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:Author's note: Book-canon. This chapter covers the actions of Book Three of TTT, from the chapter "The White Rider" to "The Palantir," ending with the beginning of "The Passing of the Grey Company" in ROTK. Some short passages of dialogue and description from the original novel have been used.

Many thanks to Elanor for betaing and to Sarah and Henrika for comments and encouragement.

Part 7

Aragorn lay flat, stretched upon his back in the thick, long grass of Rohan's lush fields. It was somewhat brown and sear, for though Rohan lay far enough south to escape the snows of winter, it felt the change of seasons. The Ranger had ridden through the day and into the night with his companions, and even he had been stiff and weary when they halted. After eating a bit, he had flung himself down to rest. Despite his physical exhaustion, however, his mind was awash with emotions. Joy at the return of his lover, immense relief that the responsibilities for the Quest and the War were back on the stooped shoulders of a far wiser and more powerful being than he, and frustration at not being able to wrap his arms around Gandalf and hold him tightly-not until Legolas and Gimli fell asleep, at any rate.

As he listened to their breathing, waiting for signs of sleep, he turned onto his side and lifted his head briefly to look over the grass at the grey-cloaked Wizard standing a little way off with his back turned to the group. He was facing east. Aragorn's ebullience subsided a bit, and some of the awe that he had felt that morning while in Fangorn returned. What was Gandalf looking at? Surely not simply at the rolling hills, over which the cold half-moon had recently risen.

The Ranger settled down onto his back again, his eyes nearly closed, a faint smile on his lips. He felt that sleep would be less healing to him than thinking back over the overwhelming events of the day-most of all that first moment of recognition when the mysterious and frightening old stranger in the forest had suddenly revealed himself as the White Istar. Intense delight had flooded over him-but fear as well. He had longed then, too, to embrace his lover-at first. But was this really Gandalf? At least, was this the Gandalf he had known and loved? There were changes, many and subtle, that confused him and that he could not grasp immediately. The Wizard had not even remembered his own name at first-or at least one of his names, one much employed, the one that Aragorn himself had used to address the Grey Wizard who had been his lover.

Of course that made sense, he had later realized. Toward the end of their conversation, it occurred to Aragorn that no one would have called Gandalf by that name since his body had revived on the mountain's summit. The Wizard had spent a week of recovery in Lórien after Gwaihir had rescued him from the mountaintop. There all the Elves would have addressed him as Mithrandir. Wandering for days in Fangorn after his mental struggle with the Dark Lord, he had met no one. True, he had encountered Treebeard, but they had not spoken. After everything that Gandalf had been through, no wonder he had still been a bit dazed. Now the Man recalled Gandalf's words vividly: "I have passed through fire and deep water, since we parted. I have forgotten much that I thought I knew, and learned again much that I had forgotten. I can see many things far off, but many things that are close at hand I cannot see."

Aragorn had spoken carefully during the long conversation that followed his recognition of Gandalf. He had tested the waters, trying to grasp just who this new Wizard was, to recognize in him some of the traits of the man he knew so well. Had the Wizard changed so much that he would no longer feel the same way about his lover and protegé? Once they had sat down to talk, Aragorn summarized all that had happened to the Fellowship since the breaking of the Bridge of Khazad-dum. Gandalf had kept his eyes closed the whole time that Aragorn was speaking, and the Ranger felt nervous, unable to read his response. Finally, though, when Aragorn told of the death of Boromir, Gandalf had looked at him sadly and murmured, "You have not said all that you know or guess, Aragorn my friend."

Despite Gandalf's sadness, the look in his eye and the warmth in his voice as he said "my friend" had made relief well up in Aragorn. He noticed that his muscles had been tight with tension, and he relaxed a bit. Gandalf might have forgotten much, but he had not forgotten Aragorn-or, the Man suspected, their love. As Gandalf had gone on to speak of Boromir and the Hobbits, Aragorn listened, staring into his beloved face and struggling not to let his eyes grow moist.

Gandalf's eyes had looked abstractedly off toward the mountains beyond the dark, thick, aged trees as he spoke further of Merry and Pippin: "They were brought to Fangorn, and their coming was like the falling of small stones that starts an avalanche in the mountains. Even as we talk here, I hear the first rumblings. Saruman had best not be caught away from home when the dam bursts."

Aragorn had given a tiny gasp of laugher. He felt a great need to somehow reassure Gandalf of his own love. "In one thing you have not changed, dear friend," he said with a gently teasing smile, "you still speak in riddles." He strove not to put too much affection into that "dear friend," but he felt somehow that by calling each other "friend," they had quietly begun to reaffirm the bond between them. What a joy to be able to tease Gandalf again, no matter how much he had to hold himself back because of the presence of Legolas and Gimli!

A broad smile crinkled Gandalf's face, and Aragorn again fought tears as he recognized more and more familiar things about the old man before him.

"What, in riddles? No! For I was talking aloud to myself. A habit of the old: they choose the wisest person present to speak to; the long explanations needed by the young are wearying." He laughed, but the sound now seemed warm and kindly as a gleam of sunshine.

Aragorn chuckled. "I am no longer young even in the reckoning of Men of the Ancient Houses. Will you not open your mind more clearly to me?"

"What then shall I say?" said Gandalf, and paused for a while in thought. "This in brief is how I see things at the moment, if you wish to have a piece of my mind as plain as possible." The Wizard had proceeded to give them a highly perceptive, lucid, and enlightening account of the relationship of Saruman to Sauron and what danger Saruman was now in. He also described Treebeard and the power of the Ents. Clearly, however confused by his recent experiences Gandalf might be, his mind was as sharp as ever. He would surely become reoriented, and much would be as it had been before.

As the Wizard had spoken, Aragorn scrutinized him intently, noting signs that seemed to hint at Gandalf's enhanced powers in his new incarnation. At one point, while discussing Saruman, the Wizard had paused and looked away toward Isengard. "I look into his mind and I see his doubt," he said quietly. Aragorn's eyes widened slightly at that, and he glanced at Gimli and Legolas. They, too, seemed taken aback by these words.

Later, when Gandalf mentioned having seen Treebeard in the forest, Gimli objected, "You speak of him as if he was a friend. I thought Fangorn was dangerous."

"Dangerous!" cried Gandalf. "And so am I, very dangerous: more dangerous than anything you will ever meet, unless you are brought alive before the seat of the Dark Lord. And Aragorn is dangerous, and Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers, Gimli son of Glóin; for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion."

A small shudder had run up Aragorn's spine as he heard such a casual and joking reference to what was clearly a great new power-and, yes, danger-in the Wizard. He reflected that in many ways he would have to get to know his own lover again. The second most dangerous being after Sauron! Gandalf the Grey would never have claimed such a thing. There were other clues: the sunlight that streamed into the Wizard's upturned hands and pooled there like water in a cup; his ability to stare unblinking straight into the sun.

Immediately Gandalf had become all business again, laying out their next task: going to the aid of Rohan in the coming war. Aragorn at last objected, "It is a long way for a man to walk, young or old. I fear the battle will be over long ere I come there."

Gandalf had treated this almost dismissively. "We shall see, we shall see. Will you come now with me?"

Aragorn had stared doubtfully up at the old man standing above him, and he breathed hard. "Yes, we will set out together. But I do not doubt that you will come there before me, if you wish." He had not been quite sure why he said such a thing, but at that moment there seemed to be little beyond the power of this slight, shining figure. He rose and stood looking into the dark, deep eyes, longing for Gandalf to respond, to explain more, even just a little more about what powers he now possessed. Instead Gandalf simply continued to look up at him, the ghost of a smile on his face. His failure to confirm or deny such powers frightened the Man a bit, and yet it was also exhilarating to know that the leader who had always given them such hope had returned to them even more capable of sustaining their cause against the forces of Darkness.

Finally, when Gandalf did not speak, Aragorn had made one further attempt. "Do I not say truly, Gandalf, that you could go whithersoever you wished quicker than I? And this I also say: you are our captain and our banner. The Dark Lord has Nine. But we have One, mightier than they: the White Rider. He has passed through the fire and the abyss, and they shall fear him. We will go where he leads."

Then, at Legolas' request, they had tarried there in Fangorn for a short while as Gandalf told them something of his battle with the Balrog. All three sat in captivated attention during this, horrified-thinking back, perhaps, on their own comfort in Lórien while the Istar had undergone such trials. Aragorn struggled not to picture too vividly the torments his lover must have undergone in that long, ghastly combat. How grateful he felt to Gwaihir and Galadriel for their rescue and healing of his lover!

At last the account had ended, and Gandalf delivered messages from Galadriel to each of them. The one for Aragorn was short and poetical-and mysterious:

Where now at the Dúnedain, Elessar, Elessar? Why do thy kinsfolk wander afar? Near is the hour when the Lost should come forth, And the Grey Company ride from the North. But dark is the path appointed for thee: The Dead watch the road that leads to the Sea.

The Ranger had frowned with puzzled concentration as he heard it, and he continued to ponder it, paying little heed to the messages for the other two. It made sense that the Dúnedain should come together and ride south, though if they set out now from the northern reaches of ancient Arnor, they would scarcely arrive in time to aid in the struggle, he assumed-and there was no way to get word to them now. But why would he take a road to the Sea? He was going to Minas Tirith ultimately. And the Dead? What Dead? For a moment, an elusive memory flitted through his mind, but when he tried to pin it down, it was gone, and no amount of concentration could call it back.

Once Gimli had calmed down a bit after receiving Galadriel's message, they walked wordlessly back to the edge of the forest. As they went, it slowly sank into Aragorn's mind that he was back as a member of the Fellowship rather than being its leader, and the feeling of confidence and relief was overwhelming. Now that he and Gimli and Legolas knew that the two young Hobbits were safe, they could turn with a will to some new task.

As they had reached the open plains again, Aragorn was mystified when Gandalf suddenly whistled three times, so piercingly that the Man had to clap his hand over the ear pointing toward the Wizard. A faint whinny in the distance had suggested what the Wizard was up to. Aragorn lay upon the grass to listen to the ground. Soon the dim sound of distant hoof-beats became evident. He stood up with a puzzled look. "There is more than one horse coming."

Gandalf had looked at him and pursed his lips, unsuccessfully seeking to suppress a mocking little smile. He shrugged slightly and said with an exaggeratedly offhanded manner, "Certainly. We are too great a burden for one."

With those teasing words, all of Aragorn's doubt had slipped away, and he fully recognized his beloved Wizard in this powerful new being. With a little laugh he hugged Gandalf tightly against his chest for a moment, restraining himself with difficulty from holding him longer or kissing him. He sighed with delight at feeling the familiar hard, slim body within his arms. That at least had not changed. He missed the odor of pipeweed in the hair and beard, and a tiny thought seized him: perhaps Gandalf no longer had the basic needs of Men or enjoyed their simple pleasures. Then he realized that the Wizard would have lost his pipe and weed in the fiery battle with the Balrog. He hoped that that was the only reason for the absence of the scent that he always associated with their precious times together by campfires or in country inns. He knew, though, that even if the White Istar no longer felt the various needs of the flesh and they could no longer be lovers in the usual sense, he would feel enormously grateful to have him back. Perhaps in a way the loss of such needs would be preferable, for the Wizard might not feel quite as painfully the separation if he and Arwen finally wed. Still, he could not help but yearn for the same intimate relationship that he had shared with Gandalf the Grey.

Once the horses had arrived, Gandalf had politely given them their instructions for the journey. He offered to take Gimli, who knew nothing of riding, before him on Shadowfax. The Wizard added, "We will wait now only to drink a little." Aragorn nearly sighed with relief as he watched Gandalf lift his water-flask and drain it before kneeling to fill it at a nearby stream where the horses were also refreshing themselves. "Good," Aragorn thought as he quickly suppressed a grin. "He is still a Man-though not one like any other, to be sure!" He had recalled one of the first things that Gandalf had said after throwing off his disguise: "'None of you has any weapon that could hurt me.' No, not a Man like any other . . . but then, he never had been," Aragorn reflected with a fond smile. "Oh, well, in time I shall get to know him as he is now, and no doubt I shall love him just as much." As they moved to mount their horses, Gandalf laid his hand fleetingly on Aragorn's shoulder and gave him a brief but affectionate smile that once more calmed his uncertainty.

Now, lying in the grass, the Ranger's body felt completely relaxed for the first time in several weeks. He noted that the breathing of Legolas and Gimli indicated that they had fallen asleep. He sat up. Gandalf still stood unmoving, staring off to the east. Aragorn longed to go to the Wizard, to speak to him, to hold him, and to learn more about the White Istar. He hesitated, however, since Gandalf might be using some new power to discover valuable information. Earlier he had seemed to read Saruman's mind and to divine something of Sauron's thoughts as well. Perhaps he was doing something of the same sort now. The Man smiled sadly as he thought, "If Gandalf can read minds, why does he not realize how much I need him now, how much I long for reassurance?" Finally he stood up and walked toward the Wizard, deliberately making a little rustling noise in the dry grass to alert Gandalf to his presence. Aragorn came up behind his lover's left arm and paused. Gandalf did not move, and the Man stood indecisively watching him. After a few minutes, the Istar looked back over his shoulder at him with the familiar, loving smile that until that morning Aragorn had thought he would never see again.

Aragorn embraced the Wizard from behind. Gandalf leaned back against him happily, placing his hands on his lover's forearms. Aragorn asked quietly, "What can you see-over there, in the distance? What are you looking at?"

Gandalf frowned slightly. "More than I saw before. I am not always quite sure, though. It is difficult to get used to. I do not dare look too far or too long. It is tiring. And I risk his perceiving me. Frodo, I am delighted to say, has finally taken to heart what I once told him about pity."

Aragorn waited for a moment, but when the Wizard did not go on, he murmured with mock exasperation, "I gather that now I am going to have to put up with enigmatic statements from you quite frequently. Not that I object, mind you. Being puzzled now and then is a small price to pay for having you back."

Gandalf turned around within Aragorn's arms. They embraced and clung tightly for a long time. Finally Aragorn pulled away slightly, murmuring, "Hope has returned. For Middle-earth and for me." The Wizard did not speak but with a slight smile he moved his eyes and fingers over Aragorn's face, as if many years had passed since they had been together. He seemed to sense in Aragorn's behavior a hesitation to initiate more intimate contact. Cupping the Man's head lightly, he drew it down and pressed his mouth against Aragorn's. The kiss did not deepen, for they both simply wanted to savor for awhile the warm feeling of lips against lips. Finally the Wizard pulled back and examined Aragorn's face with an amused little smile.

"Now, aren't you going to say that this kiss has finally convinced you that I really am the Wizard you love?"

Aragorn chuckled. "No. I believed that before . .. despite all the strange differences."

They stood embracing loosely, their eyes moving over each other's faces. At last Gandalf grinned and murmured, "Midnight will arrive soon, but before it does, I should say, 'Happy Birthday!' to you."

Startled, Aragorn blinked and then burst into quiet laughter. "Yes, it is my birthday! I had lost track, what with all the running and the rather momentous events of this day. Well, I must say that you are-"

"-the best birthday present you could have. Highly original." Gandalf grinned teasingly at him.

Aragorn shook his head fondly and was still before finally responding, "Well, you are. Indeed, I don't think that I shall ever need another birthday present at all. From now on, I shall always look upon this date as the anniversary of our reunion . . . or should I say, of my introduction to Gandalf the White?"

"A little of both, perhaps. I am still feeling my way a bit, trying to find out how much of Gandalf the Grey remains in me. At some moments I think that it's quite a lot, and yet at others that old life of mine seems very remote and strange. I certainly have not changed in my feelings toward you, my sweet Aragorn. I hope you realize that. Indeed, given that it is your birthday, I am considering what you might like as a more conventional present. Hmmm. Let me see. We really should celebrate in some fashion. We are quite safe here. There are no enemies in the fields about us for many miles. You and I could go apart from our friends for a little while."

"Could we? Then let's do!" Aragorn grinned and added, "I'm rather curious as to how this White Wizard of mine makes love."

Gandalf looked bemused and replied, "Much as your Grey Wizard did, I suppose."

"Ah. Extremely well, then. Good. But I should like a demonstration, if you please."

They walked hand in hand over a broad, low hill and down into a shallow valley beyond, then around another, smaller hill until they were distinctly out of sight and earshot of the other two. The moment the Wizard stopped, Aragorn pulled him against himself and embraced him tightly. His lips seized Gandalf's, and his tongue thrust demandingly into the welcoming mouth. The kiss became ravenous, and they sustained it until neither could resist the desire for more arousing contact. They drew apart and looked around at the grass rustling in the wind under the half-moon's light.

Gandalf said, "It's looks more comfortable than some of the places where we have made love. I at least have this cloak that I have been using as a sort of disguise." He glanced up into Aragorn's eyes teasingly. "Quite an effective one, too."

Aragorn chuckled slightly in embarrassment but defended himself, "Well, I'll admit that you completely fooled me, but be fair! When you believe that someone has died in Moria, you hardly expect him to come popping out from beneath great cloaks and hoods and hats in Fangorn Forest." He took the large, tattered grey cloak from the Wizard and spread it on the ground. As he straightened up, Gandalf pressed against his back, sliding his hands around the Man's waist and untying his trouser-laces. Aragorn drew in a hissing breath as the Wizard's fingers slid inside and rubbed teasingly along his hardened length. "What would you like, old man?" he murmured.

"This, inside me," Gandalf replied, his voice hoarse with desire. "I want you to take me."

Aragorn turned to him and kissed him deeply again, feeling under the thick white beard until he found the Wizard's prominent, hard nipples and pinching them gently as Gandalf uttered a stifled moan. He freed his mouth and said regretfully. "I have nothing to slick myself with. The entry would be too difficult, I think."

"I have anticipated this moment, my dear Aragorn. I brought away from Lórien a pleasant salve that should be quite serviceable." He pulled a small jar out of an inner pocket of his white cloak and held it up with a smile for the Man to see.

Aragorn grinned. "Then I shall be happy to give you exactly what you want, favorite royal Wizard."

"This is supposed to be your birthday present, your majesty, not mine."

"Fine. You can give me one, and I shall follow the Hobbit custom and give you a present on my own birthday."

Kissing Aragorn fleetingly on the lips, Gandalf dropped to his knees before the Ranger and stroked his bulging trouser-front a few times before pulling on the laces and tugging the loosened cloth down. The swollen cock was lying slightly to the side, pressed against Aragorn's abdomen. The Wizard gently pulled the throbbing length down until it presented itself straight to him. Slowly he kissed the entire crown with clinging lips, running the fingers of both hands gently along the shaft. He glanced up and saw that the Man was lost in bliss, his face slack and his fingers combing softly through the Wizard's thick white hair.

Gandalf moved one hand to grip the end of the erection, holding it steady as his mouth wandered over it, the tip of his tongue grazing over the prominent veins and flicking firmly across the ridge on its lower side. Low moans reached his ears, and he lifted the cock upright, lapping at the heavy balls, lifting them each in turn with his tongue, stretching the sac, and finally sucking each testicle into his mouth.

Aragorn managed to gasp, "You don't seem to have forgotten anything when it comes to this activity."

The Wizard chuckled and pulled the rigid member down again, placing a final swift kiss over the tiny slit as he unfastened the lid of the small jar and dipped his fingers into the thick, white salve. Delicately he smeared it along the sensitive skin, which slid back and forth over the rigid shaft below. He rubbed each area in teasing, lingering little circles before moving on. The Wizard felt the heat of Aragorn's erection radiating into the cool air and savored the sheen of the moonlight as the coat of lubricant spread over the surface of the skin. Glancing up occasionally, he saw little flinches of pleasure pass across the Man's face, and he echoed Aragorn's soft moans as he anticipated the intimate joining of their bodies.

At last he could no longer delay that more intense pleasure, and he tossed the jar down beside himself on the spread cloak, sitting back on his heals and looking up expectantly. With the loss of contact, Aragorn opened his eyes and smiled down lovingly at him, dropping to his own knees to face the Wizard. Panting slowly, he undid the knot fastening Gandalf's trousers and hooked his fingers into the criss-crossed laces to pull them loose as he again plucked and rolled one of the Wizard's nipples. Gandalf's head fell back as he whimpered softly.

As soon as the trousers were loosened, the Wizard grasped the waistband on either side and pushed them partway down. "It is too cold to undress entirely, but this should be enough," he murmured and then pivoted to rest on his hands and knees, presenting his buttocks to the Ranger. Aragorn quickly picked up the jar and scooped a generous dollop out with two fingers. He dropped the jar and pulled Gandalf's cleft wide with one hand while he tickled the small opening with the other. The Wizard gave a long sigh of pleasure. As one finger slid quickly inside and found the sensitive point within him, he uttered a low cry before falling silent, his breath catching raggedly as Aragorn rubbed firmly. Gandalf's cock twitched repeatedly, and he began to keen with growing need.

Quickly the Ranger massaged the tight ring until it relaxed, then stretched it by inserting a second finger. His own erection ached to enter the grip of the hot, moist passage, and as soon as he thought the Wizard could bear it, he pressed the tip against the puckered flesh. It popped though, and he seized Gandalf's hips, freezing and grimacing in an effort to avoid thrusting in too rapidly. Gandalf's knees shifted slightly further apart, and he gasped and fought to relax and accept the invasion. Soon he whispered, "Now," and Aragorn's powerful muscles flexed and embedded his length inside in a single excruciatingly slow glide.

Gandalf's face was rapt as he waited for the large member to stretch him enough to reach that sensitive spot again. At last it happened, and all rational thought instantly left him. He groaned as the sensations jolted his body. Aragorn continued to push in slowly, but the Wizard's sounds became more urgent, and the Ranger began to thrust, entering more swiftly with each rhythmic movement. Finally he withdrew the whole of the shaft and buried it again, over and over, slowly, so as to prolong their pleasure.

After a short time, Gandalf began to emit strained, shrill little moans, feeling himself building to the brink of climax, but Aragorn sensed this and slowed his thrusting just enough to draw him back. They repeated this teasing cycle, letting their bliss soar, hover, and retreat time and again until they were light-headed and had lost all sense of time.

Gradually Aragorn found it harder to ease off his deep thrusting, and Gandalf's wordless pleading was reaching the point of desperation. The Man gritted his teeth and brought himself under control, but Gandalf made a soft, brief growling noise and begged, "Now, faster!" Aragorn gasped and threw his head back as he surrendered to their mutual hunger and began to pump in and out rapidly. He reached under the Wizard's belly to find his rigid member, pulling hard at it. Both were so close that they came at almost the same moment, shuddering as spasms of ecstasy passed through their spurting cocks and into their bodies. They sought to stifle their cries of pleasure, which might carry far in the still night air. Gradually they quieted, sighing as the last quivers of delight faded and died, and then they paused, unmoving except for their heaving chests.

At last Aragorn fumbled in his pocket for a kerchief and wiped them as he withdrew. Gandalf took it from him and rubbed at the semen that had splashed onto the cloak. He avoided that spot as he lowered himself onto his side and squirmed as he pulled his trousers up, leaving them unfastened. He smiled and watched Aragorn move to lie facing him. They caressed each other's faces and hair as their panting slowly diminished. After a short time they rolled onto their backs and crossed their arms beneath their heads, looking into the dazzling scatter of stars across the velvety-black sky. Gandalf sighed contentedly. "How many times have we lain like this, on a blanket in the open air, and looked up at those stars?"

"By now, probably several hundred."

"Probably. How beautiful the grass is, tinged with silver by the moon and rippling in the wind-like a great, featureless sea! To be sure, it is not like Lórien, and I regret that we were not able to share that loveliest of places on this journey. Yet the plains of Rohan have a certain bleak beauty that can be very soothing, especially on a cloudless night. If you stare long enough, the sky seems almost to move closer and shut out all else. And how quiet! I am glad that we can enjoy a last calm hour of peace before we ride again. And speaking of soothing, I also want to linger over the lovely feelings in my nether regions."

"Soothing? Is that what you call it?"

"Yes, why not? Surely the most wonderfully soothing feeling in the world is thoroughly slaked desire-especially after a long parting. And now that we are riding off into battle-and another battle and probably another after that-who knows when we shall again be able to be alone together?" A brief silence fell between them before Gandalf resumed in a more hesitating fashion. "In fact, things are happening so quickly and are so unpredictable that I feel I should seize this chance to tell you something more about myself. I . . . I assume that at times you have wondered what I am and whence I came."

Aragorn turned his head and stared at the Wizard, then looked up into the vast vault of the sky again. It was dizzying, almost like hanging in a void with no sense of up or down. Finally he replied, "Naturally I have. Often, in fact. Still, I have assumed that you would tell me anything that you wanted to. I didn't want to pry."

"No, of course not." Gandalf took a deep breath and asked, "What has Elrond told you about me?"

Aragorn frowned as he wondered what sort of answer his lover expected to such a general question. "Well . . . that you are an Istar, a Wizard who had come from someplace far away to help the peoples of Middle-earth in the struggle against the forces of evil. That was what Elrond told me that time so long ago when you passed through Rivendell with the Dwarves and Bilbo. I asked where you came from, but he just smiled and tousled my hair and said that I would not understand. Somehow I knew that I was not supposed to ask that question again. I never did ask him, but I asked a few others. None of them could or would ever tell me. And you yourself have mentioned several times that you will leave Middle-earth when your mission is accomplished. Whence you came and whither you will go, I do not know. Some other continent, I suppose.

"Beyond that, I know that you have two names, Gandalf and Mithrandir. When I was a child I just accepted that, for I knew that different peoples spoke different languages and that the home that I usually called Imladris was also called Rivendell in the Common Tongue. As I grew older, though, those names of yours struck me as odd. They sound like names that would be given to a grown man. 'Mithrandir,' the 'Grey Pilgrim.' I realize that 'grey' refers to your clothing, not to your hair, which is so beautifully snowy white. But how could your parents know that you would someday wander about so much in doing your tasks? And 'Gand-alf' sounds somewhat old-fashioned, but unless I am mistaken it means 'Elf with a staff.' You weren't born with that staff, and I don't think you are an Elf, though I could be wrong. At any rate, they sound like . . . well, they don't sound like real names."

Gandalf smiled as he gazed up at the myriad stars. "Clever as always. Yes, those are names that have been given to me here in Middle-earth. I have a few others. And it is true that none of them was given to me as a child but when I was already an old man. They were not given to me by my parents, either." There was a long silence, and Aragorn began to wonder if the Wizard was drifting off to sleep. Finally Gandalf resumed, "Did Elrond or your teachers-or anyone-ever tell you about the remote history of Arda, before the Elves were born? About Valinor and the Valar and the Two Trees and so on?"

The question came so unexpectedly that Aragorn wondered if the Wizard was rambling, changing the subject suddenly. Was he trying to test Aragorn's education to see if he was fit to be king? It seemed absurd. He licked his lips before replying, "Yes, quite a bit. Well, maybe it wasn't actually all that much, but it certainly seemed so to a restless boy at his lessons. It is all so complicated, and I cannot claim to understand it all. But I do know something of the creation of the world and which of the Valar have which realms as their special care. Ulmo with the Sea, for example. I'm not sure that I could recite them all to you as readily as I did long ago in the classroom. Elrond also told me tales of the Two Trees and of the terrible Rebellion and of the first great Enemy, whose name we do not speak. I have heard others occasionally in the Hall of Fire, though few of the tales there reach so far back into the history of Arda."

Gandalf seemed nervous as he replied, "Good! Well, you said that I must have come from a different continent. You were right. It is one to which I may travel and you may not. Your ancestors very foolishly tried, once, just over three thousand years ago."

Aragorn sat up abruptly and stared down at him. "Eldamar? The original home of the Firstborn? Are you indeed then an Elf of some sort, different from the others?"

Gandalf sat up as well, pausing before he answered quietly, "No, not an Elf. Do you know what a Maia is?"

Aragorn thought for a moment, for the word seemed only vaguely familiar to him. Was that another race, like Elves? He struggled to recall something learned very long ago, and finally a phrase from his lessons came into his mind. "The Maiar are the servants of the Valar-whatever that means. I never really understood . . ." He trailed off and his eyes widened as he turned his head again to stare at the Wizard. "Are you trying to tell me that you are one of them?"

Gandalf gave a relieved little chuckle. "Yes, exactly. All of the Istari are." He paused, and his smile faded. "And so was Sauron, long ago, before he turned to evil and followed the great Enemy whom you mentioned and became his servant instead. That is why we were sent here, just over two thousand years ago now, to help right the wrongs that came upon Middle-earth from Valinor-the land of the Valar, just beyond Eldamar. We Maiar are, as you said, servants of the Valar, acting as messengers of sorts in this case, representing them here in the great struggle."

Aragorn had been looking at Gandalf in growing wonderment, as if seeking to see his lover anew in the face of such an overwhelming revelation. Now he frowned. "I cannot say that I fully grasped the nature of the Valar and the Maiar, but . . . were you thus, an old Man, while still in Valinor?"

"No, I have no invariable physical form in my natural state. In fact, I seldom have any physical form there, and that is by my own choice. What you said this morning about me being able to travel rapidly about-I can do that when disembodied. Not just rapidly, but instantly." He sighed ruefully. "Not here in Middle-earth, though. Here I am a Man and move about as one. I have always had this form and looked much as I do now-well, a bit younger at first but not much! Hence my names, as you say, are not the sorts given to new-born children. From their earliest of days in Eldamar, the Firstborn called me Olorin."

"Olorin! I seem to recognize that from some of the tales that Elrond told me. I suppose I assumed that he . . . you were some sort of particularly powerful Elf or spirit. He never hinted, though, that Olorin and the Wizard I know were one and the same."

"No, he would not. He is one of very few who know that, and he must keep the Istari's secret."

Aragorn sat hugging his knees to his chest and frowning, staring abstractedly at the ground before him. Gandalf was content to give him time to think and adjust, though he began to realize that he would soon have to wake the others so that they could ride on toward Edoras.

Finally the Ranger said, "Often you have remarked you would have to leave Middle-earth after your mission is finished-whether we succeed or not, I suppose. And this is what you meant. You are a being who belongs to Valinor, not here."

"That is true. For now, though, I belong very much to Middle-earth, for I have not the ability to leave it until my task is done. Inevitably, though, I shall return to my true home." He paused and chuckled sadly. "Seeing Treebeard again reminded me of something that he usually says when we have a chance to talk." He assumed a deep, slow voice: "'You . . . Wizards . . . think . . . too . . . much . . . about . . . the . . . . . . . ..future.' Little does he know that I have never in all my time on this continent cared so much about the present. And it is all due to you. I shall have to introduce you to him someday."

Aragorn laughed softly during Gandalf's imitation of the old Ent, but he sobered at once. "Why have you told me this now, after all these years?"

"Because I have changed. I have died and returned to you. I knew that you would have been enormously grieved by my death and quite baffled when we met again. I felt that I owed you an explanation-beyond my rather cryptic remarks to the three of you in the forest this morning. Besides, I . . . I was given permission to tell you."

"Permission. Permission from whom?"

"Permission from those I serve."

Aragorn stared at him, startled. "You spoke of me to them?"

Gandalf murmured, "Yes . . . between my death and return. It was . . . rather complicated. Someday I shall perhaps be able to tell you more. Basically I felt that you should be allowed now to know who and what I am, because someday I shall pass the burden of Middle-earth over to you. It is fitting, I think, that you should hold knowledge that no other Man does. Fortunately they agreed with me. Let us talk no more of it now, though. For tonight, I suspect that you have enough to think about."

Aragorn nodded. His instinct was to move to Gandalf and embrace him, but he felt reluctant and almost shy. "Nonsense," he told himself, "he hasn't changed since a little while ago, when we made love." He slid to sit pressed against the Wizard but hesitated to put his arms around him.

Gandalf frowned at him sadly. "You are not reluctant to embrace me, I hope, because of what I have told you."

Aragorn shook his head. "I know that I shouldn't be. You have been a Maia all this time. I suppose that now you should seem less strange to me than before."

"Oh? I am glad to hear it, but why?"

"Well, I have long known that you are very powerful-far more than any old man could be. I accepted it, yet I never comprehended why you were thus. Now, learning what you really are, your powers no longer seem odd or inexplicable. Still, I can't help feeling a little . . . strange about it."

"Well, you must simply get used to it, your majesty."

"'Your majesty.' It seems ridiculous for us to go on pretending that you are a mere courtier in the kingdom that we have built in our imaginations. You are far too powerful for that."

"Perhaps in a way it takes more power to be a courtier in an imaginary realm. Once you have real, ordinary courtiers, I can give up that pretence."

"And leave me." Aragorn's voice was suddenly unsteady.

Gandalf paused and shook his head. "Not right away. Do not expect that the moment your crown is on your head I shall disappear in a puff of smoke or embark immediately upon a ship! I shall stay long enough for us to savor our victory and see your reign become firmly established. Even once Arwen is your queen, you and I can still be dear friends to each other, I trust."

"Do you promise that? If I were to lose you immediately, gaining my crown would be a bitter victory indeed. And yes, of course, I would want to have you as a friend as long as possible, until you can no longer delay your departure . . . your return to the Undying Lands."

"I promise. I believe that Arwen will not resent my continuing to love you once you are hers. After all, she loves you now, while you are mine. It is all part of our strange bargain." He leaned over to kiss Aragorn's cheek softly. "Now, let us go and wake the others. We can no longer tarry to delight in this reunion." They rose and tied their trouser-laces, and Gandalf wrapped the grey cloak around himself. He continued, "Besides, I'm hungry. True, for a short time I ate well in Lórien, but I have had only lembas for days now. I long to experience even more of the pleasures that embodiment can afford." The Wizard patted Aragorn's bottom as they moved back toward the spot where the other two were sleeping.

Shortly before they reached them, Gandalf put a hand on the Ranger's arm to detain him and then embraced him gently, murmuring in his ear, "I'm sorry that I seem to keep disappearing and making you worry so much lately."

Aragorn put his fingers under the Wizard's chin to raise his face and gaze down at him affectionately. He said with a gently mocking tone, "Oh, you always seem to turn up eventually. Maybe I should stop worrying. Besides, that was Gandalf the Grey who gave me all those anxious days and nights. I should hope that Gandalf the White will use all his new powers to stay out of trouble."

"I hope so, too. But my new powers will not keep me out of trouble. They will only give me a somewhat better chance of coping with the trouble that I do encounter. I'm afraid that I shall most likely be the one worrying about you for some time to come. We are very soon going to enter into the major battles for which you have trained so long. You have become as brave and skilled and strong as I could have hoped, but the forces that will be sent to crush the West are terrible beyond what any of us can possibly imagine."

He gave Aragorn a swift, light kiss and turned to wake Gimli and Legolas.

The arrival at Edoras and the confrontation within the Golden Hall of Meduseld gave the Ranger a vivid demonstration of the White Istar's powers-though whether the lightening and thunder that Gandalf summoned were things beyond what the Grey Wizard could have done was unclear. Aragorn recalled the great flashes he had seen in the sky when the battle at Weathertop had been going on. He also wondered how he himself would have coped with the situation within the court of Rohan, where the evil whisperings of Saruman's minion Grima had rendered Théoden hostile and incapable of thinking for himself. Gandalf, however, had used the brief storm and darkness only to enhance his ability to use persuasion and sympathy to rouse the King from his torpor. Within a remarkably short time the Wizard had things set to rights in Edoras: the King renewed in strength and understanding, his nephew Éomer freed from prison, and Grima banished. In less than an hour Gandalf had accomplished all this and set in motion preparations for the citizens to retreat to Dunharrow and the soldiers to travel to Helm's Deep to confront Saruman's forces.

After the orders had been issued, Théoden turned back to Gandalf and the others. "Now my guests, come! Come and take such refreshments as haste allows." The Wizard nodded with delight and turned briefly to wink at Aragorn before following the King and his niece and nephew back into the Hall. Already they heard below them in the town the heralds crying and the war-horns blowing.

Inside they found a simple, hearty meal laid out upon a long table in the dining hall. Éomer sat to eat with the four guests, while Éowyn continued to serve the King, smiling as she saw increasing signs of strength and energy in her uncle. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas were not called upon to talk, and they ate copiously to make up for the wearying days of running with only brief stops for rest and food. The Ranger noted that Gandalf was somehow managing to consume an enormous amount of the roasted meat, vegetables, bread, and mead that was served to them, despite also answering Théoden's many questions about the treacherous Wizard of Isengard. Aragorn found himself every now and then staring at Gandalf with a somewhat foolish, abstracted grin, and he tried to concentrate on his food. Every now and then the Istar managed during a pause in the conversation to glance at him with a quiet delight that made him swallow and stare down at his plate to avoid displaying his feelings too openly.

Aragorn was pleased to see that the King, hostile though he had been to Gandalf initially, was now both suitably grateful for his aid and eager to follow his counsels. As the meal ended, Théoden spoke earnestly to the Wizard: "Most of all I owe to you, my guest. Once again you have come in time. I would give you a gift ere we go, at your own choosing. You have only to name aught that is mine. I reserve now only my sword!"

Aragorn knew that Gandalf had and wanted few possessions. His clothes and gear for traveling were mostly supplied to him in Rivendell and occasionally in Lothlórien. He always carried enough money for lodging and food on the road, but he doubted that the Wizard would accept anything of real value from Théoden. He listened in growing surprise as Gandalf replied.

"Whether I came in time or not is yet to be seen. But as for your gift, lord, I will choose one that will fit my need: swift and sure. Give me Shadowfax! He was only lent before, if loan we may call it. But now I shall ride him into great hazard, setting silver against black: I would not risk anything that is not my own. And already there is a bond of love between us."

Aragorn smiled as he heard Gandalf accept a reward for once. Clearly the Wizard did so partly because he really did need a swift steed in order to accomplish the tasks ahead. Still, the Ranger had seen how much affection Gandalf shared with the great silver horse. He recalled his own words the day before, when he declared Gandalf "the White Rider." He had said that only because the Istar was now clothed in dazzling white and would presumably ride a horse and also because he would be their leader against the Black Riders. His words had, however, been inadvertently prophetic. Now the Wizard would be a Rider indeed, mounted on a white horse-or at least one so light grey in color that it could be called white. Despite the dangers that they faced, Aragorn's reborn hope for their cause increased.

Once the King had agreed to this magnificent gift, he ordered men to bring in an array of armor and shields for them to choose from in preparation for the battles to come. They draped these over benches and the long table or hung them on a large metal rack of hooks attached to the wall. The equipment was of the finest quality, reflecting the high craft of the Rohirrim. Aragorn walked among the pieces of shining mail and richly decorated shields. Legolas and Gimli too looked them over closely, admiring the workmanship. Gandalf strolled along just behind Aragorn, pretending to scrutinize the armor with an expert eye but keeping very close to the Man and staring covertly at him instead.

Aragorn picked up a coat of mail to examine it and said softly to the Wizard, "Aren't you going to take any armor for yourself?"

"No, I don't need it. Not now. That was not always the case. I must say that I have not participated in many battles, and I have never worn armor. I probably could have used some at the Battle of Five Armies, for I sustained a nasty slash to my arm. It was in a sling for weeks. Now, though, I am not so vulnerable. I'm sure the Enemy and his greatest servants, the Nazgul, have weapons that I must fear, but I am not yet come to the time when I must confront them. I doubt that armor such as this, fine though it is, would provide much protection against the devices of Sauron."

Gandalf suddenly took the coat of mail from his lover and held it up against the Man's torso as if to judge its fit. "Perhaps your size. Let me see." He managed to caress Aragorn's sides and chest as he moved the mail about and even squeezed one buttock surreptitiously as he held it against the Man's back.

Aragorn pressed his lips together to suppress a chuckle and whispered, "I'm delighted to recognize some very familiar traits of Gandalf the Grey in you, old man. As randy as ever, I gather. Even after last night." He clicked his tongue softly in mock disapproval.

"When I am around you, yes," the Wizard murmured happily. "I only wish that I could foresee another time when we could be alone-but alas, we must set out for Helm's Deep as soon as may be. Once there, we will probably be caught up in preparing for Saruman's attack-and then even more so in repelling it."

Aragorn nodded. "Still, you know how soldiers are supposedly always managing to snatch a bit of time for a quick exchange of passion in the midst of battle."

"Are they? I have heard tales of that sort, but they seem rather implausible. During sieges, I'm sure they fare better. Have you ever been in Helm's Deep? Well, when full of soldiers, it offers precious little opportunity for privacy. Going back into the caves behind the fortress would probably mean deserting one's post. Never mind. Perhaps Saruman will delay his attack longer than I foresee, and we shall have a welcome opportunity to hide away for awhile."

He dropped the coat of mail on a bench, saying aloud, "No, that one does not quite fit you, I'm afraid. Try that one, Aragorn."

The Ranger picked it up, for it certainly did look as though it would fit him well. Indeed, he thought with amusement, the first one had also seemed a perfect fit. At once Gandalf took the second coat from his hands and held it against his body, caressing him fleetingly with his fingertips as he did so.

Aragorn clenched his teeth and muttered, "You certainly are teasing me to distraction, old man!"

Gandalf smiled at him innocently. "Well, you have teased me often enough in the past. I'm just getting a bit of my own back. Besides, given an opportunity like this, I can't keep my hands off you."

Aragorn took the coat of mail from him. "Favored royal Wizard, you may tease me as much as you like, now and always. It is so good to have you back." He fought to keep his amused grin from turning into a loving smile and turned to pick up a sturdy-looking helm. He donned it and said aloud to the Wizard, "What do you think of this? Enough protection?"

Gandalf nodded, and they turned to see Gimli being presented with a shield that had been Théoden's in his youth. The Wizard smiled wistfully. "Lovely to see at least a few members of different races joining together in their common cause. May it be an indication of similar collaboration to come."

Aragorn nodded as he watched Legolas and Gimli chatting about their new equipment. "Yes. They make quite an odd couple, and yet I wonder-"

At that moment Éowyn approached bearing a large cup of wine for them to toast to the King's health and their own. When she presented it to Aragorn for a sip, he realized that what he had sensed earlier was true. The beautiful shield-maiden of Rohan had fallen in love with him-or at any rate that is what she believed since first seeing him. He looked troubled as she passed on with the cup. He could tell from the way Gandalf's sympathetic gaze followed Éowyn that he had noticed the same thing. They glanced at each other regretfully, for neither wanted to see such a beautiful and courageous woman disappointed in love, as she surely must be if she persisted in her current infatuation.

The next three days went by in a haze of hectic activity. There was the glorious beginning to the Rohirrim's march to Helm's Deep, when the ranks of soldiers paused outside the gate of the city to watch as Théoden formally gave Shadowfax to the Wizard. As the King said, the gift was already given, for the great horse came racing up to Gandalf the moment the old man whistled and called him. He slowed to stand before the Wizard without even glancing at its royal master-or indeed at anyone else there. Théoden delivered a gracious little speech making Gandalf a lord of the Mark-just what the Wizard would not want, Aragorn realized, for he never aimed at any official rank or title. Gandalf put up with this, however, merely stroking Shadowfax's nose and whispering to him. Aragorn had not realized just how attached the Istar had become to Shadowfax until Gandalf suddenly threw back his grey cloak, cast aside his hat, and leaped to horseback. One of the startled soldiers caught the hat, and Aragorn nodded his thanks as he retrieved it. He turned and cried "Behold the White Rider!" The soldiers began to shout, eager to ride forth to defend their country. Aragorn mounted Hasufel and maneuvered close to Shadowfax. The Wizard's jubilation had receded enough that he accepted the hat back with a grin, and Aragorn winked at him as they took their places at the front of the ranks and the trumpets sounded out over the plains.

Initially the journey had been uneventful, but the next day the clouds became thick, and they began to see signs of warfare in the areas westward. A messenger whom they met told of defeat and loss, with the surviving soldiers scattered far and wide. During his account Gandalf rode off to stare toward the Misty Mountains and abruptly announced that he was leaving them, riding off at a great rate after promising to join them at Helm's Deep. Disappointed at this sudden parting, Aragorn felt almost resentful that his lover had not spared him a word of explanation before leaving. Get used to it, he cautioned himself. We are now at war, and Gandalf has the wisdom to do what he must. He heard some of the men around him grumbling about the unreliability or even possible treachery of the White Istar, and he resolved not to judge any of Gandalf's actions until he could see their results.

Those results were not apparent until the battle at Helm's Deep was nearly over. Just as loss stared the fortress' defenders in the face and the King led a desperate suicide charge out of the great front gate, Gandalf reappeared. Overnight he had gathered hundreds of the surviving soldiers into a great force that came unexpectedly upon Saruman's troops, snatching victory from them and driving them to their apparent deaths in the great forest that had inexplicably sprung up on the grassy dale before the Deeping Wall.

Dismissing all praise, Gandalf had quickly organized a small group to travel to Isengard. There Aragorn witnessed what was in some ways the Wizard's greatest bravery, for he sensed his lover's enormous reluctance to punish one who was of the same kind as himself but who had fallen from grace. Gandalf offered mercy, but it was refused contemptuously. Reluctantly but with utter determination, Gandalf broke Saruman's staff and let him retreat into imprisonment and bitterness in the great Tower. There was a moment of terror when Grima threw the shining, heavy globe, but it narrowly missed hitting Gandalf.

Afterward, Gandalf took the globe, wrapped it in his cloak, and departed on Shadowfax, with Merry clinging behind him. Pippin rode upon Hasufeld with Aragorn, but he was strangely silent. Aragorn smiled as he watched Merry peppering Gandalf with questions and finally wearing through the Wizard's patience. In reply to Merry's curiosity about the geography of Rohan, Gandalf snapped, "You'd best learn something, if you wish to understand what is happening. But not just now, and not from me: I have too many pressing things to think about." The Ranger stifled a laugh when he heard the Hobbit cheekily reply, "All right, I'll tackle Strider by the camp-fire: he's less testy." Brave little fellow, Aragorn thought. And he wondered why Pippin, who was hardly shy, was not asking him the same sorts of questions.

As the group rode away from Isengard, their path wound slowly along the valley. Cold night fell, with the waxing moon hanging in the east before they halted. They rode westward for about a mile over the turf until they found a glen suitable for camping. It opened southward, leaning back into the slope of round Dol Baran, the last hill of the northern ranges, greenfooted, crowned with heather. They lit a fire in a hollow, down among the roots of a spreading hawthorn. Guards were set, two at a watch. The rest, after they had supped, moved to find spots where they could wrap themselves in a cloak and blanket and sleep.

Gandalf and Aragorn moved aside a little to relieve themselves but also to talk briefly alone, planning the practical tactics of the days to come.

Aragorn looked around to make sure that they were not overheard before asking, "Am I right in assuming that once we see Théoden and Éomer safely started on the muster of the larger Rohirrim army, we shall move on to Minas Tirith?"

"Yes, provided that the King's determination seems to be holding and that we can count on him to answer the call of Gondor when the beacons are lit to call for aid. I suspect that his niece and nephew will see to it that he does not fall back into despondence. He has an inclination to despair when things go wrong. Still, I was impressed at how well he was able to resist the lure of Saruman's voice and to defy his former tormentor."

"When we do reach Minas Tirith, should I finally reveal my true identity? You have seen Denethor more recently than I have. How do you think he would receive me?"

Gandalf seemed somewhat abstracted as he replied simply, "Soon, yes."

"What do you mean? Should I use my real name from the start? Will Denethor recognize me as the rightful heir to the throne that has for so long been empty? True, I have Anduril, but that might not seem like proof to him. He has of course never seen the shards of Narsil, and he might suspect that I bear but a copy or that I came by the sword by dishonest means-"

"You are right, he would probably be very skeptical. No, you must come to Minas Tirith in a way that only the rightful king could."

Aragorn looked at him with a dubious frown, waiting for him to go on. Finally he prompted, "And what is that?"

The Wizard finally looked into his face searchingly. "Do you remember Galadriel's message?"

"Yes, but I do not understand it."

"You will, when the time comes."

Aragorn blinked. "You seem to know now. Can you not open your mind to me as you have so often done-even in important matters that you deem too secret to tell all but a very few?"

Gandalf looked at him dubiously. "I do not know exactly what she meant, but some of it I can probably guess. Yet it is not now for me to reveal these things when I am not certain of them myself. The time has come for you to step further out from under my wing, Aragorn. You took over the responsibility for the Fellowship when it was thrust upon you, and you fared well, even though you were not quite ready for such a role. The Fellowship is no more, or rather, it is scattered, pursuing different roads to reach our long goal. Now you must truly become a leader on your own. Théoden must fully recognize you as such if he is to commit his troops to the aid of Gondor." He examined the Man's face with a little smile. "Yes, you will know, when the time comes. And it will come soon."

Aragorn sighed in resigned frustration. "'Soon' again. Well, old man, I shall just have to trust you and do my best."

Gandalf grinned fondly. "Then we shall succeed." His grin faded. "There will come a time, my darling Aragorn-and that will come soon as well-when you will no longer need me. I wish for that day to arrive, for we have struggled toward it so hard and for so many years. Yet I fear it as well. Not that I believe that you would cease to love me when you come to a point where you no longer require my advice or help. Still, it will mean that the time of our parting is approaching. And now you know just how inevitable and utterly irrevocable that parting will be. Much though I long to return to my true home, I shall leave reluctantly." He shrugged slightly. "Still, let us do what we must and enjoy the time we have."

Aragorn had been nodding sadly at intervals during this. "As we have ever done. Well, at least your services to the King have probably earned you a private bedroom at Edoras when we stop there on the way to Gondor. There we perhaps can hide ourselves away and for a little time forget all else but each other."

He caressed the Wizard's cheek, and Gandalf caught his hand and kissed the palm before the two of them walked back to the camp. As they went the Wizard said thoughtfully, "I should not sleep just yet. There is something very strange about that heavy globe that Grima tossed from the Tower. I must ponder that for awhile. At least I hope I can. I have had almost no sleep for three days now. Still, I believe that it is very important. You and I shall talk more of it during the ride tomorrow."

"Yes. I almost think that I could put a name to that globe."

"Having studied the history of Gondor so closely, you might well be able to. But what part, if any, has the globe played in the great events of our times? And what part could it still have to play? Those questions are my most immediate concerns."

Gandalf stood by Shadowfax in the dark, stuffing his few possessions into his little bag and rolling up his blanket. He had not had time to pull on his boots when the alarm came in the night, and now he donned them over disagreeably damp socks. He was about to search for his cloak before remembering that it was now wrapped around the palantir. No matter. He no longer had to hide his white clothing. Now he was the White Istar, the only one, and the world could know it.

He looked at Aragorn, standing nearby with Pippin in his arms. They both realized that Gandalf should take the young Hobbit away quickly. Not only might he be tempted to try and look into the palantir again, but the flight of a Nazgul overhead, racing toward Orthanc, meant that war was kindling with a swiftness that not even the Wizard had anticipated. The sooner that Gandalf reached Minas Tirith, the better, and he could travel much faster now that he had Shadowfax. Still, the need for them to part had come upon them so suddenly that it was hard to accept.

The Wizard slung his bag across his shoulders and leapt onto the great horse's back. Aragorn lifted Pippin and set him in Gandalf's arms, wrapped in cloak and blanket. He stood looking up sadly at the Wizard, one hand resting on his thigh. Gandalf settled Pippin comfortably and firmly before him on Shadowfax. There was no one about, and the Hobbit's blanket went over his head like a hood so that he could not see except to the front. Gandalf glanced around furtively, then kissed the tips of his fingers and stretched to place them lightly over the Ranger's lips. "Farewell!" he said, with a final look of wistful regret. Aragorn's hand went up and pressed the Wizard's fingers more firmly to his lips, kissing them and returning the look. Gandalf pulled his hand back and slid it around Pippin's waist to steady him when Shadowfax launched into swift flight. With one more glance at Aragorn he said, "Follow fast!" and the Man heard the longing in his tone. He nodded sadly. Parting from the Wizard was always difficult, but now they had had such a short and busy time together since their reunion.

Gandalf called out, "Away, Shadowfax!" and the horse leapt forward, spurning the earth, and was gone like the north wind from the mountains. Aragorn stood looking after them, wondering when he would see his lover again. He would ride soon with the troops, but he would never be able to catch up to that swift steed, and he would have to linger to help muster the Rohirrim for the great ride to the aid of Gondor. A week, maybe more, until he could expect to see Gandalf. Not long by the standards of their usual separations. He presumed that the Wizard would be safe enough, traveling swiftly by night and hiding by day until he and Pippin reached the White City.

Merry came wandering up and stood looking into the dark after the departed horse. "A beautiful, restful night! Some folk have wonderful luck. He did not want to sleep, and he wanted to ride with Gandalf-and there he goes! Instead of being turned into a stone himself to stand here for ever as a warning."

Aragorn smiled wryly and shook his head. "If you had been the first to lift the Orthanc-stone and not he, how would it be now? You might have done worse. Who can say?" I'm sounding like Gandalf again, he thought. Odd, that mostly seems to happen with Hobbits. Aloud he added, "But now it is your luck to come with me, I fear. At once. Go and get ready, and bring anything that Pippin left behind. Make haste!"

Merry trotted off toward his makeshift bed and few belongings. Aragorn stayed for a moment still staring into the darkness, then turned and walked the few paces to where he had set the palantir down in order to help the Wizard with Pippin. It was still loosely wrapped in Gandalf's old grey cloak-the one on which they had made love three nights before. The Ranger considered for a moment, then fetched a strap from his pack and bound the cloak tightly around the Stone. As he walked to his horse, he felt the power of the thing, arousing his curiosity and luring him to look at it. Having just seen the result of Pippin's foolishness and heard Gandalf's warning, however, he was easily able to stifle his attraction to it. He jammed it into his pack and bound that to the back of his saddle. Perhaps, he thought, if Merry rides before me and neither sees nor touches the Stone, he will not fall under its spell as Pippin did. Besides, he seems distinctly more sensible than Pippin, and he too has just had a dramatic demonstration of what could result.

"Follow fast," he murmured. The next time he met Gandalf, it might be in the heat of battle. Merry walked quickly to him, handing him the small parcel of useful things that he had salvaged from the ruin of Isengard. Aragorn fastened it beside his own larger pack and lifted the Hobbit quickly onto Hasufel. He climbed up behind Merry and saw that Legolas and Gimli had ridden up on Arod.

Soon the soldiers of Théoden were assembled, and the group rode swiftly through the night. Aragorn thought back to the moment when Gandalf had bowed and handed him the palantir. "Receive it, lord, in earnest of other things that shall be given back." It was the first time, he realized, that their little game of king and courtier had been played in public. Indeed, it was no longer just a game. If he knew the Wizard, that little bow and declaration had been made to impress Théoden and cement his loyalty to Gondor and to the Heir of Isildur. He smiled as he recalled how brief that display had been before Gandalf lapsed immediately back into giving him instructions, albeit deferentially: "But if I may counsel you in the use of your own, do not use it-yet! Be wary!"

Sobering, Aragorn wondered whether he would be able to judge the most opportune moment to use the Stone. That timing could be crucial. Well, you don't have the old man to advise you, he told himself. Once more he had become the head of the group, but this time, fortunately, it had not been because they had lost their true leader. Gandalf had made him the leader this time, and even Théoden, king though he was, had accepted him as such. He felt an unexpected exhilaration as he rode at the head of a band of warriors for the first time in many years. Gandalf might be gone for now, but the Wizard had guided him well to this moment.

So well indeed, it occurred to him, that he could almost imagine a day when, as Gandalf had said, he no longer needed such guidance. The thought sent a little chill through him. Love will remain, he reassured himself. Experience and self-reliance would not dim it. He recalled how he had gradually ceased to feel like a callow young fellow next to the wise and aged Wizard. This was simply another step in that growth toward that bright image of himself that Gandalf had inspired so long ago. Just because I reach that goal doesn't mean that he will leave me immediately, he reminded himself. If I become king, there will be a time for us to be together and rejoice.

A short time later the entire group received a scare when the sound of horsemen behind them seemed to indicate an approaching attack. To Aragorn's delight, they proved to be a band of thirty Rangers, led by his trusty friend Halbarad, and with them were the sons of Elrond, come to join them in the great War of the Ring. The enlarged group rode on, and Aragorn fell in alongside Elrohir and Elladan.

Looking about to see that they were not overheard, Elrohir said, "I bring word to you from my father: The days are short. If thou art in haste, remember the Paths of the Dead."

"Always my days have seemed to me too short to achieve my desire," answered Aragorn. "But great indeed will be my haste ere I take that road." He hid his reaction, but within him his heart sank. The Paths of the Dead! That must explain the cryptic words in Galadriel's message to him. He blanched at the thought.

"That will soon be seen," said Elrohir. "But let us speak no more of these things upon the open road."

And Aragorn said to Halbarad: "What is that that you bear, kinsman?" For he saw that instead of a spear he bore a tall staff, as it were a standard, but it was close-furled in a black cloth bound about with many thongs.

"It is a gift that I bring you from the Lady of Rivendell," answered Halbarad. "She wrought it in secret, and long was the making. But she also sends word to you: The days now are short. Either our hope cometh, or all hopes end. Therefore I send thee what I have made for thee. Fare well, Elfstone!"

And Aragorn said: "Now I know what you bear. Bear it still for me a while!" And he turned and looked away to the North under the great stars, and then he fell silent and spoke no more while the night's journey lasted. Gandalf's words echoed again in his mind. "Receive it, lord, in earnest of other things that shall be given back." Two great gifts that night, from the two he loved. The palantir and the standard that Arwen had made for him both spoke of his coming kingship. They spoke also of the great change that might be upon him: to lose one lover and gain another. If they prevailed in the war, his joy would continue to be balanced against longing for all his life, and that thought became real to him more poignantly than ever.

To escape such gloomy cogitations, his mind turned to the two messages he had received within the past days. Both mentioned the Paths of the Dead, and although he had claimed to Elrohir that he would avoid that road, it seemed impossible to tread another if two of the three wisest people that he knew sent him along it. Gandalf was the third, and though he had said nothing of Aragorn taking that path, he had apparently understood what Galadriel's message meant. If he had not cautioned his lover against taking her advice, then Gandalf might also believe that he was fated to go through the Mountain and confront the Oathbreakers. Well, if he must, he must. Surely the Wise would not knowingly send him to his death, and if he acted resolutely, perhaps that road would take him back to Minas Tirith and to the White Istar . .. and ultimately to the crown and Arwen.