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: Most of the action takes place from January 13 to 15, 3019 TA and covers the chapters "A Journey in the Dark" and "The Bridge of Khazad-Dum." (Yes, an angsty chapter.) The last section carries the story up to February 16. Passages have been quoted or adapted from the two chapters of the novel.

Thanks to Elanor for the betaing and Sarah for much encouragement.

Part 6

During the descent from the Pass of Caradhras, Aragorn struggled to concentrate on helping the Hobbits as they became more and more weary. He could not help worrying, though, about the fact that Gandalf would almost certainly suggest that they take the other route, the one that he and the Ranger had agreed not to mention to the group: through the Mines of Moria.

Exactly as he had anticipated, once they had camped and eaten, Gandalf called a council. The Wizard sat on the largest smooth area of a small outcropping of shale, and Aragorn, as his fellow guide, sat beside him. Boromir, Gimli, and Legolas occupied scattered boulders, and the Hobbits huddled together beside the outcropping, trying to shield themselves from the cold wind. Aragorn listened glumly as the Wizard laid out his plan to the others: to hide themselves from spies and hostile weather by going through the Mines. He explained that they could not journey further south and use the Gap of Rohan or the long route circling around the White Mountains and passing through southern Gondor. Spies of both Sauron and Saruman watched over Rohan, and the southern road would take far too long.

Gandalf tried hard to put the best face possible on the Moria plan, for there would obviously be considerable opposition from the group. Terrifying legends and tales about the great underground complex of tunnels, chambers, and pits were known far and wide in Middle-earth.

Aragorn felt his stomach tighten and his heart beat faster. His sense of danger lurking ahead for his lover was as strong as it had ever been. In discussions with Gandalf, he had never mentioned his frightening premonition on the night before they set out, but during their journey he had tried to argue against going through Moria on more concrete, logical grounds. None of his warnings to Gandalf, either in Rivendell or as the Fellowship traveled south, had deterred the Wizard from his belief that the best plan was to take the group through that dreadful place. After a few somewhat tense discussions on the subject, they had agreed not to talk further about it until they came to the point where a decision was unavoidable. The Man silently cursed the storm that had driven them back down off the mountain pass. Without that, they would by now probably be well down the east side of the Mountains, heading for Lórien. His heart ached to think of it. Now if only they could use the Gap of Rohan instead! It was a wide gap indeed, a great swath of land between the White Mountains and the southern end of the Misty Mountains with terrain ideal for riding or walking. Still, Gandalf was probably right. Saruman would have his spies everywhere, and there was faint chance of eluding their notice. Yes, Gandalf was determined, but he would not make this decision without discussing it with the group and taking a vote. He would clearly do his best, however, to convince them that his plan was all but inevitable. The Wizard had become angrier and more desperate as most of the members of the Fellowship expressed a great reluctance to go through Moria-though none could propose a plausible alternative.

Aragorn wondered if any of the others had ever seen Gandalf truly angry. He himself had-though fortunately that anger had never been directed at him. He hoped that the group would not provoke a demonstration of the Wizard's capacity for wrath. Clearly Gandalf was torn between his desire to let the group decide on their plan and his absolute conviction that the Quest depended on their accepting the route through the Mines.

At last the Wizard pointed out that the Mines might well still be free of Orcs. With a glance at Gimli's intent face, Gandalf added, "There is even a chance that Dwarves are there, and that in some deep hall of his father, Balin son of Fundin may be found. However it may prove, one must tread the path that need chooses."

Immediately Gimli responded eagerly, "I will tread the path with you, Gandalf! I will go and look on the halls of Durin, whatever may wait there-if you can find the doors that are shut."

Gandalf smiled with relief at Gimli's eager support.

"Good, Gimli! You encourage me. We will seek the hidden doors together. And we will come through. In the ruins of the Dwarves, a Dwarf's head will be less easy to bewilder than Elves or Men or Hobbits. Yet it will not be the first time that I have been to Moria. I sought there long for Thráin son of Thrór after he was lost. I passed through, and I came out again alive!"

Much though Aragorn hated to oppose the Wizard after his own plan to climb the Redhorn Pass had failed, he could not help making one final effort to dissuade Gandalf. "I too once passed the Dimrill Gates, but though I also came out again, the memory is very evil. I do not with to enter Moria a second time."

"And I don't wish to enter it even once," said Pippin.

"Nor me," muttered Sam.

Gandalf sighed deeply in frustration and said sharply, "Of course not! Who would?" He paused and looked around the group, mastering his annoyance and speaking slowly and firmly, "But the question is: who will follow me, if I lead you there?"

"I will." Gimli's vote of support was entirely predictable, and Gandalf acknowledged it with a brief, tight smile and a small nod, immediately casting his anxious eyes around the rest of the group. For a short while there was silence.

Aragorn dreaded to speak. Deep in his mind there had slowly grown a tiny thought that if he continued strongly to oppose Gandalf, it might cause a serious rift between them. Moreover, in all fairness he realized that he had to support the Wizard. There really was no option. Finally he blurted out, "I will." Startled, Gandalf instantly turned toward the Man. His eyebrows slid upward inquiringly. Aragorn continued, "You followed my lead almost to disaster in the snow, and have said no word of blame." Gandalf lowered his gaze to his own lap during this but looked again into the Ranger's eyes with intent curiosity as Aragorn went on in a more emphatic tone. "I will follow your lead now--if this last warning does not move you. It is not of the Ring, nor of us others that I am thinking now, but of you, Gandalf. And I say to you: if you pass the doors of Moria, beware!"

Gandalf stared at him with a puzzled and concerned frown for a few seconds. Then the Wizard drew in a breath and opened his mouth as if he were going to question the Ranger about his strange warning. Aragorn felt a tiny stirring of hope. Perhaps Gandalf would take him seriously, perhaps they could somehow devise another route--but before the Wizard could utter a word, Boromir chimed in: "I will not go, not unless the vote of the whole company is against me."

The instant he began to speak, Gandalf's eyes shifted from Aragorn's face to Boromir's, and Aragorn gave a gasp of frustration at having lost the chance to try and explain his cryptic warning-though he realized that he could not really understand himself why he had such an ominous feeling about a threat awaiting the Wizard.

As Boromir finished, Aragorn thought that perhaps he could now capture Gandalf's attention again and more emphatically reiterate his fears for his lover. The Wizard was fully focused now on the group, however, as Legolas immediately declared that he did not want to go to Moria. That meant three votes-Gandalf, Gimli, and the Ranger-in favor of the underground route, and two--Boromir and Legolas--against. The Hobbits, or at least Sam, would clearly vote however Frodo did. Even just two Hobbits would give Gandalf's plan the approval of the majority. The Ringbearer seemed to realize that the decision now lay with him. "I do not wish to go," Frodo said, "but neither do I wish to refuse the advice of Gandalf. I beg that there should be no vote, until we have slept on it. Gandalf will get votes easier in the light of the morning than in this cold gloom."

Aragorn sensed rather than saw the Wizard relax slightly. Clearly Frodo's words suggested that he wished to influence his fellow Hobbits to vote with Gandalf, and so in the morning the matter would mostly likely be settled in favor of the path through Moria. The Ranger reached out to tug at Gandalf's sleeve and try to speak with him again, but Frodo looked around and added, "How the wind howls!"

Aragorn frowned and listened intently, then leapt to his feet. "How the wind howls! It is howling with wolf-voices. The Wargs have come west of the Mountains!" His heart sank as he realized that other options were no longer viable. All opposition to the Moria route vanished as the others agreed that the Mines offered them their best chance of escape from the savage beasts. Out in the open they were simply too vulnerable.

Resigned though he now was to the inevitable, Aragorn could not shake the insistent, anguishing feeling that his lover would be in great danger once they entered the Mines. "You wanted to protect the old man," Aragorn told himself with a sense of bitter irony. "Now you've got your chance. Just make sure that you do it well!"

Sitting in near darkness, the members of the Fellowship ate a small meal after the ordeal of entering Moria. After the brief struggle with the monster in the pool outside the West Gates and the collapse of the whole entrance to the Mines, the Company was trapped. The only way out was the East Gates, at least a two-day journey through the labyrinthine workings of the Dwarves' great realm. As the group rested, Gandalf took Aragorn a few steps aside.

"Aragorn, when we set out, I shall take Gimli in front with me. I hope he may be of some help in finding the way. Frodo should follow immediately behind us. I would like you to bring up the rear, to make sure that none of the others somehow falls behind."

The Ranger looked anxiously into his lover's face during this speech. He considered protesting this arrangement, for he desperately wanted to walk beside Gandalf or directly behind him, hand on his sword hilt, ready for any threat to the Wizard. Surely Boromir or Legolas could act as the rear guard. He realized, though, that he could offer Gandalf no rational reason to change the proposed arrangement of the group. The Man tried to reassure himself. Gimli would be close to the Wizard. As a skilled and bold warrior, he could protect Gandalf. Aragorn's stomach remained clenched, however, and once they set out, he was constantly aware of the seven bodies that blocked the narrow tunnel between him and his lover. Don't be ridiculous, he chided himself. A threat to Gandalf might possibly come from behind, and if so, you would be in a position to deal with it. This thought reassured him somewhat, but he still was not entirely happy with being separated from the Wizard.

After a few hours of uneventful walking, Aragorn felt slightly calmer. When the Wizard called a halt, Aragorn leaned against the cold, rough stone of the tunnel's wall, waiting patiently as Gandalf and Gimli discussed which side of a fork in the passage they should take. After the nightmare of the battle at the West Gates and the collapse of the doorway, the pause seemed comparatively peaceful. Standing before the Doors of Durin, the Ranger had had faith that Gandalf would eventually discover how to open the secret doors, and he had done so. Surely he would now make the correct decision to keep them on their path. The others, he could see by the dim light of the Wizard's staff, were not so confident.

The Man put on as cheerful an air as he could and said in a low voice, "Do not be afraid! I have been with him on many a journey, if never on one so dark; and there are tales in Rivendell of greater deeds than any that I have seen. He will not go astray-if there is any path to find. He has led us in here against our fears, but he will lead us out again, at whatever cost to himself. He is surer of finding the way home in a blind night than the cats of Queen Berûthiel."

The group chuckled and seemed to take heart at this speech, although Aragorn smiled when he heard Pippin whisper, "Merry, who is Queen Berûthiel?" only to receive a shrug from his cousin. Provincial little fellows indeed. Soon Gandalf chose one of the tunnels, and they moved on, with Aragorn again walking last. "At whatever cost to himself." That phrase repeated over and over in the Ranger's mind, and he could not banish it from his thoughts. Why had he said that, he wondered. It was hardly the sort of thing to reassure the others. Certainly it did not reassure him. It was all too true.

In the midst of these anxious reflections, Aragorn suddenly became aware of soft footfalls behind them, and as he walked he looked back over his shoulder as much as he could without stumbling. At last, after nearly another hour of hiking, he managed to catch a glimpse of two tiny, faint glowing spots in the darkness. They disappeared as he paused, and after a moment's hesitation the Man turned and hurried to catch up with the group. With only the dim light from the Wizard's staff, he could hardly make an effective search for the creature that he suspected was following them, especially as it meant leaving the others in pitch darkness. He resolved to wait and tell Gandalf about his discovery when they could talk without being heard by the others. Soon he noticed that Frodo was also slowing at intervals to look over his shoulder into the gloom behind, listening anxiously. He hoped that fear would not make the Ringbearer announce the presence of the creature behind them, for it might make the others more nervous as well. The Man was relieved when a short time later Gandalf found himself at a puzzling three-way fork in the tunnels and announced that they would halt to sleep. A nearby guard-room with a door offered a relatively safe place for the group to spend the rest of the night. Gollum could hardly creep up on the Ringbearer amidst so many companions in that enclosed space, he reflected.

Less than two hours later, Gandalf sat in the corridor outside the guard-room, smoking and contemplating the three tunnels. Despite lying awake for an hour before deciding to take over the guard from Pippin, he had not managed to remember anything about this particular meeting of passages. "No wonder," he thought. "If one comes through from the other direction, there is no choice to be made here. If I didn't stop and look around at this particular point during that other trip, I probably didn't even see those other two tunnels. I shall have to decide in some other way."

Putting out his pipe, he rose, lit up his staff a bit more brightly, and moved to the archway containing the three passages. One by one, he walked a few steps into each and stood perfectly still, sniffing and feeling for minute currents of air that might indicate where the passages led. He tried to clear his mind so that he could focus on his keen sense of direction and then thought about where they must be in relation to the West and East Gates. After about twenty minutes, he made his decision and returned to sit outside the guard-room door. He contemplated the various dangers that they might face and in particular pondered possible sources for the ominous tapping or hammering that they had heard in the depths after Pippin foolishly tossed a stone down the well in the small room. Nothing occurred to him. Certainly it was dead quiet now, apart from some soft snores audible through the partially closed door.

Contemplating dangers made him think of Aragorn's recent behavior. The Ranger had seemed not to be supporting him as much as he had hoped and expected. In general he seemed withdrawn and sullen. During the little council about the group's route, Aragorn had spoken graciously about the failure of his own plan to cross the Mountains via the Pass of Caradhras. Still, perhaps the Man still harbored some ill feelings about Gandalf's considerable opposition to that plan. Most probably, though, Aragorn's mood stemmed simply from fear. Certainly anyone would be afraid of going through Moria. He was afraid of it himself, but all along it had really seemed to him the most promising option-and now it was impossible to go back. If he did not lead the group seriously astray, they would probably spend only one more night in the Mines. Yes, the place was frightening and oppressive, but that did not seem enough to account for Aragorn's anxiety and nervousness. The Man had never behaved in this way before, no matter what dangers they had faced, and it puzzled Gandalf. What was bothering his lover? He hoped that the Ranger's attitude wouldn't affect the spirits of the group.

Suddenly he remembered Aragorn's cryptic warning to him as they had debated the merits of going into Moria. Why should the Man be worried about him in particular? Surely any danger that they might encounter would threaten them all equally. If Aragorn had been a High Elf, one of the Wise, he might have been gifted with a foresight of some kind. A mortal Man, however, would not be likely to possess that kind of power-at least not in the Wizard's long experience in Middle-earth. Yet Aragorn was no ordinary Man. He was the heir of kings, and the blood of Numenor ran true in him. Perhaps he did have special insight. Even so, Gandalf concluded, there was not much that he could do now to protect himself-nothing that he would not have done in any case. He pictured himself walking through the tunnels of Moria with the Fellowship-including the Hobbits-ranged in a circle around him, their weapons drawn, prepared to fiercely defend him against attack. He smiled and shook his head. Absurd. He resolved not to let worries about the Ranger's warning distract him from his concentration on finding his way through the Mines as quickly as possible.

Gandalf had not been the only one of the group lying awake. Aragorn had initially started to drift off, but he again was visited by one of his intense moments of conviction that the Wizard was in dire peril. Eventually he heard Gandalf get up to take over the guard duties from Pippin. Here perhaps was a chance to speak with his lover without disturbing and alarming the others. He waited for awhile until he heard the young Hobbit's breathing become deep and slow. Silently he rose, carefully edging among the still figures on the floor, which were barely visible in the faint light that came from the Wizard's staff just outside the door.

As Aragorn emerged, Gandalf looked up at him with a smile. The Man pulled the door nearly shut behind him to help muffle the sound of their whispers from those within. He slid his back down the wall until he was sitting beside the Wizard. There was a faint smell of pipeweed smoke lingering in the vicinity, though there was no sign of Gandalf's pipe. The Wizard had unsheathed Glamdring and set it upright against the wall opposite him. They leaned slightly toward each other until their shoulders were pressed together and they could stretch their necks enough to kiss softly for awhile, savoring simply being able to touch in an intimate way after being so long on the road with the group.

Finally, feeling their desire mounting and not being sure just how far to take their caresses, they sat upright once more, merely holding hands. Reluctantly Aragorn turned his mind to the problems facing them now. "Have you noticed that we are being followed?"

The Wizard stared at him in alarm. "No! By whom-or what?"

"If I had to guess, I would say our unwelcome companion is Gollum. During the nights when I was taking him to Thranduil's realm, I often saw his eerie eyes glowing in the dark. Whatever is following us has those same uncanny eyes."

"How very strange! When did you first notice him?"

"It can't have been more than a few hours after we set off from the West Gates. He obviously did not come in with us, so he must have been lurking about inside. What in Arda do you suppose he was doing in here?"

Gandalf sighed and thought for a short while. "Perhaps much the same thing that we are-seeking a route that would hide him from unfriendly eyes. He escaped from Thranduil's guards with the help of the Enemy's forces, but if he then managed to slip away from them as well, he would need someplace to hide. Perhaps he got lost in here-easy enough to do, since he presumably had never been in Moria before."

"He must have been beside himself with joy that the Ringbearer should cross his path. Quite a coincidence!"

Gandalf looked at him speculatively. "Perhaps . .. and perhaps not. I suspect that those two were destined to encounter each other, one way or another. Well, what shall we do about him? You managed to track him down and catch him one other time in the wide world outside. How difficult would it be to do that again, given that we know he is near us in this enclosed place?"

"Very nearly impossible, I should think. He has lived for hundreds of years in caverns and tunnels and can see quite well in the dark-better even than you can, I think. We, on the other hand, have so little light. Light enough to alert him to our presence but not enough to reveal his to us. The glow of his eyes would disappear if he turned to flee, and we would not see it if he turned into some side tunnel. Besides, if some of us started tracking or chasing him, we could easily become split off from the rest of our group, and there would be fewer to guard the Ringbearer. It is a real challenge-and one that could delay us considerably just when we are short of both water and time."

"Yes, and what would we do if we caught him? Dragging him through Moria on a leash would be a daunting task. On the whole, I am inclined to let him follow along if he can. If we are vigilant, he would find it hard to deal with all of us in order to get to Frodo. Once we reach the open air again, capturing him-or I suppose killing him if absolutely necessary-would be somewhat easier."

"Yes, I think that is the most reasonable plan."

They fell silent, and soon each became acutely aware of the warmth radiating from the other's body. They sighed in frustration and glanced at each other in doubt.

Aragorn shook his head. "What I wouldn't give to be magically transported back to Rivendell, just for one night! Even just for one hour."

"Yes, or to Lothlórien. And at this point I would settle for twenty minutes! Never mind. We shall soon be there-if not soon enough."

Aragorn hesitated only briefly before saying with a slightly forced good humor, "Yes, we shall once more have that most beautiful of places to share."

Finally, unable to resist, they leaned together again and began kissing, slowly and tantalizingly at first. Their lips clung moistly to each other as they pulled slightly apart to move and cling again, and each time the kiss was renewed, their tongues met more eagerly and lingeringly.

Gandalf soon moved back just a little and whispered, "Do you know, with all the troubles we have had lately and facing a long march to the East Gates, my morale has sunk quite low at the moment."

Aragorn nodded. "Mine as well. Between the oppressive dark and the eerie silence and our unwelcome companion, we-" He broke off suddenly and grinned. "Ah, I see what you mean. We might be able to raise each other's morale. Dare we do anything of that sort? Not only are you on guard, but you are supposed to be deciding which of those tunnels we should take when we go on."

"Oh, I have already chosen one of the tunnels. As I had hoped, a good, relaxing smoke facilitated my decision. As for being on guard, the silence is, as you say, a bit eerie, but it strongly suggests to me that apart from Gollum there are no other living creatures near us. True, there was that tapping sound far in the depths, but I cannot believe that the Mines are still being worked by either friend or foe. Upon reflection, I suspect that it was nothing but a deceptively rhythmic natural sound-or perhaps some unpleasant creature living so far down in the depths that we shall not encounter it. And as you can see, there is no hint of a glow on Glamdring to indicate the presence of orcs nearby. If we moved a little way along this corridor, your majesty, we would still be within sight and hearing if a threat unexpectedly approached and yet we would not be likely to wake the others if we were to make any slight noise . . . for some reason or other."

"For some reason. I understand perfectly, and I commend your discretion, favored royal Wizard-always adept at court intrigue. Yes, you're right, it does seem safe. Let's withdraw just a little and do some morale-raising."

They stood up slowly, flexing knees that had become stiff from sitting. At once they turned to each other, embracing closely and kissing hungrily but briefly. Suddenly Aragorn freed his mouth and stared off into the darkness of the tunnel. "There may be no orcs about, but how do we know that Gollum is not lurking nearby, spying on us? The thought is enough to make one feel quite strange, doing this sort of thing."

Gandalf looked into the gloom and shrugged. "Didn't you say that his eyes glowed? No sign of anything like that, now or earlier when I was on guard alone. No, he probably knows that Frodo is safely tucked away in a small room in the midst of his companions with a guard set. No doubt he is still terrified of both you and me and would hardly linger in our vicinity, waiting for us to catch him! He would also surmise that we won't go on for some time. He must sleep occasionally himself, or perhaps he is foraging for food-although what he finds in here to eat I cannot imagine."

Aragorn smiled grimly. "Spiders, perhaps?"

Gandalf winced and frowned at him reproachfully. "Please! You may be right, but let's not contemplate such a possibility. Indeed, let us forget him altogether for awhile, if we can."

The pair moved about thirty feet along the passage. They could still see the door and the faint glow where Glamdring's polished surface reflected the faint light from Gandalf's staff. It was obvious that they themselves would be virtually invisible to anyone who might emerge through the door.

At once Aragorn turned to the Wizard and pinned him lightly against the wall with his body. He initiated an even deeper kiss, grasping Gandalf's buttocks with strong, spread fingers and pulling the Wizard's bulging trouser-front against his own. Both moaned softly as their erections rubbed at each other through their clothing.

Gandalf reluctantly pushed him slightly away with a hand against his chest. "Let's take turns, though. That way we won't both be completely carried away by passion at the same time, oblivious to all that happens around us. The one who is pleasuring the other will at least be alert enough to notice, just in case something should happen."

Aragorn shook his head with a smile. "You make all this sound more like a military strategy than a romantic interlude."

"Well, we must act responsibly. Besides 'something happening' might just be a Hobbit wandering out to obey a call of nature."

"Yes, I doubt that any of them will be pissing down that well, given how you scolded Pippin."

"Don't remind me! Either of the stone-throwing or of the scolding. Given how little water we have had, I doubt that calls of nature will be frequent tonight. Besides, there's so little light that any wandering Hobbit who manages to spot us might be persuaded that we were just talking."

"Yes, talking pressed up together and with my hand down your trousers." Aragorn chuckled.

Gandalf sighed happily. "Mmm, I like the sound of that. Come, let's get started! The less time we spend at it, the less chance of discovery. I know, I know, that's not very romantic either--but neither is lying near each other night after night with our frustration and desire building."

Aragorn grinned. "No, you're right. So, it sounds as if you are willing to forego romance and settle for a bit of sheer animal lust."

In answer the Wizard moaned and put his arms around Aragorn's neck, pulling him down into a kiss that quickly grew deep and demanding. Writhing with need, Gandalf ground his hips hard against Aragorn. At last the Man managed to free his mouth.

"I thought we were supposed to be taking turns. If you keep that up-"

"Turns . . . yes." The Wizard drew away and leaned back against the wall, grabbing Aragorn's hand and pressing it hard against his straining erection.

Aragorn murmured in amusement, "I gather we're not going to draw straws." He pressed his right forearm on the wall just above Gandalf's shoulder, leaning on it as he rubbed his left hand up and down the hard shaft, drawing deep, irregular gasps from the Wizard. Aragorn nuzzled under the beard to tongue Gandalf's neck avidly.

"Take it out!" the Wizard managed to whisper. "Otherwise-"

Aragorn's tongue slid up to swirl and poke into his ear. "Yes, otherwise your trousers will not be very comfortable afterwards."

Gandalf tried to stifle his groans as the Man's tongue continued to tease at his ear. Aragorn stopped stroking and fumbled at the knot of the Wizard's trousers, managing gradually to undo it with one hand. Frustrated, Gandalf reached to massage his own length until the Ranger pulled the laces loose and pushed the trousers down. The Wizard's erection sprang free, and Aragorn slid his hand around it. He caressed it slowly and firmly until drops of creamy liquid oozed from the tip. He rubbed his palm over the slit, smearing the pre-come down along the shaft and then suddenly pumping hard. Gandalf uttered low, strangled groans until his lover murmured, "Quietly." The Wizard turned his head and pressed his face into Aragorn's chest, muffling his reaction as his long abstinence was finally ended. Relief hit him, sending spurts of his seed arcing out and falling onto the stone floor. The Man continued to stroke him until he was sure every tiny spasm of ecstasy that he could give his lover had passed. Slowly he licked the final drops of liquid that had dribbled onto his hand and swallowed them. The Wizard slumped against the wall, sliding slightly sideways to press against Aragorn.

The Ranger chuckled softly. "Shall I hold you up, old man?"

"No, thank you. I think I can manage not to topple over. I am not entirely incapacitated, intense though that was. Oh, did you say something about straws?"

Aragorn shook slightly with silent laughter. "Never mind. It's my turn now, I believe."

"Yes, and I think I shall start by untying this," the Wizard said, using both hands to loosen Aragorn's trouser-laces. "Less delay later this way."

"A good strategy."

Gandalf reached inside and took hold of the tip of the swollen, upright member. The Man suddenly flinched and sucked in a hissing breath. "Your fingers are like ice!"

The Wizard withdrew his hand. "Sorry! If you can wait just a minute, I'll try and warm them." He crossed his arms, sliding his hands between his body and upper arms. He chuckled as Aragorn squirmed slightly and began to caress his own member through the cloth. Gandalf added, "Yes, a nice, romantic evening we're having, isn't it?"

Aragorn murmured ruefully. "Indeed. I didn't think anything could dampen my, um, enthusiasm, but it seems to have shrunk distinctly."

After a short while Gandalf reached up and placed one hand on the Ranger's cheek. "Warm enough, do you think?"

"I can probably tolerate it. Slowly, though, just in case I can't."

Gandalf stuck one hand inside the trouser-front and slid his fingers gradually down the underside of the considerable length within. He stretched up to flicking his tongue against the Man's lips until Aragorn extended his own tongue. They licked and circled each other with a languid pace that belied Aragorn's soaring arousal. The Wizard's fingers pressed into the soft skin where the Man's testicle sac met his shaft, and Aragorn whimpered as their tongues continued their wet, sensual caresses. Gandalf slowly tickled and rubbed the firm balls, longing to feel the hot seed within gush over his hand as the Man finally gained his release. He moved his body slightly to one side so that he could grasp the shaft firmly and pull it down, making the cloth sag below it until the tip was free from its confinement and he could pump the erection in earnest. Soon Aragorn began to pant and moan softly, his head leaning back against the wall. The Wizard managed to undo enough of the fastenings on the thick jacket and shirt beneath to bare one nipple. It hardened quickly from the rubbing of the cloth and the cold air of the tunnel, but Gandalf was soon bathing it with the wet heat of his tongue and lips. He squeezed the high-veined shaft more tightly and pulled faster, feeling Aragorn's body shuddering and tensing as he neared his peak. The Man brought his arm up to his face and pressed his mouth against the thick cloth to stifle his groans as his balls clenched and scattered his come out and down onto the floor as the cock jerked about with Gandalf's rapid stroking. Slowly the jolts of the pleasure grew milder and further apart until at last they ceased, and he relaxed and slumped against the stone behind him.

"Shall I hold you up, young man?" the Wizard inquired.

"No, I think I can stagger back to the door-and the light. I would like to be able to see you a little better while we talk."

The pair fastened their trousers and moved slowly along the tunnel. They sank rather quickly to sit beside each other once more, still panting slightly from their exertions.

After a short silence, Gandalf frowned and asked, "You have seemed very worried lately. Do you really fear that I will be injured or even lost to you?"

"I don't know how real the things I fear are. I only know that I have never had this intense foreboding before, and it has returned to me time after time since our last night in Rivendell. At the worst I have felt your loss almost tangibly, and visions of it have visited me in dreams-though when I wake I cannot remember what I saw. Only the terror of it."

The Wizard cupped the back of his head and drew him into a gentle kiss. Finally he withdrew a couple of inches. "This is a dreadful place. Perhaps your worries began simply because we talked about the Moria option in Rivendell, and you remembered how horrible it was when you were here before. And now that we are actually here, the reality is even worse. But be hopeful! Most probably you and I shall soon be together in Lórien, that most beautiful and peaceful of places. There I shall not rest until I have satisfied your every desire. And believe me, I certainly shall not let you rest until you have done the same for me!"

Aragorn struggled to answer cheerfully, "Agreed! When we arrive safely in Lórien, I promise you, I shall strive so hard to satisfy you that eventually you will be begging me to stop and leave you in peace."

Gandalf gave a muffled chuckle. "That doesn't sound possible, but if it is, I should definitely like to experience it! Well, no doubt I am stating the obvious, but I feel so much better. Now, you should go in and get some sleep."

"What about you? You have been on guard for quite awhile. Why don't you go and sleep, now that you have made your decision about the tunnels, and I shall keep watch."

"No, I'm sure that I could not sleep. I was tired when we arrived here, and my mind was abuzz with having made so many decisions and thought back over so many twists and turns during my previous trip through the Mines. Now, however, I have rested, had a smoke, and had my morale considerably boosted. I feel instead wide awake and eager to be on our way and get out of Moria. I don't exactly enjoy being here either, you know. The others need their sleep, though, and so do you."

"All right, but promise you'll wake me if you do start nodding off." He rolled slightly to rest on one buttock and stretch his neck to kiss the Wizard at the base of his jaw, just below the ear. "I love you, old man. I'm sorry if the discussions over our route have at times been a bit tense, but I am truly concerned for you, even if I cannot explain why."

Gandalf nodded with a faint, fond smile. "I know, your majesty. I love you, too."

It was happening, exactly as Aragorn had feared. Just when Gandalf had said that they were near the East Gates, they had been attacked by orcs and a troll in the Chamber of Mazarbul. Something else was there as well, though, some terrifying power that would have entered the room and slain them all if Gandalf had not sent them on ahead down the stairs. Now he was using some sort of tactic, magic apparently, to block the way behind. Waiting with the Fellowship members in the dark, he heard Gandalf's voice, dim and rapid, uttering what were presumably spells to ward off the danger in some fashion. It took every scrap of self-control that the Ranger could summon to prevent him from racing back up the steps to aid the Wizard. He can manage this, he kept reminding himself. He always has.

Suddenly at the top of the stair there was a stab of white light. A dull rumble and a heavy thud followed at once. Gandalf came flying down the steps and fell to the ground in the midst of the Company. Before Aragorn could make a move to help him, the Wizard struggled to his feet.

"Well, well! That's over!" he said, panting hard.

For the first time ever, Aragorn mentally cursed his lover. He must have been hurt by that fall, and yet now he was just dismissing it, giving the impression that it had been a minor event. Such stubbornness had been annoying in the past. Now it was maddeningly dangerous.

The Wizard went on, "I have done all that I could. But I have met my match, and have nearly been destroyed. But don't stand here! Go on! You will have to do without light for a while: I am rather shaken. Go on! Go on! Where are you, Gimli? Come ahead with me! Keep close behind, all of you!"

Aragorn reproached himself slightly. That was better. At any rate the Wizard had admitted that he had met a serious challenge. Not that that was slowing him down, he noted. He could only hope that Gandalf was nothing more than shaken by his fall. The Man concentrated on keeping track of all the others as they moved through the darkness, striving to make sure that none fell behind. In one corner of his mind, however, the thought persisted that whatever had been behind the door above could probably find them by another way. Maybe there was more than one of them. As he had feared, Gandalf was forging right ahead, not accepting his protection. Indeed, he was not even sure that he could do anything effective to protect the Wizard against the mysterious dangers that lurked in this ghastly place.

Such thoughts tormented him for an hour as they groped their torturous way along the dark tunnels and down unseen stairs. Gandalf certainly seemed to know where they were going, for he never paused. Aragorn quickly became aware of an unfamiliar tapping sound, and he soon realized that it was the Wizard's staff against the stone floor. He had never heard that sound, since Gandalf never used the staff for anything so mundane as walking. Now he was obviously feeling his way in the dark with it, and that made the Wizard seem all the weaker and more vulnerable to him. He ground his teeth at his own impotence.

As they continued down flights of stairs and through tunnels, Aragorn's sense of fear began slowly to diminish. He could hear that the others were calmer too, their panting arising from fatigue rather than fear. There was not a sound to be heard in the tunnel apart from the ones that they were making. It occurred to the Ranger that they might be very close to the East Gates, only minutes away. His eyes strained to see a hint of light that might hail the end of their flight.

Just then Gandalf halted, gasping hard. "It is getting hot! We ought to be down at least to the level of the Gates now. Soon I think we should look for a left-hand turn to take us east. I hope it is not far. I am very weary. I must rest here a moment, even if all the orcs ever spawned are after us."

Gandalf's admission of weakness frightened Aragorn more than almost anything that had happened to that point. The Wizard must be badly off indeed. To Aragorn's relief, Gandalf let a faint light radiate from his staff once more. Gimli took his arm and helped him down to a seat on the step. Aragorn brushed quickly past the others and squatted by Gandalf, wadding his cloak into a ball and slipping it between the Wizard's head and the wall so that he could lean against it to rest. He then searched Gandalf's small bag for the flask of miruvor. Pulling it out, he braced himself for an argument from Gandalf, who most likely would refuse to take any of the precious, dwindling liqueur. To his surprise-and alarm--the Wizard docilely accepted it, taking a sip and handing the flask back. Seeing how feeble Gandalf looked, the Ranger thought with a sad inward chuckle how much he wished that his lover had put up at least a little fight. The greater the resistance, the healthier the Wizard, he thought.

As Aragorn squatted by Gandalf and waited for him to recover, he sought to think about strategies. They must be a little further from the East Gates than he had hoped. A left-hand turn to take them east. That wasn't much to go on. He wanted nothing so much as to pick Gandalf up and run for the East Gates, to get him out of this dreadful place, but he did not know the way. He had never seen Gandalf so weak or exhausted. It frightened him even more than had any of his many vague imaginings about how the Wizard might be snatched from him. He could not, however, desert the rest of the group or ignore their safety. He longed at least to take Gandalf in his arms and comfort him, but he contented himself with squatting next to him, his hand on the Wizard's shoulder. To his relief, the miruvor seemed to help a little, and Gandalf soon was strong enough to tell them a little about his efforts to put a shutting-spell on the door of the Chamber of Mazarbul.

Once they were able to go on again, they soon came upon a huge open hall lit with a red glow. After surveying it, Gandalf said, "There is some new devilry here-devised for our welcome, no doubt. But I know now where we are: we have reached the First Deep, the level immediately below the Gates. This is the Second Hall of Old Moria; and the Gates are near: away beyond the eastern end, on the left, not more than a quarter of a mile. Across the Bridge, up a broad stair, along a wide road, through the First Hall and out! But come and look!"

Aragorn had concentrated hard on understanding those directions, for if he did need to rescue Gandalf and the others, he would have to follow them. He stepped forward with the group, surveying the huge hall with its double row of thick, high pillars. There was a huge fissure between them and the orcs that were beginning to flow into the hall through a distant doorway. The Company ran, grateful that the fissure seemed to protect them from pursuit. Arrows began to fly among them, but at such a distance they went far wide of their targets. A sense of exhilaration began to conquer the dread in Aragorn's mind. The slender Bridge of Khazad-Dum lay just ahead, an arch of stone spanning an immeasurably deep chasm. Beyond that it was only minutes to the Gates, and their pursuers would be thwarted. As they came up to the Bridge, Gandalf halted, and the others clustered around him.

"Lead the way, Gimli!" Gandalf said. "Pippin and Merry next. Straight on, and up the stair beyond the door!"

Aragorn stood beside the end of the Bridge, waiting for the others to pass him. More arrows flew at them. He saw that one pierced Gandalf's hat and stayed there, like a black feather. The Wizard glanced momentarily up at it and calmly pulled it out. Without looking, he tossed it into the abyss behind him. Aragorn watched it, looking like a small needle in that great space, as it tumbled and quickly vanished. His attention was drawn quickly back as Legolas gave a cry of fear. Two trolls had come forward and bridged the fissure with great slabs of stone. The orcs did not cross, however, but drew back as a great dark shape, exciting terror even in its own puny allies, swept into the room. It leapt the fissure easily, racing toward them. Its streaming mane kindled suddenly and blazed behind it. In its right hand was a blade like a stabbing tongue of fire; in its left it held a whip of many thongs.

The Ranger could not look away from the demon bearing down upon them. If he could have remembered his nightmares, he realized, this is the image he would have borne with him. But why had he worried only for Gandalf, he wondered. This creature would kill them all. He could not imagine that all of the Fellowship combined would be able to do any harm to it. He heard Legolas wailing and crying "A Balrog!" The name meant nothing to him. Gimli exclaimed, "Durin's Bane!" and covered his face. He didn't need their terror to deepen his own fear, and he didn't particularly care what the thing that was about to kill him was called. He drew his sword, useless gesture though it seemed, and moved toward Gandalf.

The Wizard was leaning heavily on his staff, obviously still shaken and exhausted by his earlier ordeal. As the Balrog raced toward them, followed by the trolls and orcs, Gandalf turned to face the group. "Over the Bridge! Fly! This is a foe beyond any of you. I must hold the narrow way. Fly!"

Gimli started across the Bridge, and the Hobbits followed, fearful and trying to avoid glancing into the dizzying depths below. Aragorn gestured for Boromis and Legolas to go next, frantically trying to decide what to do. Gandalf turned to move onto the Bridge and paused, waiting for Aragorn to precede him and follow the others. Having no choice, the Ranger ran across. He found Boromir waiting at the other end, and he could see that Legolas and Gimli had taken the Hobbits to the slight shelter of the doorway through which Gandalf had ordered them to escape. They were looking back in horror.

Aragorn could see that Boromir's training as a soldier would not allow him to abandon Gandalf, and together they stood at the end of the Bridge, hoping for a chance to assist the Wizard. The situation was really impossible, the Ranger thought in despair. A narrow bridge with their leader between them and their enemy meant that they could in fact do nothing. Only wait, perhaps with the thought of trying to kill the Balrog if Gandalf failed to stop it.

The Balrog reached the bridge. Gandalf stood in the middle of the span, leaning on the staff in his left hand, but in his other hand Glamdring gleamed, cold and white. His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings. It raised the whip, and the thongs whined and cracked. Fire came from its nostrils. But Gandalf stood firm and defied it.

"You cannot pass. I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass."

The Balrog reared up, towering above the frail-looking figure of the Wizard. As a red, flaming sword swung down from the vast shadow, Aragorn willed himself to look away but could not. He fully expected to see it smash the Wizard to the stone, but Gandalf raised Glamdring, and a great noise and flash of white marked the moment when the swords met. To the Man's amazement, the Balrog's weapon flew upward and dissolved into molten fragments. Gandalf looked dizzy for a moment, but after taking one step backward, he stood steadily again, saying more loudly. "You cannot pass!"

For a moment Aragorn dared to hope that he was right, but the Balrog bounded forward onto the Bridge itself, raising its whip. A sword would be a poor weapon in defense against that, Aragorn realized, and without any idea of what he could do to help, he shouted, "He cannot stand alone!" He ran onto the Bridge, crying "Elendil! I am with you, Gandalf!"

He heard Boromir shout, "Gondor!" behind him, and he knew that the Steward's son was following.

Gandalf paid them no attention, and Aragorn realized that in the din of the hall he had not heard them. The Ranger stopped a few paces behind the Wizard as he raised his staff and cried out a word that sounded to Aragorn like "Anor!" The Sun, he thought, he is using the power of the Sun itself, and indeed the blinding sheet of white flame that sprang up as Gandalf's staff shattered on the stone was as bright as looking into the Sun. The two Men halted, shutting their eyes, but they heard an immense groaning and cracking sound, and the Bridge trembled under their feet.

When Aragorn squinted and looked up again, the immense shadowy figure was plunging downward, flapping its immense wings in a vain attempt to keep itself from falling. The Man sucked in a deep breath, shaking with relief and waiting as the Wizard stood unsteadily for a few seconds on the brink of the broken span, panting hard and watching as his foe sank slowly past him. As Gandalf began to turn away, Aragorn grinned with relief and pride and affection, determined to take the exhausted Wizard in his arms and help him off the Bridge, no matter who was watching. Then suddenly he saw the thongs of the Balrog's whip swing up as if from nowhere. Before he could call out a warning, some of them lashed and curled around the Wizard's knees. The Man's smile faded to shock as he saw Gandalf twist and fall, sliding to the brink as he vainly clawed at the smooth stone.

For the briefest of moments the Wizard lay at the edge, his legs hanging down, held by the tangled thongs so that he could not even bring his boots up to seek a foothold. Frustrated, he glanced up and scowled in surprise and anger as he saw the two appalled Men starting to move toward him along what remained of the Bridge. What were they doing there, he wondered. They were supposed to be fleeing with the Ringbearer and the others, well along the tunnel that led towards the East Gates. What was the point of protecting the Company if they stayed here, just waiting to be killed along with him? "Fly, you fools!" he snapped at them. At once the Balrog's fall jerked the thongs gripping the Wizard's knees taut, and he was wrenched loose from his precarious hold and hurtled into the fiery depths of the abyss.

It had all happened so quickly that Aragorn had not had the slightest chance to even try to save his lover. His mind ceased to be aware of anything but its struggle to comprehend what had just happened. He started to take another step forward, to stand on the end of the broken bridge and look down into the hellish chasm. A strong hand gripped his shoulder, pulling him back, and Boromir said firmly in his ear, "The others. Come, we must help the others."

That phrase recalled Aragorn to himself as much as anything was capable of doing at that point. He turned and followed Boromir at a run as ominous tremors and rumbles ran through the stone below their feet. Even as the two Men came flying back, the rest of the bridge cracked and fell. With a cry Aragorn roused them.

"Come! I will lead you now!" he called. "We must obey his last command. Follow me!"

Aragorn raced up the great stairs beyond the door with the others following, weeping as they ran. Across a large hall bright with daylight from its high windows in the east. Through its huge broken doors they passed, and suddenly before them the Great Gates opened, an arch of blazing light. There was a guard of orcs crouching in the shadows behind the great Gatesposts. The Ranger wanted nothing more than to kill them all, directing at them all the immense rage that Gandalf's fall had aroused in him. He smote their captain with a fierce blow and turned to do the same to the others, but they fled, seeing the red light of wrath in his eyes.

Glancing back to make sure that the Fellowship was still following him, Aragorn ran out into the sunlight of early afternoon. It had taken them less than ten minutes after they left the Bridge to reach the outdoors. So close! he thought. Why should Gandalf have come through the Mines only to fall so close to safety? No, not complete safety, he realized, looking around as his eyes gradually stopped squinting at the sudden brightness. He surveyed the rocky area around the Gates and saw no enemies. In the confusion of his mind he remembered that orcs could not bear the light of day. Some might fire at them from the doorway, however, and he gestured for the others to follow as he led them out of bowshot from the walls. They would have to be well away from this area by sunset, he realized.

Once they stopped and he had a chance to survey the land ahead, he could see the yellow glow of Lórien on the horizon. The last of his wrath drained away as he remembered the delight and warmth with which the Wizard had anticipated their at last being able to be alone with each other once they reached the Golden Wood. At that thought, Aragorn finally gave himself over to his grief. He squatted abruptly, facing away from the others, and wept. He tried to muffle his hard, aching sobs, though he knew that the others were weeping as well, absorbed in their own sorrow. Some sat or lay near him, others stood desolately or wandered a slight way off.

After awhile the Ranger dimly realized that he should try and comfort the others, especially Frodo, who must feel lost and helpless now that he lacked the guidance of the Wizard. Aragorn could not, however, summon the strength for that just yet. He felt desperate and wretched to think that no one there even knew about what he and Gandalf had been to each other; no one could really sympathize with or help him. The memories of his entire relationship with the Wizard seemed suddenly so fragile and poignant. No matter how long they had had to be apart at times, he had always known that Gandalf was somewhere in Middle-earth, with those same treasured memories stored in his mind. Now he was the only one who could think back over their many joys and worries, and the idea caused a panic that made it difficult for him to draw breath. So much of his own past seemed to have simply vanished along with the Wizard. So much of his past and all, it seemed to him, of his future. No, not all of his future, he slowly came to see. Only the future that he had dreamed of. His future now was to see the Quest fulfilled if he could by any means do so.

His mind began to run back over the events that had led up to Gandalf's fall. Was there anything he could have done, he wondered. Anything that would have prevented this. He should have insisted upon a different route. Perhaps they had given up too easily upon Caradhras. Perhaps they should have braved the Gap of Rohan and risked discovery by Saruman. Could that possibly be worse than what had actually happened? Reluctantly he admitted that it could. If Saruman found them and took the Ring from Frodo, then everything would be lost, and all of Gandalf's struggles would have been in vain.

Rationally, he understood this. Gandalf had saved them so that the Quest could continue. "We must obey his last command." Aragorn's own words echoed in his mind, and he gave a little snort of bitter laughter. How hard it seemed that the Wizard's very last words to him--"Fly, you fools!"--should have been spoken in desperate anger. Gandalf had already ordered him to go on with the others, and he had disobeyed-with good intent, of course. He had wanted to protect his lover, and yet he had not managed to be of any help whatsoever. He was a fool, he thought, and the only way that he could make up for his failure was to guarantee that the Quest continued. It must continue, and yet he still could not focus his mind on actually standing up and going on. Much though he detested the place, for now Moria had become the center of all his thought. He could not bear the prospect of leaving, even though there was nothing he could do there. He had to resist the temptation to go back, to visit the abyss again. A side of him wanted to seek out and kill every orc in the Mines, but he realized that such a hopeless task would be pointless and selfish, assuaging some of his own misery by deserting the Fellowship. He gradually realized that his impulse to return and fight arose partly from a desire simply to die in the place where his lover had. He gritted his teeth as he tried to force himself not to think about what must have happened to Gandalf after he fell, where he might be now, what had happened to his body. Better not to know, he realized, but it was impossible not to wonder. A shudder passed through him, and to distract his mind he looked up. The others were beginning to recover a little, wiping their eyes and looking disconsolately about them. They glanced uncertainly at him, and he knew that he had to provide the impetus to get them moving again.

They had to go on to Lórien, he reminded himself. He had to bring the others to safety. Galadriel would be able to understand and share his grief. She loved Gandalf dearly as a wise and trustworthy friend and colleague. Even though she had never known that Aragorn had been the Wizard's lover, she would not find his devastation odd, and they could find some mutual consolation in talking about their loss.

The Man stood up and waited as the remaining Fellowship members moved closer. Taking a deep breath, he said, "Alas! I fear we cannot stay here longer." He didn't quite trust himself to speak further, but he felt that he had somehow to acknowledge that they were leaving their real leader behind. He could not, however, face the prospect of a long speech. After a pause he drew his sword and held it up in final salute. "Farewell, Gandalf!" he cried. "Did I not say to you: if you pass the doors of Moria, beware? Alas that I spoke true! What hope have we without you?"

He had to struggle to keep himself from weeping anew, and he made a great effort and turned to the group. "We must do without hope," he said. Seeing the look in Frodo's eyes, he tried to encourage himself and the others. "At least we may yet be avenged. Let us gird ourselves and weep no more. Come! We have a long road, and much to do."

As Aragorn had hoped, simply being in Lórien eased his grieving heart a little, as ice will numb the pain of an injury which has not yet begun to heal. Having to deal with the suspicious Elves guarding the borders of the forest brought distraction for a time-especially when they insisted that the group go blindfolded through the Wood. As they traveled toward Caras Galadhon, his longing for Gandalf did not diminish, yet having to make his way without his sight sharpened his other senses. The beauty of the scents and sounds of the forest around them soothed him somewhat.

To his great relief, Galadriel soon sent word that they were to be allowed to travel freely, without their blindfolds. Removing his own, Aragorn realized that their sight had been restored at the most opportune possible moment. The group stood in wonder, staring at the beautiful hill of Cerin Amroth, near the city of the Galadhrim. His heart felt a surge of happiness despite his grief, for he thought of Arwen and the time that they had shared after meeting again in Lórien. Their love had bloomed anew, and finally they had plighted their troth in this surpassingly lovely place, tempered though their joy had been by anxious foreboding. That sublime moment played out again in bright colors before his mind's eye. If only he could be with her, he thought, he would have some comfort in his anguish. She was the only one now living who knew of his love for Gandalf, and miraculously, she would grieve along with him, for she loved the Wizard as a second father.

Aragorn bent to pick a small golden bloom of elanor and gratefully surrendered himself to vivid visions of that more peaceful time and of the beauty and wisdom of his betrothed, her raven hair and her serene grace as she walked barefoot upon the tiny yellow flowers and yet left them uncrushed. How long he stood there he did not know, but sensing a presence behind him, he murmured to the slender, elusive figure who vanished in the distance beneath the dusk-shrouded branches, "Arwen vanimelda, namarië!" Returning to the present, he turned and saw Frodo staring at him with surprise and some awe reflected in his face. He could tell that the Hobbit, too, felt the magic of Cerin Amroth, and he smiled sadly. "Here is the heart of Elvendom on earth, and here my heart dwells ever, unless there be a light beyond the dark roads that we still must tread, you and I. Come with me!"

He took Frodo's hand, and they went to join the others to have a light supper before they set out upon the short hike to the mighty mallorn grove in which the city of Caras Galadhon was built. As they went, the Ranger reflected upon how dreams of his eventual union with Arwen had formerly offered him refuge from his anticipation of dreadful grief when Gandalf eventually left Middle-earth. Now, however, there was no such refuge for his thoughts. With the Wizard gone, it was more unlikely than ever that he would become king. Arwen seemed again to be an ephemeral and unattainable dream. He had been blessed with two wonderful lovers, and now he probably faced a future with neither.

If he could only manage to wrap himself in his memories of the various visits he had shared here with Arwen and Gandalf, it might cause the horror of the Bridge to dim slightly. He knew that the passing of the years seemed not to touch Lórien. Perhaps he could dwell for awhile in a different time-a far better one.

When they arrived in Caras Galadhon, Galadriel's welcome to the group and her grief at the news of Gandalf's death eased the ache in his heart somewhat. When she looked deep into the eyes of each member of the Fellowship and probed his mind and heart, Aragorn managed to look steadfastly back at her. He wondered if she could discern within him his deep love for the Wizard. If she could, there was nothing he could do to prevent it, but he sensed that she would never reproach him for it. And perhaps she would simply take his emotions as the natural reaction to the unbearable loss of a dear friend. Whatever she saw within him, she kept ever after to herself.

The Fellowship was given a large pavilion erected between the huge boles of the mallorns. Later, however, the Lady came quietly and offered the Ranger a bedroom to sleep in, such as he usually had when he visited there. Aragorn at first started to accept gratefully, thinking that he could hide his very personal anguish from the others. Then it suddenly occurred to him that the room might be one that he had secretly shared with the Wizard on some previous visit, and he felt an almost physical pain at the thought. He thanked her but said that he would stay with the others, camped in the pavilion.

The month that they spent in Lórien passed quickly for the others, but it seemed an eternity to Aragorn. At first he walked in the mallorn glades, thinking they would offer comfort as he recalled times when he had wandered there with Gandalf. Instead, such memories brought aching loneliness, and he stopped leaving Caras Galadhon. He preferred to sit there and nurse his grief. There was no refuge, however. Laments for Gandalf that the Elves made and sang wrenched at his heart, beautiful though they were. He ultimately decided that there was nowhere in the Golden Wood, serene though it was, where he could hide away from reminders of his loss. Primarily for the Ringbearer's sake, he managed to assume an air of equanimity when with the Fellowship, and he tried to surmount his grief by comforting Frodo as much as he could. He was glad when he found that such efforts brought him something that faintly resembled joy.

Such feelings made him decide that his only hope of any semblance of peace was to move on with the group, to take them south and focus all his attention on carrying through the mission that the Council had set before them. He knew that the Wizard had planned someday to pass the burden of Middle-earth to him, but that time had certainly not yet come. He realized that he was really not ready to carry it. He remembered how Gandalf had awoken in him the first stirrings of real confidence and enthusiasm for the great tasks ahead. He felt neither confidence nor enthusiasm now, and he doubted that he ever would again. Duty remained, however, and he could strive to do that, however little he relished the effort.

With that thought, he went to Galadriel and Celeborn and to the others of the Fellowship, telling them that it was time to depart. The preparations were set in motion, and a few days later the eight companions were given small boats and gifts to help them on their way. They set out southward along the River Anduin, driven by the grim determination that now served them in place of hope.