how lucky he was to be here rather than hiking or crouching in some inadequate shelter, cold and miserable. Gandalf was lucky too, to be comfortably housed at Bag End during all this, he thought as he puffed on his pipe and waited for his dinner to be delivered. He watched with a smile as the Hobbits gossiped. Occasionally a small group would get up a song, and the Ranger applauded along with the rest of the patrons at its conclusion. He was the only Big Person present, but since Whitfurrows lay fairly close to the eastern edge of the Shire, he had frequently passed through while patrolling the area, and the locals had got somewhat used to him.

Just as his steaming-hot meal arrived, the Ranger looked up and froze in astonishment. Gandalf had just come into the room, very cold and wet and unhappy. One of the waiters hastened to hand him a bar-towel and to help him peel off his sodden cloak, hurrying away to spread it out to dry in the kitchen. The Wizard wiped his face, neck, and hands with the towel and made his way among the tables, headed for the fireplace. Several of the Hobbits called out greetings or nodded politely as he passed, and a smile broke out on his face. Given that he towered above the Hobbits, who were mostly seated, his eyes were directed downward, and he did not initially see Aragorn.

As he turned back from waving to a group across the room, he noticed the Ranger, and for a moment a look of joy and surprise passed over his face. Aragorn, who had had time to master his own surge of delight at seeing Gandalf so unexpectedly, rose with a polite smile. The Wizard managed to contain his own emotions and greet the Man in a friendly fashion, remembering to call him "Strider" as he shook his hand and patted his shoulder. They sat down at the low table, and Gandalf gestured to a waiter.

"Go ahead, Strider. Don't let your food get cold."

The Wizard ordered a meal as Aragorn began eating. Between bites the Man asked in a low voice, "What in Arda are you doing here? I expected to meet you at the Prancing Pony a full week from now. Did anything go wrong with Bilbo's Party?"

"Not with the party, no. But I have a pressing need to get some important information. Let's not talk about it here. I'll see if I can get a large enough bedroom for us to be able to sit there and smoke and have a private conversation." He rose briefly to speak to the proprietor and returned with a grin on his face. "Well, the one room that they have with furniture designed for 'Big People' is the one you have already reserved. Our host was quite flustered to have two Big People as patrons on the same night. There is seldom any call for that room by even a single patron. I relieved his mind by telling him that you and I are acquainted and that I would share your room. He has arranged for a fire to be lit there, and it should be quite cosy by the time we are ready to retire to it.

Aragorn's smile broadened into a grin during this. "Good! You look so cold that I'm not sure I could bear to embrace you right away."

"Yes, I am still quite damp. Can you believe it, I had to wring out my beard before coming indoors!"

Aragorn's eyes widened slightly at the enormous cut of meat, nestled among smaller portions of potatoes and cooked carrots, that had just been set down in front of the Wizard, but he said nothing. Gandalf went on, "While I warm up, I shall tell you my news."

He looked so solemn that Aragorn's grin faded. "You are very mysterious. Go on, eat your dinner quickly. You have made me curious indeed."

The rest of the meal, during which Gandalf made short work of all the food on his plate, passed in routine talk. Aragorn told of his recent travels, mostly to the area just south of the Shire. They had long agreed to be especially vigilant in that portion of Eriador, where infiltration by dark forces would be most likely to occur. Indeed, the Ranger had heard about a number of strangers, grim and suspect in their looks, who had crossed into the Shire, or tried to.

"One of the farmers I talked to dismissed such things. 'The Bounders took care of them handily. No need to worry about that.' I only wish that he was right."

As the Man talked, Gandalf studied his face in the firelight. With a pang of sadness he realized that the beauty that had so enchanted him during their first journey together long ago had diminished somewhat. No, not diminished, he decided, but retreated under the dark, weather-beaten look that many years of hard travel and rough conditions had created. He could still perceive the beauty underneath, but most wouldn't, he realized. True, at Rivendell or Lórien Aragorn could briefly live a more comfortable life and shed the trappings of the Ranger. What Arwen had rightly described as his Elven qualities could then shine forth. Gandalf treasured those brief times that he and Aragorn shared in those Elven enclaves. Not only did the Man's beauty bewitch him anew, but Gandalf could then clearly see in him the king that might one day be-if all their long efforts miraculously bore fruit. Right now, though, Aragorn looked more like a cutpurse than a royal heir, and Gandalf understood why the Hobbits whom the Ranger secretly helped to protect often cast slightly nervous glances his way.

Soon Aragorn's account of his patrolling ended, and Gandalf pushed away his plate, empty except for the bone and rind he had trimmed from his meat. The pair rose and walked, with heads bent, down the low, narrow, Hobbit-scale corridor in the guest wing. Entering the only large doorway in the row along the left, they sat down by the fire in Aragorn's reasonably spacious bedroom and lit their pipes. Aragorn glanced at the Wizard's somber face as he stared into the flames. "Well? You said you had something important to tell me. Can you not impart it now?"

"Yes, important indeed. At least, I think so. You no doubt recall what I once told you of that strange ring that Bilbo found all those years ago-a bit over fifty-nine, to be more precise." He paused as Aragorn nodded. "I am beginning to be very worried about that ring."

He recounted in some detail Bilbo's farewell speech and disappearance, as well as his own tense conversation with the Hobbit in Bag End, just before Bilbo departed from his home for good. He had left the Ring to Frodo, but only after considerable argument and cajoling from Gandalf. The Ranger listened with an intent frown that deepened as the tale unfolded.

Gandalf paused in thought and then resumed, "I had never seen Bilbo like that, so angry and defiant. I barely recognized in him the placid little fellow that I sent off with the Dwarves to help slay a dragon. And yet in another way he was all too easy to recognize, for he still does not show the slightest trace of having aged since those days."

"You said that he must have somehow found a Great Ring, most likely a Dwarven one."

"Yes, but now I do not think so. A Dwarven Ring would not have made Bilbo behave the way he did. Only one among all the Great Rings would have that sort of ill effect on him. I do not know how it could be, but I suspect that the golden band that Bilbo found deep in the caverns of the Misty Mountains was never part of a set of three or seven or nine or any other number. It very well may be the One Ring of our Enemy. That is why I left Hobbiton a week earlier than we had agreed upon-and encountered this foul weather along much of the way. I must try and find any possible evidence that would confirm or deny my suspicion."

Aragorn continued to stare at him. "The One Ring in the hands of a Hobbit these many years! How could that be?"

"Well, where did all knowledge of the Ring end? In the vicinity of the Gladden Fields, where your unhappy forebear, Isildur, was slain. I presume when you studied history as a lad, you learned the story: that the Ring slipped off his finger when he was swimming in the Anduin, striving to escape attacking Orcs. When he became visible, they shot him. His body was recovered by his grieving soldiers, but of course there was no trace of the Ring."

"Yes, my lessons taught that it sank into the Great River, lost for all time."

"That has long been assumed. At the White Council meeting that took place a few years before you and I met, some of us tried to convince Saruman that we should investigate rumors concerning Sauron's apparent attempts to search for the Ring. He tried to calm our fears, claiming that it had been swept down the River and now lies far below the waves of the Sea. I accepted that at the time, for Saruman is more learned in the lore of the Rings than is any other in Middle-earth. He seemed so confident of his claims.

"Looking back now, I ask myself how he could possibly have known that. And is it likely that the Anduin's currents could make a heavy golden ring roll or float all that distance-hundreds of miles? Now I seriously doubt Saruman's claim. He must be mistaken, though he is proud and would be loath to admit it. No, it makes more sense that the Ring should be found near where it sank and then somehow transported to the Misty Mountains-which are, after all, not a great distance from the Gladden Fields. A riverbed exposed in a year of drought, a fine-meshed fisherman's net weighted a little too heavily-there are ways in which the great evil of centuries ago might once more see the light of day."

Aragorn shook his head in amazement. "So you seriously think that Frodo now has the One Ring?"

"Yes, I do. The question is, how can we be sure? And we must be absolutely sure. If I am right, great forces will be set in motion. The nature of my tasks in Middle-earth will shift considerably, for we shall have to find a way of dealing with it, even as Sauron moves closer to asserting his power once more. Yet it is a simple, plain golden band, innocent-looking enough."

"Is there any way to probe its nature?"

"As far as I know, the only way to determine quickly whether it is the One would be to try and use it. Yet if it is indeed the One, that might be a fateful trial for whoever essayed it. The Ring, as I understand it, tempts and confers power on a person in proportion to the power that he has innately. My power is simply too great, and so would be that of Elrond or others who might plausibly test it."

"Why could I not test the Ring? I have far less power than do you. Or Frodo could do it. He has even less."

Gandalf looked at him with an ironic little smile. "And how would you go about using the Ring to test it?"

Aragorn looked taken aback. "I don't know."

Gandalf's smile became an ironic little chuckle. "That is the problem. If you don't have the power and knowledge to use the Ring, you would not be able to test it. And if you do, you risk being corrupted. Not right away, perhaps. I might, for example, take the Ring myself, to hide it away and protect it. Yet inevitably I would be tempted, and I would almost certainly succumb to it, though it might take a long time. I strongly suspect that if I used the Ring, even for a short test, my resistance to its lure would be diminished in some degree. In short, I dare not risk using it or asking anyone else to do so."

"All right. You said that using the Ring was the only way to test its nature 'quickly.' Is there a slower way?"

Gandalf sighed. "Slower indeed. We could try and trace how the Ring might have got from the bottom of the Anduin to the cave where Bilbo found it. Only one person would now know where this particular ring came from, long ago. Assuming that the finder was Gollum, I should question him about it. I fear that we must try and track him down."

Aragorn shook his head slowly and stared at the fire. "A small, elusive creature like that, who might be anywhere on the continent and . . ." He trailed off and pressed his lips together.

Gandalf gave a mirthless little laugh. "Yes, not a happy prospect."

"How do you know that he did not simply stay in his cavern, dying eventually without the Ring to sustain his miserable existence?"

"I have some evidence that he came out. Small and elusive he may be, but he has not entirely avoided being noticed. I accompanied Bilbo back to the Shire after the Battle of Five Armies, and then I of course resumed my usual travels. On those occasions when I went east of the Anduin, I began to hear rumors of a pale, ghost-like figure with glowing eyes, who was spotted at night from time to time. There are terrible tales of his thieving and even kidnapping, and though they may be exaggerated, I fear that they reflect real depredations. The peasants and woodsmen fear him as a demon, but I suspect that the creature is actually Gollum.

"Indeed, I was sure enough of it that I have made some attempts to find and capture him. For awhile the Elves of Thranduil's realm helped me. They, too, heard reports of dreadful deeds perpetrated by this mysterious creature, but they never found him. Given what we learned during those fruitless searches, I guess that he did not cross the Anduin but is still in Mirkwood or the lands west or south of it."

"Still, that leaves us with an enormous area to cover. I may be skilled in tracking, but certainly not much more than the Wood Elves are."

"Yes, all this is true. Still, finding him would depend to a considerable extent upon luck, as well as skill. And the hunt would have one great advantage. I think that at last you and I can go together on a mission. Questioning Gollum is the single most important thing that I can do right now. If you can manage to track him down, I want to be there to interrogate him immediately."

A smile had spread over Aragorn's face as he listened. "Do you know, suddenly I like the idea of this mission a great deal more. Yes, let's track the little villain down! I would go as far as the Sea of Rhûn or the deserts of Haradwaith if only I could have your company the entire time." He paused and added teasingly. "But, favored royal Wizard, are you sure that you have not conceived this strange quest simply because you have grown so weary of being apart from me? Perhaps you are simply contriving to bring us together."

Gandalf laughed and reached for the Man's hand, pulling it up to his lips and kissing it. "A plausible theory, your majesty, but as always, love takes second place to duty. I am just happy that now duty and love coincide-for once! Believe me, if I were going to contrive a scheme to allow us to be together, I would have done so long ago." The humor left his face, and he stared into Aragorn's eyes. "I have ached for your touch so often and for so long." He glanced down at his swelling trouser-front and smiled again. "In fact, I am beginning to ache for you right now. Sitting here by the fire, seeing that big, comfortable-looking rug-which is probably considerably warmer than the bed-having dealt with the important news, and being nearly dry, I can turn to more enjoyable activities. Just being with you is making me very eager."

Before the Wizard could rise to embrace his lover or move toward the rug, Aragorn slid out of his chair and knelt before him in a single, lithe movement. The Man's moist lips sprang slightly apart as his eyes went to the straining laces above Gandalf's swelling member. He began to breathe more deeply as he slid his hand over it, molding his palm and fingers to its shape and kneading it gently. The Wizard gulped and slumped slightly in his chair, spreading his legs. Aragorn leaned forward and repeatedly kissed the bulging cloth, tenderly and lingeringly. Gandalf could barely feel the pressure of his lips through the layers of cloth gathered and held stiffly by the laces, but the sight made him gasp and then moan softly. He reached down to untie them, but the Man pushed his hand aside and slowly dealt with the knot himself, going on to pull the crisscrossed laces one by one until the trousers were loosened and gaped slightly open at the top. With only one layer of cloth pressing down on the Wizard's erection, its shape was clearly visible.

Aragorn slid the fingers of one hand up and down the covered member while with the other hand he reached inside the loosened trousers and closed his eyes with a long sigh as he encountered the hot, smooth crown of the cock, pushing up along the Wizard's belly. He rubbed it with his thumb, and his fingers glided down along the prominent ridge on the underside. He could not quite reach the testicles, however, and he tugged the trousers down at the front until Gandalf's entire length sprang free. Aragorn licked and sucked at the shaft. His eyes went up to the Wizard's face, and Gandalf glanced and nodded at the rug with a pleading look as the Man's hot mouth rendered him speechless.

At once Aragorn slid his arms under Gandalf's knees and around his back, half lifting, half pulling him down onto the rug. They stripped each other quickly. This process ended with Aragorn on his hands and knees above the Wizard, looking down at the purple erection beneath him, his own hovering above Gandalf's mouth. Aragorn grasped the head of the Wizard's cock and pulled the whole length up along the hard, flat stomach. The balls rolled up slightly to follow. The Man lowered his head and licked along the sensitive area on each side where the inner thighs met the testicle sac. With each caress of his probing tongue, Gandalf's erection twitched in his hand, and the Wizard uttered delighted little whimpers. Aragorn slurped noisily at the testicles themselves and then pulled the cock even further up to lift the balls and give his mouth access to Gandalf's cleft. "Bend your knees and roll your hips upward a bit," Aragorn murmured. Gandalf eagerly complied, sucking in a hissing breath as the Man's hands reached around his upper thighs to clutch the Wizard's buttocks, pulling them apart so that his tongue could easily find the little puckered entrance and tickle at it. He licked and kissed the tiny hole until the blood rushed to his head. Giving Gandalf one last lick, he moved back up again to lap firmly over the testicles, stretching the scrotum and rolling the balls within. He drew one into his mouth and sucked wetly at it, flicking it hard with his tongue. Finally he raised his head and let go of the Wizard's cock. It sprang upright, and Aragorn seized the shaft with one hand and placed moist, fleeting kisses over the large crown.

Gandalf was stroking the Man's length slowly but with a tight fist. "Spread your knees," he begged, his voice husky with arousal. Aragorn gasped in anticipation and carefully edged his knees apart on the rug as the Wizard guided the tip of the Man's member to his own open lips and seized it in a hot, moist grip. He swirled his tongue over the velvety surface repeatedly, reaching up to slip his palm under the hanging testicle sac and to roll and squeeze the balls with his long fingers. Soon he pressed his other hand rhythmically against Aragorn's buttock, encouraging him to move. The Ranger began to rock his hips, making short, gentle thrusts into Gandalf's mouth. Almost immediately he felt rather than heard a deep, muffled moan reverberate around his shaft, and a distinct hint of the salty taste of the Wizard's come slid onto his tongue.

Aragorn suddenly impaled himself on the Wizard's erection, his lips moving nearly halfway down the shaft. Gandalf's hips jerked hard, once, and he uttered a hungry groan, opening his throat even more as Aragorn moved his knees a little further apart to allow the Wizard to draw more of him inside. The Man paused, letting Gandalf's cock slip out of his mouth and grimacing tightly, pressing his chin down against his neck as he fought his approaching climax. Gasping, he lowered his head again to seize the knob of the Wizard's member with his lips, sucking and bobbing a short distance up and down as he pumped the shaft with one hand. He felt Gandalf's widely spread fingers dig into his buttocks as he pulled the Man's cock almost entirely into his mouth and throat.

It was just enough to send Aragorn's arousal beyond any possible control, and he drew back his head and let the Wizard's erection slip out again and sway before him. Intense bliss pulsed through his length and radiated out into his loins as ropes of thick, warm liquid spurted into Gandalf's throat. Aragorn managed to grasp the Wizard's member and pull on it clumsily and irregularly as he groaned and gasped. The Wizard's throat milked him dry, and Gandalf let the spent penis draw out, licking it on all sides as it began to shrink.

Dizzied briefly, Aragorn made an effort and kissed and licked the Wizard's plum-like tip until his panting slowed and he could take it into his mouth again. He pumped the loose skin rapidly up and down the rigid column of flesh beneath. Supporting himself on one elbow beside Gandalf's hip, he managed awkwardly to reach around and push a finger inside the tight passage. Within seconds he found the hidden gland that made Gandalf grunt loudly as spasms of searing pleasure shook his body and his seed gushed into the Man's willing mouth. Aragorn caught it with his tongue and spread it over the top of the Wizard's cock until the tiny, lingering twinges of bliss had brought forth the last drops, and he finally swallowed it as he felt the taut body relax beneath him.

Aragorn lifted one leg and drew it carefully over the Wizard, lowering himself until he could lie on his side, propped on his elbow. He stretched over Gandalf's belly and lazily licked the Wizard's length, removing any lingering trace of semen from it. Gandalf bent one arm under his head and watched with a very contented and fond little smile.

After they had recovered a bit, they went to bed, caressing each other languidly and exchanging an occasional kiss. Finally Aragorn chuckled and said, "I keep thinking that we should make love again, because we have so little time together. And for once when we set out tomorrow, it will be in the same direction."

"Well, we have done that occasionally."

"Yes, but usually we eventually part at a crossroads and go in quite different directions. Now we shall go together to Rivendell and over the Mountains and perhaps down the length of Wilderland."

"Quite possibly. Finding Gollum is vital, but I have no illusions that it will be easy-even though I shall have the most skilled tracker in Middle-earth with me."

"I shall do my best-even if it means that our ways part again after we find him."

The first search that the pair made together lasted for a few months and proved to be a combination of joy and frustration. They traveled to the area on the edge of Mirkwood where Gandalf had heard rumors of a fearful demon or ghost, but working their way slowly southward, they found no tracks or other signs of their quarry. They made love nearly every night, except when the weather was so inclement that they had to huddle in a cramped shelter, under an overhanging rock or the thick branches of a tree, to sit out the storm.

Eventually Gandalf decided that it was time to check on Frodo and the state of the Shire in general. He reluctantly parted from Aragorn, and they went off on separate errands once more. On the way to the Shire, Gandalf stopped in Rivendell and found that Bilbo had been a guest for several weeks. The Wizard quietly consulted with Elrond, and the two agreed that Bilbo might well be in danger if he went out on further travels, especially east of the Anduin on the road to the Lonely Mountain. They had little trouble in persuading the old Hobbit to accept Elrond's hospitality and make the place he loved so much his permanent home. That lifted one worry from the Wizard's mind.

Over the next few years Gandalf and Aragorn saw far less of each other. The Wizard tried to visit Frodo every year or two, while Aragorn gathered news to the east and south, observing the slow spread of spies and orcs and other evil beings. The two met primarily in Rivendell at long intervals.

As time passed, Gandalf could detect no signs of aging in Frodo. The Wizard also began to worry about his own reactions to being around the Hobbit and the Ring. He found himself wanting to ask to see the Ring. He had only come close to touching it once, when Bilbo had dropped the envelope containing it and the documents that he was leaving to Frodo. Gandalf had quickly picked up the envelope and put it on the mantelpiece. Even then he had felt a slight urge to open the envelope and examine the Ring. Now when he visited Bag End, his insistent curiosity began to bother him. If he could test the Ring himself, just by using it briefly once, he could spare himself and Aragorn much trouble and effort. He found himself trying to find reasons why such a test would not be dangerous or rash, and such thoughts worried him more and more. At last he decided that he would have to concentrate less on guarding Frodo and instead renew his search for evidence as to where the Ring came from.

Again he enlisted Aragorn in his search for Gollum, and the two made their way through Mirkwood, starting further to the south. The few woodsmen and peasants whom they encountered responded to their questions with horrible tales of a ghostly being similar to the one described to the Wizard years earlier further north in Wilderland. None, though, could attest to any incident concerning this demon for quite some time now. His foul deeds seemed to have occurred years before and were by now becoming the stuff of legend. Gandalf concluded that his fears had been warranted: Gollum probably had been drawn southward, lured by the power of Mordor, to which his long ownership of the Ring had left him particularly vulnerable. Everywhere the pair saw signs of the spread of dark, secret forces. Once they moved beyond Mirkwood, the lands became uninhabited and more dangerous. With no one to question about tales of a local "demon," they became dependent on finding some tracks or other direct signs of their quarry-and there seemed to be none. They moved far more slowly as a result, and occasionally they had to detour or even hide to avoid patrols or moving groups of soldiers. After the search had been carried on at intervals for almost eight years, they gradually gave up hope of ever finding Gollum.

One evening late in 3017, Gandalf and the Ranger were camped in Ithilien, up against the foothills of the Mountains of Shadow that bordered Mordor on its west. There was no point in going further south, and they both knew it. Aragorn sat with his back against a tree, with Gandalf facing away and leaning back against his body, his hands on the Man's spread, bent knees. Aragorn gently stroked the top of the white head that rested just below his chin. They had talked little that day, for both sensed that once again they would have to give up and part-and that this would be their last journey together on this particular mission. There simply was no place left to look.

Aragorn finally said what both had thought many times recently. "Perhaps he is dead."

Gandalf sighed. "It is quite possible. I really do not know what to do at this point."

"I have heard that the One Ring is indestructible. Could you not try melting it? If it survives unscathed, that would be a clue."

Gandalf considered this and realized that the idea of destroying the Ring agitated him slightly. He did not want to try such a test. He struggled to be objective and logical. "I suspect that the One Ring would not permit anyone to destroy it. It would lure him into desiring it and being unable to will himself to harm it. And he might, of course, seize it for his own. Besides, any of the Great Rings would be difficult to destroy in the small fireplaces and smithies of the Shire, and I suspect that Frodo would never give me the Ring to take it elsewhere for such a test."

Aragorn sighed in turn. "It seems odd that the most powerful Ring of all should be so plain. You would think it would have a magnificent jewel, larger even than those that adorn the Three. Then it would be recognizable."

Gandalf tensed and sat up straight. He was still for so long that Aragorn leaned to the side, trying to look into his face and read his expression. As far as he could see, the Wizard had his eyes closed and was concentrating fiercely on something. He waited, not wanting to disturb his lover's train of thought.

"The Nine, the Seven and the Three had each their proper gem. Not so the One. It was round and unadorned, as it were one of the lesser rings; but its maker set marks upon it that the skilled, maybe, could still see and read."

Aragorn waited a moment, and when the Wizard did not speak further, he asked cautiously, "What marks? How do you know this? Is it a vision-a revelation in your mind?"

"No, a memory. I searched long in my heart for it. Saruman said it. At one of the Council meetings. Saruman has moments when he starts lecturing everyone, showing off his knowledge. He undoubtedly is very learned, since he has long since given up traveling and can devote as much time as he likes to research and reading. I paid him little heed at the time, for he was rattling off all sorts of facts about the Rings, most of which seemed very abstruse and not likely ever to prove needful to know. I was also annoyed at the time, since he was so obviously trying to make himself seem far more learned than I. Of course, he knew more about the Rings than I did, but somehow he managed to emphasize my areas of ignorance even as he showed off his expertise. Conversely, he took great care that subjects in which I was particularly learned seldom came up." The Wizard scooted over to sit beside Aragorn, and they turned toward each other, leaning their shoulders against the tree as they talked.

"Marks," he said slowly, "marks that could be read. So some sort of writing, it would seem."

"But what would make these marks visible?"

"Well, that of course is precisely the problem. Some spell, possibly, or a special light-as with ithilden or moon letters. Dipping it in some potion, bringing it into contact with a certain substance. There are many ways. Far too many to explore without further guidance."

"Then Saruman's knowledge is of little use after all, as you thought at the time."

"Saruman's knowledge." He paused again to think. "It must have a source. He has never seen or handled the Ring. It is hard to imagine that any person could have told him this, so he almost certainly gained his knowledge from a document. It would have to be one written by, or at least at the dictation of an eye witness to the marks on the ring, a document written very long ago, in Isildur's time-perhaps even by Isildur himself. Saruman ran across such a thing during his long researches, most likely in Minas Tirith. Minas Anor as it was in Isildur's day. Well, if he could find such a document, I may be able to as well."

"Will Denethor let you look, do you think?"

"I think he would not dare to turn away one of the Wise, grudging though he may be in his hospitality."

"Then you must go there at once. Do you want me to go with you?"

"No! Denethor would no doubt recognize you as 'Thorongil' and begin to wonder why you and I are still so close. Do you remember our speculation that he might suspect that you are the heir to Gondor's throne? Yes, yes, I still do not see how he could have found out such a thing. Yet if there is even the tiniest suspicion in his mind, we should not bring you back to the White City and remind him of the whole thing. I hope that in those days, if he noticed us together, he merely sneered at my apparent dalliance with a handsome soldier. So, since you cannot go with me, what else could you usefully do? I suppose go north again, scouting, aiming ultimately to end up at Lórien and report to Galadriel and Celeborn that we have given up the search. Check on the movements of enemy spies and forces, that sort of thing. Routine work of the sort that you have so often had to do. Make your way north on the east bank until you risk approaching Dol Guldur, then cross and wait for me in the Golden Wood."

"How long might it take?"

"Years, if I had to search the entire archive. Fortunately most of the older documents, being less consulted, are stored in that large room where I usually work. And they are in reasonably good order-though of course many have never been reshelved since their last use. Cataloguing new documents is more interesting to an archivist than is putting away the old ones. Assuming that the one I am looking for is not in one of the myriad stacks of things waiting to be put away, I might be able to get through that section in a matter of weeks . . . maybe a couple of months," he added glumly as Aragorn stared at him. "If I do not come to Lórien within that time, consult with Galadriel and Celeborn about what you should do next."

"It begins to seem so hopeless."

Gandalf forced a smile. "Nonsense, young man. Cheer up! You have just caused me to remember something that could solve our mystery."

Aragorn gave him a wan smile. "Yes, perhaps."

"Oh, and do keep an eye open for Gollum as you go north, just in case."

"Yes, naturally. And if by some great stroke of luck I do catch him, I'll take him to be imprisoned by Thranduil's folk, as we have always agreed."

"Yes, 'if.'" Gandalf leaned toward Aragorn and rested his forearms lightly on the Ranger's shoulders, bringing his face close to his lover's. "In the meantime, let us make good use of our last night together."

Aragorn gazed at him fondly. "You randy old man!" he said softly, shaking his head and giving the Wizard's beard a gentle tug.

Gandalf gave a small shrug. "Guilty as charged," he murmured, just before his lips covered the Man's.

Two days later Gandalf stood outside the door of the great royal hall of Minas Tirith. He had ridden to the City as quickly as possible once he had made the decision to give up the hunt for Gollum, but every passing minute preyed upon his mind. He had had to adjust to being alone again, after more than two months of being constantly with Aragorn, and his thoughts were not pleasant companions to fill the lack. What if the archives of Minas Tirith held no document indicating how the One Ring might be identified? What if he could not find the document if indeed it was there? He had tentatively assumed that Saruman had gained his knowledge about the One Ring in Minas Tirith, but conceivably he could have learned about it elsewhere.

He was interrupted in these gloomy cogitations by a guard who appeared from within the hall and gestured for him to enter. The Man followed him and announced loudly, "Mithrandir, my Lord." Gandalf walked the length of the hall. He had not visited the White City in nearly twenty years now. Once Denethor II became Steward in 2984, four years after Aragorn resigned his military service to Gondor, Gandalf had found only a chilly reception in Minas Tirith. He had used its archives only when he absolutely needed to, not wishing to wear out what little welcome he found.

Now, approaching the seat of the Steward at the foot of the unoccupied royal dais, Gandalf was struck by how old and grim Denethor looked. True, he was now 87, but the Wizard had always felt that the blood of Numenor ran remarkably strongly in the son of Ecthelion and would have predicted that he might live as long as 200 years. He remembered with a slight shock that Denethor was only a year older than Aragorn-yet the Ranger, grim and weather-beaten though he often looked, appeared far younger. Clearly the Steward had never recovered from the early death of the beautiful Finduilas after only eight years as his wife. That, combined with the strain of containing the growing power of the Dark Land had obviously taken a great toll upon the Man. Denethor stared at him with a polite smile, but the slight friendliness did not extend to his eyes.

"Hail, son of Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor," Gandalf said, with a small, deferential nod.

Denethor nodded in return. "Welcome to Gondor, Lord Mithrandir. What brings you to Minas Tirith in these troubled times? Have you some news from the White Council to impart?"

"Nay, the White Council has not met these many years, my Lord." He felt slightly embarrassed at this admission, for the Council had in fact not met in 64 years and seemed likely never to do so again. It was certainly not Gandalf's fault that the Wise had never again convened, for he had on a number of occasions urged the White Istar to call them together as the threat in the east grew-but to no avail. As always, Saruman favored watching, waiting, and gathering information. Still, Gandalf hated having to admit such inactivity on the part of the Wise to Denethor, who had too little respect for him already. Indeed, the Steward trusted Saruman more than him, and any hint that the White Wizard was derelict in his duties would no doubt fall upon deaf ears.

Gandalf went on, "I wish that I had some such important news, but I come seeking knowledge for myself, and that not of any events of our current times. I ask leave once again to search in your City's archives for facts concerning the distant past and in particular the history of Minas Tirith in its early days, when it was still called Minas Anor."

Denethor uttered a small gasp of wry laughter. "If indeed you look only, as you say, for records of ancient days, and the beginnings of the City, read on! For to me what was is less dark than what is to come, and that is my care. But unless you have more skill even than Saruman, who has studied here long, you will find naught that is not well known to me, who am master of the lore of this City."

Gandalf stifled his annoyance at being chided in this fashion by the Steward and instead gave a deprecating little smile. "Perhaps you are right, my Lord, but at times I find interesting such matters as might be of little import to you and my cousin Saruman, absorbed as you are in your great policies."

Denethor raised his eyebrows and looked with sardonic condescension on his guest, but he nodded and said to an attendant. "Let the archivist know that Mithrandir is to be permitted to search the ancient records as he will. Arrange suitable accommodation for him as well."

"I thank your Lordship," Gandalf murmured with another little incline of the head, and he turned to follow the attendant out, clenching his teeth and wondering whether, if a crisis should occur, he could persuade Denethor to cooperate with the plans of the Wise-assuming that those plans went against the wishes of Saruman.

For the next few weeks, Gandalf wandered about the shelves of the archive or sat at the great table in the inner hall, skimming through documents that looked as though they might be old enough to date to the earliest years of the Third Age. Ordinarily he might have been diverted by intriguing texts and stopped to read more closely documents that were irrelevant to the topic of his researches. Now, however, he eschewed such pleasant dabbling and stuck grimly to the search for any writings that might bear upon the one crucial topic that obsessed him. It occurred to him at one point that any records concerning the Ring left by Isildur might survive only in a more recent copy-in which case he might have to search the shelves of modern documents as well-a hopeless task. He carried on, searching among the shelves of ancient scrolls.

One afternoon, as he moved to the table with another armload of dusty rolls of parchment, he smiled as he recalled how Aragorn had come to him there on that lovely sunny afternoon, the day before the current Steward's wedding. He set his burden down and stood staring abstractedly at it, recalling the mingled delight and frustration they had shared, and his trousers felt a bit tighter as he thought of how Aragorn had teased and provoked him as he translated the maddening scroll for Mindaril. Brushing the thought resolutely aside, he sat down again.

After he had glanced through only a few of the documents and laid them aside as uninformative, he heard footsteps and glanced up to see a tall young man approaching with a delighted grin on his face.

"Faramir!" Gandalf said with equal delight and stood to embrace the young man. Then he held Faramir at arm's length to examine him. "You have certainly grown since I last saw you. It was obvious even then that you would be uncommonly tall, but you were such a thin, gawky young fellow. Now you are fully a man and quite a strong one at that," he added, feeling the muscular arms within his grip.

"Well, you have not changed at all, Mithrandir, and for that I am grateful." Faramir's face became serious, and he went on, "From what you have told me about yourself, I understand why, and thus I know that I can always look forward to seeing you again, untouched by time. Yet it has been so long since you last came to visit us. Is my father any more cordial to you now than when last you were here?"

"Not that I noticed," Gandalf responded as lightly as he could, trying not to embarrass Faramir about his father's coldness to the Grey Istar. "Still, he is allowing me to pursue my researches, so I cannot complain."

"I shall complain for you, then. I do not understand why my father favors Saruman over you. Not that Saruman has been here lately either."

"No, he seems almost never to leave Isengard any more," the Wizard said with a brief little frown, but he quickly changed the subject. "Well, have you kept up your studies since last I was here?"

"When I can, I come here to read a bit," Faramir said with a wistful, reminiscent smile. "I am grateful as ever that you took the time to suggest some interesting documents which I might peruse. In recent years, though, I have had less and less time for such things. I am in charge of the troops stationed at Henneth Annûn. The documents that I read now are typically lists of supplies or orders regarding military strategy. Right now I am back in the City on leave. Having reported to my father, I have a few days of leisure, but I must soon return thither."

"I am all the more delighted to see you, then, since you are here so seldom. This is a lucky chance! And where is your brother?"

"He commands the organization of the various units patrolling the borders on the western side of the River. He is not expected back in the City for several days, I believe-though I hope that he arrives before I leave again."

"I see. Frankly, though, it is you that I had hoped to see. Shall we have supper together tonight, just you and I? Would your absence offend your father?"

Faramir shrugged. "I doubt it. Usually when I eat with him, it is a gloomy, largely silent affair. When Boromir is with us, it is a different matter. He seems to bring out what little cheer and conviviality there is left in our father. Occasionally the three of us spend a pleasant evening together. But will you, as our guest, not be expected to dine with him?"

"Oh, I dined in state with the Steward on my first night here, but thereafter he and I were both more comfortable if I dined elsewhere-at least I was!"

They both chuckled. "Good," Gandalf continued. "Shall we simply go to a pub? I have discovered a pleasant one on the fourth level that has quite good food-and excellent ale."

"Fine! Shall I meet you back here at the twelfth hour?"

"Yes, do-but at the front entrance, not here in the remote part of the building."

"I look forward to hearing all about the news and your recent adventures."

Gandalf pulled a wry face. "I wish that I had more to tell you. My 'recent adventures' have mainly been long and frustrating, with little to show for them. And I am afraid that I cannot tell you much about my current activities."

"I do not expect to hear everything. But I have always felt honored that you tell me even as much as you do, for you seem to take me into your confidence more than any but your closest colleagues."

"True. And you have always proven yourself utterly trustworthy-and a pleasant companion for a relaxing evening after frustrating toil. I, too, shall look forward to it."

An hour or so later Gandalf rose and walked about to stretch his limbs. Out of idle curiosity, he glanced into a small side room that he had barely noticed before. Its shelves proved to hold a scruffy, uncatalogued collection of incomplete documents and random pages from otherwise lost texts-the sorts of things that few scholars would be likely to call for. They had been retained in the unlikely event that they might someday be reunited with the rest of their documents, but there was so little chance of that that no one ever looked at them. They were thick with dust. Gandalf sighed as he realized that if he failed to find what he was looking for among the catalogued documents in the main room, he would have to tackle this motley group of texts as well. As he glanced about, a pile of scrolls caught his interest, for although they were in the shadowy corner of a low shelf, they were neatly tied and piled up, unlike the messy little heaps around them. "Odd," he thought. "They are tied with the archive's standard ribbons, which should mean that they are catalogued." He picked one up and realized from a small, neat inscription in ink along its edge that it should have been shelved out in the larger room where he was working. He lifted the pile and carried it out to his table. As he stood there contemplating it and the other stacks of documents awaiting his perusal, he yawned and glanced at the window. It was late in the afternoon, but he forced himself to sit back down to his task. It was well over an hour before Faramir would come back to meet him, he thought with a sigh. He finished examining the texts he had been working on, but the writing was beginning to swim before his eyes.

He looked up again as the archivist, Mindaril's son Mardil, came in. He had kindly offered the Wizard a cup of tea, and when the latter refused with a barely repressed shudder, the Man had instead fetched him a goblet of an exotic juice pressed from fruits imported from the distant south. Mardil rather recklessly placed it on the table next to the heap of scrolls and departed with a smile after Gandalf thanked him. The Wizard clicked his tongue and shook his head disapprovingly. "I suppose that archivists get used to working around rare documents and become casual about them," he thought. He sipped the juice and lowered the goblet to the floor, prudently setting it down far from any of the stacks of documents placed "temporarily" there for shelving. They were, he noted with a mixture of amusement and worry, the same stacks that had been in those spots years earlier when he last visited. Was the document that Saruman had discovered being as slow to find its way back to its proper place? Some of the documents looked as if they could plausibly have been there for several decades. He surveyed the stacks with a sense of discouragement but turned back to the task at hand.

He lifted the top scroll from the heap that he had found in the side room. As his fingers slowly and carefully worked to undo the knot, the moldered ribbon flaked and snapped. He put it aside and blew the resulting dust off the table before unrolling the ancient document. His tiredness suddenly passed as he examined it quickly and realized that it was a proclamation from the tenth year of the Third Age. It had been sent from the Northern Kingdom and declared that Valandil was now King of Arnor. The Wizard's heart beat just a little faster, for this was the oldest document that he had found so far, dating from only about eight years after the death of Isildur. It was of no use for his purposes, but it was a promising sign.

The Wizard rolled it back up and plucked a new ribbon out of a small box nearby on the table, tying it around the scroll and setting it aside. He paused and stared at the stack of old scrolls before him. On a hunch he pulled out the one at the center of the bottom row and placed it before himself on the table. He felt an odd sense of anticipation. There was something different about this one. Then he realized that the rolled parchment was tied with a relatively new ribbon. Sorting through the pile, he realized that well over half had identical new ribbons. Well, what of that, he thought. Old bindings decay and break-just as the one for the scroll he had just examined did. It was a common enough occurrence that the archivists kept the little wooden boxes of replacement ribbons in every room. No, there was nothing odd about that, and yet . . . someone had been reading these very old texts not so long ago. Glancing at the new ribbon he had just used to fasten the previous document, he realized that these others were faded in comparison.

He was breathing a little faster, and he untied and unrolled the second scroll that he had chosen. It was an inventory of military resources at a garrison in southern Gondor, dating from year 3 of the Third Age. He pulled out another roll from the bottom of the stack, also bearing a relatively new ribbon. He unrolled it delicately, and his heart skipped a beat. Two lines of writing in a very ancient and obscure mode of Elven script! This was clearly no routine record of everyday matters.

He forced himself to go slowly, handling the thing by its edges and placing a small weight at each corner. Glancing at the imprint on the chipped, aged wax seal at the lower edge, he saw the insignia of Isildur, and for a moment he felt lightheaded. He closed his eyes briefly and inhaled deeply, then began to read the text. The first words that greeted his eye were "The Great Ring." As he read, he felt an odd mixture of anger at Isildur for taking the most powerful weapon of the Enemy for himself and gratitude that he had at least left this precious record of it. As he reached the passage "Already the writing upon it, which at first was as clear as red flame, fadeth and is now barely to be read," he was panting with excitement. The Ring needed to be heated. Perhaps this was the simple solution, after 17 years of searching and many more years of puzzlement before that. He finished the scroll and read it again very slowly, memorizing it, for he could not risk making a copy. Fortunately his superb memory allowed him to hide it safely away in his mind.

Gandalf rolled the scroll back up and tied it with its ribbon-the one that Saruman must have placed there. He sat pondering this turn of events. He could somewhat understand why Saruman had not mentioned this scroll to the Council. If he truly believed that the Ring had been lost in the Sea for all time, it might seem a minor detail, of interest only to a specialist in ring-lore, which the White Istar was. Certainly at the time that he had mentioned the identifying markings on the One Ring, none of the Wise had asked him to elaborate. They, too, had thought the matter of little consequence to their plans.

Yes, that made sense, but why had these particular scrolls been placed back, not only on the wrong shelf but in the wrong room? The Wizard had never encountered such a mistake before, for the archivists of the City might work slowly, but they prided themselves on their precision. There was a distinct possibility that the scrolls had been misplaced deliberately, and far and away the most likely person to have done that was Saruman. He shook his head slightly, berating himself for such suspicions about the head of the order of Istari and the leader of the White Council. Why would Saruman do such a thing? Yet the thought continued to prick at his mind. Given the White Istar's behavior in recent decades, the idea of his hiding the scrolls was not wholly implausible to Gandalf.

Perhaps Saruman just takes some sort of foolish pride in knowing things that no others do, the Wizard thought. Perhaps he simply wanted to keep his learning derived from the scroll all to himself. Still, it was more than just annoying that he should do so. It could potentially be dangerous to Middle-earth to hide information-especially information about the One Ring. He sighed and decided that he would deal with the problem of Saruman some other time.

Right now there was the question of where to put the heap of scrolls: back where he found them or in their proper place. After some deliberation he decided to put them back on the wrong shelf in the little side room. No one else was likely to want to read them. Only the Wise needed to know this information, and he would tell them of it himself. He still could not understand Saruman's behavior, but somehow he felt that, should the White Istar ever return to the archives of Minas Tirith, it would be better if he did not suspect that anyone else had read Isildur's scroll. Yes, that seemed the prudent course.

He spent some time in glancing through the rest of the ancient scrolls from the pile but found nothing relevant in them, either about Isildur or the Ring. Finally he returned them to the dusty little room, made his way along the elaborate route back to the entrance, thanked Mardil for his help, and was moving toward the entrance when he paused and turned back. Mardil looked up inquiringly. "Can I help you further in some way, Mithrandir?"

"Perhaps. I have been wondering what my colleagues among the Wise have been doing lately. Unfortunately I see them so seldom. It would be very pleasant if I happened to encounter-or at least hear news of them-here. Has either of my cousins, Radagast or Saruman, visited? Or some of the learned among the Elves?"

"Not in the years that I have been archivist. Most who come here now are seeking fairly mundane recent records-land contracts, tax revenues, and the like. Only the Steward and occasionally his younger son take much interest in the older writings. I do remember your last visit, but that is quite some time ago now. Surely you have not read all of the books and documents we hold?" He chuckled.

Gandalf smiled in return. "By no means! Nor even all of the ones that might bear upon my work. So even Saruman, wise and learned as he is, has not visited regularly."

"Only indeed a time or two when the present Steward was but lately come into his office--back when my father was still fairly young."

"Really? When would that have been?"

Mardil stared into space, thinking and muttering. "It must have been . . . I . . . um . . . remember that Father told me that well before I was born the White Wizard paid a series of very long visits here. What was it he said? He complained because he could not attend his cousin's wedding. Instead he had to stay here and help Saruman to find things." Mardil closed his eyes and did some silent figuring. Opening them again, he declared with a pleased look, "So that must have been sixty years and more ago."

Gandalf did some silent figuring of his own, taking considerably less time at it. "Well, I expect that by now he has gathered so many volumes in his own library at Isengard that he finds what he needs there. I shall have to pay him a visit him soon. Thank you again, Mardil. Until next time!"

The sun was near the horizon, and Gandalf walked over to stand on the city walls watching it-and letting the mountain breezes cool his face, which was flushed with suppressed excitement and a tinge of fear as well. Was Isildur right? Would fire renew the writing on the Ring, or was it lost forever? He suspected that it would, yet logically it might have been the presence of Sauron that kept the writing visible. Separated from its Master, the Ring might not yield its secret no matter how much one heated it. Well, it was the best chance that he had yet found, and he would have to return to the Shire and test the Ring with fire. If the writing appeared, he would at last be able to focus upon one great and specific task, one that would almost certainly determine the end of the struggle with Sauron, for good or ill. Then he would be free at last to follow the setting sun, to travel to the Uttermost West and return to his true state and live once again in the paradise that was Valinor. And if the Free Peoples succeeded, he would pass the burden of Middle-earth to the capable shoulders of Aragorn, the King of Gondor. And leave him forever. Tears stood in his eyes as he watched the bright pink disk disappear slowly until the last tiny rim of brightness was suddenly extinguished by the dark hills of the horizon.

Gandalf stood unmoving until the sounding of twelve deep tolls of a bell high in the City recalled him to the present, and he hurried back to the archive entrance to meet Faramir. He would not, he decided, wait to take his leave of the Steward in the morning, but would ask Faramir to convey his thanks and farewells. He would ride immediately after he woke and broke his fast. He suspected that after his recent discovery he would sleep but fitfully and would depart before dawn.

As the Wizard rode north through the rolling plains of the Wold, bound for Lórien, he cast more than one wistful glance at the dark line on the horizon to his left that was Fangorn Forest. It would be very pleasant to visit with Treebeard and some of the other Ents. Despite the slowness of the conversation, he always enjoyed being with them. No time for lengthy conversations now, though, and he might spend days just in finding Treebeard.

The distances from Minas Tirith to the Shire were roughly the same, whether he turned west immediately and went through the Gap of Rohan or stayed east of the Misty Mountains until he came to the high pass that would bring him down near Rivendell on the west. The Rohan route had the advantage of having no mountains to pass over-but it was desolate, with almost nowhere to stay. There was Saruman, of course, but making a detour to Orthanc would take him a day's journey each way. At least, that was one reason not to try and visit him. Remembering the hidden scrolls in the archive, he realized that, as so often lately, he was reluctant to give any news of his own recent doings to the White Wizard.

The eastern route, however, took him directly through both Lórien and Rivendell, where he would not be at all reluctant to share news of the contents of Isildur's scroll with a select few. Such visits would also provide some comfortable lodgings, wonderful food, and conviviality with dear friends. There was a good chance that Aragorn would still be in Lórien awaiting him. Had that fact affected his choice of this route over the other one? Perhaps a little, but a brief reunion with his lover could do no harm to their cause. I definitely need one of those boosts of morale, he thought with a little smile.

At any rate, either route would ultimately take him to the same place: Bag End, Hobbiton, the Shire. Not for the first time he wondered what it would be like to hold the One Ring in his hand, to feel its lure and yet throw it into the fire. Surely it could not ensnare him so quickly. Surely his will to resist was strong enough to allow him to make that short, simple test. But to keep it for any length of time . . . He was one of the most powerful beings in Middle-earth, and its draw would be equally powerful.

Such power, he mused. If only there were some way to turn it to good, to use the Ring to defeat the forces of darkness-to protect the Shire, rid southern Mirkwood of the lingering threat of Dol Guldur, even perhaps seize back Moria and make it livable again, as the Dwarves wished. His mind drifted in such directions for a time, but when his horse stopped to drink at a small stream, he snapped out of his reverie with a little shudder. Very insidious indeed, the lure of the Ring, he thought as he dismounted and filled his water-bottle. He wondered if Galadriel or Elrond or others of the Wise . . . or Saruman ever had such daydreams. He hoped not.

He had ridden on for an hour or so when he spotted a speck in the northern sky. When he perceived that it was headed in his direction, he changed course slightly to meet it. An eagle, he soon realized. That would probably mean a message. As the great bird landed on an outcropping of rock, the Wizard rode nearer, smiled, and said, "Andehir! It is long since I have seen you. And how is your cousin Gwaihir?"

"He is well, and I thank you for your concern. I come to you now bearing a message from the Lady Galadriel, though I believe that most of it was written by another and that she is simply passing it along to you."

The proud creature lowered its head so that Gandalf could slide a delicate chain off his neck. On it swung a little cylindrical container of silver with carven wooden stoppers at each end. The Wizard twisted and pulled one, and it popped out to reveal a rolled letter within. The eagle waited as Gandalf opened it and recognized with a thrill of delight Aragorn's handwriting. It was little more than a note, saying that the Ranger had captured Gollum and taken him to Thranduil's realm as they had agreed. He would await the Wizard there. A small postscript appended by Galadriel said simply that she and Celeborn would welcome Gandalf if he chose to come through the Golden Wood, but they would understand if he instead traveled directly to the caverns of the Wood Elves.

Gandalf was torn between excitement and indecision. The evidence described by the scroll of Isildur in itself would be sufficient to prove the nature of Frodo's Ring. He could just go straight to the Shire, as he had planned. There was, however, no immediate danger to Frodo as far as he knew. On the other hand, Gollum had been out of his cave for many years now. Surely he would have some important or at least useful information, quite apart from revealing where he had obtained his ring. The Wizard and Aragorn had searched thoroughly for the wretched creature in Mirkwood and further south, and Gandalf strongly suspected that Gollum had been elsewhere during much of that time. Where, though? What power could divert him from his fanatical attempt to follow Bilbo and regain the Ring? Gandalf clenched his teeth.

He turned back to Andehir. "The return message to Galadriel is simple: I shall be going directly to Thranduil's realm."

"I shall deliver it. Farewell, wherever you fare, till your eyrie receives you at the journey's end."

"May the wind under your wings bear you where the sun sails and the moon walks," Gandalf replied. He watched as the great bird lifted gracefully off the rock and departed immediately toward Lórien. He faced his horse northeast, quickly running over the various risks and terrains of routes that could take him to Thranduil's realm. He decided to pass well south of Mirkwood, thus avoiding the vicinity of Dol Guldur. Skirting north of the Brown Hills, he could reach the open plains east of Mirkwood and make good time. That way he could approach the Elven enclave from the east, which meant only a very short journey through Mirkwood itself, along a road made safe by the vigilance of the Elf monarch's folk. He sighed at the thought of the wonderful meals he would have enjoyed in the Golden Wood. He also wondered if the heavy clothing he carried strapped to the back of his saddle would be adequate as he road north during the winter. He probably could find a heavier cloak and gloves among the far-flung villages and farms east of the great forest, as well as simple food and shelter as he traveled. Even so, it would be a long, lonely, difficult journey. Still, he concluded more cheerfully as he set off, this way I am sure of seeing Aragorn.

Dinner had just concluded in the great hall of the cavern complex of Thranduil. The King's son Legolas politely escorted Gandalf away from the table and toward the huge fireplace at the opposite end of the room. Although the evenings here were filled with minstrelsy and tales, the whole arrangement was much less formal than at Rivendell. There was no separate room but simply a large open area in the opposite end of the huge hall, separated from the dining space only by a row of graceful columns. There were board games commencing in one corner, while a harpist entertained a small group off to the right. Aragorn followed the Elf and Wizard. Once Legolas had them seated by the roaring blaze, he said, "Would either of you like a cup of hot mulled wine? It is just the night for such a drink, though I am sure that you are thoroughly warmed up by now, Mithrandir."

The Wizard had arrived that afternoon, riding through the very cold January weather. By now, however, he had napped and eaten and was feeling quite comfortable. "Yes, please. A cup of wine sounds lovely, Legolas."

Aragorn nodded that he wanted one as well, and the Elf said, "I shall go and have some prepared for you, then." He went off toward the kitchens in search of such refreshments.

The Man turned to Gandalf and smiled sympathetically. "It has been unusually cold this winter, and yet you had such a long journey to get here."

"Yes, but there were two people here that I longed to see-for very different reasons! I do not exactly look forward to questioning Gollum tomorrow, but I shall be very grateful if he can solve my little conundrum for me." The Wizard glanced around to see if anyone was listening and said in softer tones, "You are looking very trim and handsome tonight."

Aragorn grinned. "Ah, yes, you must be thoroughly rested by now, and feeling a bit . . . lively. As to my own journey here, it was made extremely unpleasant by our elusive quarry. I was pleased indeed to hand him over to the Elven guards and see him safely locked up. Since then I have enjoyed a most unfamiliar experience: leisure! My only task has been to wait for you to arrive. I have eaten well and talked and read and slept . . . and missed you. As you can tell from this evening's meal, the food here has been as plentiful and delicious as ever. Given the lack of activity, I think that I am beginning to develop a bit of a tummy."

Gandalf surveyed the Man's stomach and smiled benignly at him. "I shall love you anyway." His face became serious. "I found what I was looking for in Minas Tirith." In little more than a whisper he began to describe the contents of Isildur's scroll, but he soon broke off, looking over Aragorn's shoulder, and said in cheerful tones, "Legolas! Yes, set the tray here and join us. Thank you so much!" he added, blowing on his steaming wine and taking a sip. "Aragorn has been telling me that your family has pampered him shamelessly and that he has been getting lazy and fat."

"That's not exactly-"

"We shall have to do something about that," the Elf interrupted, grinning teasingly at the Ranger. "I shall organize a hunt for tomorrow."

"But I don't-"

"Excellent! Best thing for him," Gandalf said very earnestly.

"Oh, fine! Just because you always stay as thin as an Elven arrow, you-"

"Good! That's settled then," Legolas said with a firm nod of his head. Aragorn rolled his eyes, assuming a dignified attitude and pretending to ignore the pair as they continued to tease him.

When the banter tapered off, Legolas filled Gandalf in on some small pieces of news that had arrived lately from Laketown. As the Wizard listened, he glanced at Aragorn now and then, and the warmth in his eyes made the Ranger wish that they did not have to keep their love a secret. He wished that they could sit side by side, with their arms around each other's shoulders, enjoying the fire, the songs, the tales, and the news. That would hardly be fair to Arwen, he reminded himself. Most people would expect the heir to the throne of Gondor to have occasional affairs or perhaps a mistress before his marriage, but to take a long-term lover, and a male one at that, would cause gossip and disrespect toward Gandalf, Arwen, and him. He waited as patiently as he could, listening to the small talk as a few other Elves drifted over to welcome the Istar with their quiet, musical voices.

At last Aragorn was able to retire to his room. In such weather the chill penetrated even to the deep, rock-cut chambers along the guest corridor, and he lit a fire and some lamps. After a little while the door opened, and Gandalf came quickly in, closing it immediately. He leaned back against the wooden panels, murmuring, "Just let me look at you for a moment." He smiled slightly and slowly surveyed the Ranger from head to foot.

Aragorn's cock had begun to swell simply from his lover's presence. The hungry gaze wandering over him was like a subtle caress, teasing and exciting him further. "Yes," he whispered, stepping over to Gandalf and beginning to undress him, quickly and efficiently. The Wizard watched him with a bemused little frown, but he cooperated, lifting his arms and legs to facilitate the Man's removal of his shirt and trousers. Aragorn took his arm and guided him to sit on the bed, leaning back on two large pillows propped against the headboard.

"Yes, just look at me for a moment," the Ranger said softly. Moving a few feet from the bed, he slowly began to remove his own clothes, staring intently at Gandalf. The Wizard's eyes shifted back and forth between Aragorn's compelling gaze and the body that was revealed little by little. He gulped when the muscular chest and dark nipples became visible as the Man spread his shirt. Gradually his breathing grew deeper, as Aragorn unlaced his trousers and pulled the center front down until his nearly hard member slipped out, its weight pushing the cloth down into a V. Leaving his trousers riding low on his hips, the Ranger brought his hands up to pinch and roll his nipples, and Gandalf groaned as he watched, utterly enthralled. His own cock was swelling rapidly, and it rose slightly off his thigh. His hips shifted, and his panting was quite audible as the breath softly hissed in and out between parted lips.

Finally Aragorn lowered his trousers, stepping out of them and in the process moving slightly closer to Gandalf. The Wizard closed his mouth and swallowed, then licked lips which had become dry from his heavy breathing. The Ranger pressed his flat palm up against the underside of his cock, as if offering it to Gandalf. Instead his eyes slid briefly shut as he loosely gripped himself and opened again to watch the Wizard's reaction as he stroked his shaft a few times. Gandalf's member was purple and upright by now, and he whispered with a lustful little smile, "I want that."

The Wizard moved further toward the center of the bed. Aragorn climbed up beside him and then planted his knees between Gandalf's spread legs, leaning forward but holding his body away from the Wizard's with straight arms planted on either side of his torso. Gandalf slid his fingertips over the Man's chest, grazing the erect nipples and then rubbing more firmly. "Thank you. I loved that!" he murmured.

Aragorn leaned down to kiss him briefly. "I know, old man. You can't exactly hide the fact, after all." The Ranger lowered himself to lie along Gandalf's side, supported on his elbow. He leaned in, and their slightly open lips brushed and pressed languidly against each other. Finally Aragorn flicked his tongue briefly into the Wizard's mouth, repeating this teasing invasion until Gandalf was writhing and grunting with frustration. The Man was hard enough by now that he soon abandoned this game and thrust his tongue deep in and left it there, letting Gandalf suck eagerly at it. The Wizard wrapped one arm around Aragorn's neck to hold the Man's mouth firmly against his own. His other hand again sought one of the firm beads on Aragorn's chest and plucked at it.

Aragorn's cock was beginning to ache, and he slid his hand, which had been stretched across the Wizard's belly, up until he could move one finger back and forth above one nipple, grazing the sensitive tip with feathery touches as it hardened and rose. Gandalf jerked the first time, and his mouth drew away from the Man's. He extended his tongue until it could lick and curl around Aragorn's, their lips barely touching. The Ranger uttered hungry moans as he began to press his erection against the side of Gandalf's hip. He shifted slightly downward along Gandalf's body and brought his left hand to the other nipple, where he traced broad circles on the skin, about an inch from the edge of the areola and even further from the minute hole that marked the relaxed nub. The tips of the Wizard's nipples were sensitive enough that a delicate touch could make him shudder and moan, and if the Man continued long enough, to beg for relief. When the circling finger failed to move onto the nipple, Gandalf glanced inquiringly into his eyes and then focused on the moving finger once more. With an exasperated gasp, he twisted his torso slightly, but Aragorn's adept finger glided away and resumed its circling when Gandalf settled down once more, his teeth clenched in frustration.

The Man took pity on him then, at last allowing his finger to slide over the light brown disc, rubbing briefly at its center and then pausing as he watched it quickly harden and rise. With a low moan he eagerly suckled it as his fingers continued to pinch and roll the other. By now he was thrusting hard against Gandalf, and he reached down with his other hand to stroke the Wizard's rampant length. Gandalf cupped one hand on the Ranger's head, the fingers buried in the tousled hair as he held the man's mouth against his chest and arched up against it. The other hand reached down to grope for one of Aragorn's nipples. He failed to find it, but the Man was past wanting foreplay. All that he could think of as his eyes glazed with arousal was burying his aching erection in the tight, moist heat of his lover's body. He swirled his tongue lasciviously one last time over the Wizard's nipple before pulling his head up and whispering, "Gandalf!"

By now the Wizard was equally desperate. He glanced up at the bedside table and saw the familiar little flask. By twisting his body and stretching he managed to reach it and thrust it into Aragorn's hand. Gandalf grasped his own shins and brought his bent legs up and apart, opening himself to penetration. With one oil-slicked hand, Aragorn began to stretch and relax Gandalf's opening as quickly as he dared, while the other rubbed oil up and down his own cock, coating it thoroughly. The process felt so wonderful that he was afraid he would spend before pleasuring the Wizard, so he forced himself to stop and moved his hand to clutch and pull his lover's shaft. As his probing fingers within the Wizard found the right spot, Gandalf writhed, his head tipping back and rolling on the pillow, his eyes screwed shut with bliss.

At last Aragorn found that he could thrust three fingers inside the Wizard without causing pain, and he moved back slightly on his knees to position himself. He took hold of Gandalf's ankles and raised his legs slightly higher. His cock was so stiff and the entrance so relaxed that when the Man leaned forward, the tip slid in easily without needing a hand to insert it. He began to thrust at once, shallow movements initially as he took long, deep breaths and shut his eyes to concentrate all his attention on the sensations that the tight grip on his erection was creating.

No longer having to hold onto his own legs, Gandalf quickly lowered one hand to grasp his own member and pump it, slowly at first, in time to the Man's thrusts into him. He waited in delicious suspense for the moment when the crown of Aragorn's cock would probe the exact spot that would unleash searing pleasure throughout his body. The Wizard's other hand rose to his own left nipple, pinching the nub between thumb and middle finger to hold it still as his index finger rubbed and tickled the tip. Aragorn opened his eyes to judge how the Wizard was responding to the progress of his invasion, and he panted with even greater arousal as he watched Gandalf unashamedly touching himself. Determined to drive the Wizard to even greater bliss, he pushed suddenly forward, and Gandalf's body tensed as he pumped his cock faster. "Oh, yes, more!" he begged, and Aragorn gave up any attempt to hold back.

As the Man thrust forcefully and quickly, Gandalf rolled his hips up slightly and groaned loudly as a more direct pressure along the front of his channel resulted. "Faster," the Wizard managed to gasp out, and Aragorn's powerful hip muscles tensed rhythmically as they propelled his erection gradually up to its roots. He drove forward over and over until he gave a shuddering cry and spilled long and ecstatically deep inside Gandalf. His last frantic thrusts toppled the Wizard into his climax, which sent strings of his seed arcing up until they fell along his chest and belly. Gandalf kept tugging and squeezing as diminishing jolts of pleasure sparked in his member, bringing forth tiny gushes of creamy liquid that coated his fingers. Finally even these ceased.

Both were nearly still for a long moment, panting and sweaty, unwilling to abandon their utter focus on the pleasant, lingering tingle of their orgasms. At last Aragorn opened his eyes and grinned down at the Wizard, whose own eyes were closed and his mouth drawn in a little smile. The Man carefully lowered Gandalf's legs. "Could you pull yourself together long enough to hand me that cloth, old man?" he asked.

Gandalf's eyes slid halfway open, and he looked at Aragorn blearily for a moment. "Hmmm? What? Oh, yes, of course," he said, turning his head and stretching up to grasp the cloth and pass it to Aragorn. "But must you come out quite yet? It is most pleasant having you inside me for awhile."

Aragorn chuckled and remained still once he had the cloth. He patted the Wizard's knees. "All right, but my legs will soon fall asleep in this position. Besides, I feel a distinct need to lie down for awhile myself. As always, you leave me reeling with pleasure."

"Oh, well, if you need to, come out then. Having you in my arms is just as good. That was marvelously vigorous, my dear Ranger. If I fall asleep while interrogating Gollum tomorrow and topple off my chair, I shall blame you."

Aragorn grinned. "Yes, and if you are too sore to even sit on that chair, I suppose you will blame me for that as well."

Gandalf smiled but did not respond. Instead he propped himself on his elbow, examining the Man's torso. Aragorn chuckled. "What are you doing now, checking to see if I'm ready for more? You randy old fellow, can't you give me a little while to rest?"

Gandalf glanced up into his face and smiled as he rubbed one of the dark nipples lazily. "No, I was just observing that you have developed a bit of a tummy. Odd, I hadn't noticed it until just now."

Late the next afternoon Aragorn was in his room, resting, for his reunion with his lover the previous evening has not really left adequate time for sleep. Indeed, it had been so satisfying that he still felt very little desire to lure Gandalf into some pre-dinner lovemaking. Just as well, he reflected a short time later, for there was a quiet knock on the door and the Wizard entered, looking grim and tired. Aragorn quickly slid to one side of the bed to make room for him. After slipping off his shoes, Gandalf practically fell onto the mattress beside him. He twisted around to double over a pillow so that he could lie with his head and shoulders propped up. Aragorn did the same.

"What a maddening day!" Gandalf said, and there was a hint of hoarseness in his voice. Aragorn raised his eyebrows inquiringly. The Wizard went on, "Well, it began with a long, convoluted account of what I already knew-the tale of how Gollum encountered Bilbo, how they had a riddling contest, and how Bilbo supposedly cheated and thus stole the Ring from him. He kept returning to that point, that Bilbo was a thief. Most tiresome. Still, that part of the session accomplished one thing. His account of the riddling game and the rest of it squares fairly well with the true tale that I eventually cajoled out of Bilbo. Gollum seems to be devious and clever in some ways, but he is quite bad at lying. I suppose it is because he has so little imagination and has dealt with people so little. He began by claiming that his grandmother gave him the Ring as a birthday present. No matter how many times I told him that I knew that was far from true, he persisted in it. More often, though, he simply conceals the truth and tries to distract one from one's original question by going off onto unrelated topics. Still, if you can pin him down and insist that he answer, he usually seems to tell the truth."

"This is certainly hopeful. I must say, during that long journey I had to bring him hither from the Dead Marshes, he was certainly most frank and no doubt truthful when he told me what he thought of me and my actions. Speaking of which, how did he react to you?"

"Well, of course he had been unaware of my existence until I entered his cell this morning. I did not reveal that I had been the one responsible for Bilbo's presence in his cave on that fateful day-and for your pursuit and capture of him. I tried to gain his trust a bit, bringing him a lovely breakfast of fresh, raw fish and some scraps of meat. I doubt that he is fully capable of trusting anyone, but by comparison with you and his Elven guards, I must seem quite a pleasant fellow. At any rate, once he told me the tale of Bilbo, we got onto some areas that I did not know about, which was more promising."

"Anything useful?"

"I'm not sure yet, but I am hopeful. Not surprisingly, Gollum says that he left his cave within a year or two of losing the Ring. His one thought, of course, was to find Bilbo and reclaim it, by force if necessary. He headed east into Mirkwood."

"He had no idea where the Shire lay, then?"

"No. He was following Bilbo's trail, which initially of course led east. Not literally reading footprints, but listening and spying around inhabited areas. Whenever he heard Bilbo's name, it would have been in connection with the events of Esgaroth and Dale and the Battle of Five Armies, which were all still quite recent. So naturally Gollum went there. He must have been quite disgusted to learn that Bilbo had eventually turned back and gone along more-or-less the same path to return home. A long and difficult journey for nothing."

Aragorn slid slightly toward the Wizard and, putting an arm around his shoulders, pulled his lover to lean comfortably against his side. He said, "I assume that Gollum tried at that point to reach the Shire."

"Naturally. I'm not sure why he failed to do so, though I have my suspicions. He apparently never even got back to the Misty Mountains. That is where I could not get him to talk further of his travels, and he reverted instead to complaints and curses against Bilbo. I dropped that line of questioning for the time being and extracted a bit of information about his background. As one might expect, Gollum knows nothing of the geography of Middle-earth, so he was unable to tell me anything beyond the name of his village. It must have been small indeed, for I never had encountered it in all my travels, and in the many years since Gollum has had the Ring, that village has ceased to be.

"Still, I made him describe the area in as much detail as he could. It took awhile, but I pieced together that the village lay just beside a great river, with a vast forest fairly far off on one side and mountains in the distance on the other, beyond the river. Well, that could describe many villages along the Anduin for the whole length of Mirkwood. But mark this: opposite the village, another large river flowed down from the Misty Mountains and straight into the Anduin. As you probably know, all but one of the rivers on the west bank flow diagonally into the Anduin, forming a roughly spearhead-shaped area of land where they join it." He paused and waited with a neutral expression for Aragorn's reaction.

The Man stared solemnly back at him. "Yes, all but the River Gladden . . . which flows through the Gladden Fields to reach the Anduin."

"Exactly. I tried to learn more, but he was as tired as I by that point, and he went jabbering on about his home and his friends and family and so on. Eventually I found my attention wandering, and I gave up for the day. More of the same tomorrow, though, and for as many tomorrows as it takes."

"And for right now?"

"For right now I have come to get a little sympathy and comfort from one who is most skilled in dispensing those commodities."

Aragorn immediately bent his head to nuzzle into Gandalf's thick mane of white hair. "And what sort of sympathy and comfort do you require?"

The Wizard smiled happily and closed his eyes. "That feels very nice indeed, but I'm afraid that I am not prepared for anything much livelier than that-not now, at any rate. Later this evening, who knows?"

Aragorn sat up again. "Oddly enough, I am not really feeling the need for that myself-though I would have made the effort if that was what you wanted. That was quite a session we had last night, old man."

There was a trace of smugness in Gandalf's grin. "It was pleasant, wasn't it?"

"Pleasant! Merely pleasant? You seemed to think it was more than pleasant when you were urging me to ride you harder."

"Well, very pleasant, wonderful, thrilling, blissful, and marvelously satisfying. All that and more."

Aragorn kissed Gandalf's bearded cheek. "That's better. Now, to return to the issue at hand, what sort of sympathy and comfort do you want?"

Gandalf sighed and stretched all his limbs. "A glass of wine would be nice. And a pipe full of weed before dinner." As Aragorn crossed to a gracefully carved cabinet to fetch the wine, Gandalf continued, "And some talk that has nothing to do with rings."

"Here you are. And the pipeweed. I presume you have your pipe about you. Well, my day was fairly predictable. Hunting with Legolas and the others in the most bone-chilling cold. We were moderately successful, and there will be fresh venison for dinner tonight."

"Fresh venison at the court of Thranduil. What a novelty!"

"But you love venison, and it must be quite a change from what you've had to eat on the way here. And I made sure that we get one of the tenderloins to share."

"Lovely! It's a pity that it's not our anniversary. It would be very appropriate. Never mind, though. We shall celebrate your capture of Gollum, and tomorrow I shall tackle the little wretch again and gain some information that will make your long struggle to bring him here worthwhile."

The next few days repeated the first, with Gandalf slowly piecing together a coherent story of Gollum's youth, the finding of the Ring, the murder of Déagol, and the retreat into the dark of the caverns beneath the mountains. With more insistent questioning, he learned that Gollum had turned southward as he journeyed toward the Shire. But as the creature described his progress through the forest and beyond, he became more and more reluctant to answer and kept changing the subject, prattling relentlessly until Gandalf finally decided that desperate measures were needed.

Late that afternoon Aragorn went down to the dungeons to meet Gandalf but was told that the Wizard had left more than an hour earlier. The guard added, "He said that he was finished with the prisoner."

Aragorn hurried back to the area of the guest rooms. When he knocked at the Wizard's door, he heard a soft invitation to enter.

Gandalf was sitting in a chair by his fireplace, holding a pipe that had apparently gone out through neglect. He looked up as the Man entered. His face was pale, almost ashen, and Aragorn frowned worriedly and pulled the other chair closer to sit near the Wizard. "Bad news?" he asked.

"Bad indeed. There was a solid reason why we could not find Gollum all those years."

Aragorn nodded slowly. "He was in Mordor, wasn't he?"

"Yes, for a goodly part of that period. I suppose that, given where you found him, it was likely, but I hoped against hope that he had never been captured. He was, though, and tortured."

There was a short silence. Aragorn finally said, "I thought that some of his scars did not look as if they came from natural injuries."

"No, and quite apart from the fact that no one should have to bear such treatment, he was not able to keep his secrets."

"Do you know how much he told the Enemy?"

"Enough. About Bilbo-yes, by name-and that he came from the Shire. And that he had 'stolen' a golden Ring that makes you invisible."

"Enough indeed. What are you going to do?"

"Gollum dropped one interesting remark. The interrogators pressed him hard to tell them where the Shire is. He did not know, fortunately, and was not able to tell them anything but that it lies west, west of Esgaroth, west of Mirkwood. Thus it would appear that Sauron and his minions have no real notion of where the Shire is. How long it will take them to find it, I cannot tell, of course. Few people apart from the Shire's inhabitants have ever heard of it, so the Dark Lord's agents can hardly just ask for directions or find a handy signpost. We may have quite some time yet before they discover where Bilbo lived, and we must take advantage of that period."

Aragorn nodded and peered closely at Gandalf as he sat staring into the fire. "There is something that you have not told me. Is there more bad news?"

The Wizard frowned and looked down into his lap before glancing at Aragorn and then into the fire again. "Not news, no. It is just that-well, today I was forced to do something that I never would have dreamed that I was capable of doing."

Aragorn stared at him in alarm. "What?"

"I . . . I tortured Gollum."

"Tortured him! What do you mean?"

"It finally became apparent that Gollum simply would not tell me what happened to him after he traveled south. I had to force him speak, for I sensed that he was concealing some dreadful secret that might prove vital for us to know. I decided to threaten him. I lit a small torch. When I approached him and made as if to touch him with it, he finally blurted out all that I have told you. After that, of course, he would not speak to me and sat cowering in a corner. I had what I needed, though, and I left him."

After a moment Aragorn leaned forward and put his hand on Gandalf's knee, saying softly, "You had to do it. So much is at stake. And you did not hurt him . . . as you described it. You didn't, did you?"

"No, not his body. But I had hoped that, once rid of the Ring, he might gradually be cured of its effects. Over the last few days I thought I saw signs of that happening-little flashes of friendliness, humor, gratitude for some of the 'treats' I brought him. I have thrown all of that away now." He sighed. "Still, I have bade Legolas and the others to treat him as well as they can within the bounds of safety and still to hope for his cure."

The Man squeezed Gandalf's knee slightly. "From what I experienced while bringing him here, a cure seems highly unlikely. Still, do not berate yourself over-much. What you learned is vital to our cause."

"Oh, I know that. It is just . . . something that I shall not forget easily."

"No, I suppose not. I'll tell you what. You have not left these caves since you arrived. Let us go out for a short walk before dinner. It is cold and brisk and clear today-believe me, I know how cold! I think it might cheer you up. And you can tell me what we are to do now."

Putting on heavy cloaks and boots, they left the huge complex of caves and wandered out into the woods, enjoying the pale late afternoon sunlight that filtered through the bare birch branches. They walked, their breath misting and hovering before their faces, and they listened to the occasional call of birds. Soon they were well out of the keen earshot of the guards and sentinels near the front door of the caverns.

"So," Aragorn said, "I presume that we depart westward tomorrow."

"Yes, and I must reach the Shire as soon as possible. A long journey indeed. I do hope that spring will at least have begun to clear the mountain passes by the time we get there."

"What do you want me to do?"

"There are two ways that the spies of Sauron could travel in approaching the Shire. Over the Misty Mountains and straight west, or up through Dunland from the south. You and I can ride some way together I think. As far as Rivendell. Along the way we can try to learn if any sinister folk have come around asking the way to the Shire. Then you can go south from Rivendell and investigate that area while I go on to Hobbiton. Once I have tested the Ring, I shall meet you, shall we say at Sarn Ford?"

"Yes, that makes sense. When?"

"Well, let us allow time for unexpected delays. May 1st should give us a bit of leeway. Sarn Ford in May. It will certainly be warmer than this by quite some way. You were right, I have enjoyed this walk, my dear Aragorn, and I feel a bit more cheerful--but let us go in now. I am cold, and my toes are starting to hurt."

"All right. It is almost sunset. Come and forget what you have learned today and how you learned it-for a little while." He paused and pulled the Wizard into a tight hug. Gandalf nearly disappeared within Aragorn's broad, strong arms and the long, dense fur of the Man's cloak. They drew apart, and Aragorn continued with a fond smile, "Come and lift a glass with me, bidding farewell to our hosts."

Gandalf returned his smile. "You are right. One carefree evening, and then I shall begin a very long journey to toss a ring into a Hobbit's fireplace." He paused, as his smile faded and he looked off into the woods. "Yes, to throw the Ring into the fire," he added softly, then smiled again at Aragorn as they walked back toward the warmth of the caves.