The Road to Isengard

by Nefertiti

Rating: NC-17

Pairing: Series, Mithrandir (Gandalf)/Saruman; this chapter, Mithrandir/Legolas (established relationship)

Disclaimer: The characters and world of Middle-earth belong to their copyright holders; this series is offered free of charge for the pleasure of fans.

Author's note: Book-canon. The action takes place in 1637, shortly after a great plague has swept through the areas south and west of the Misty Mountains. Much of this series is based upon hints provided by appendices A and B, as well as parts of the Unfinished Tales.

Many thanks to Elanor for her advice and beta job and to Sarah for encouragement.

Chapter One

As Mithrandir trudged eastward on the long Road through Mirkwood, he wondered if the forest was becoming even darker than it had been the last time he had come that way. True, the trees were dense and tall, but surely on a bright sunny day like this there should not be quite so much gloom beneath them. He sighed as he recalled his first journey in the forest, nearly 600 years ago now. Greenwood the Great it had been in those days--a beautiful forest, with light filtering down through the trees and creating flickering highlights on the ground as the wind stirred the leaves high above. One could seldom move far without being able to discern in the distance between the great trunks a clearing where the sun shown more freely on soft green grass. The calls of birds and sounds of animals moving had been common then. He had frequently stopped to talk with them, and such society, simple though it was, had briefly relieved his loneliness.

It had not been long after that when he first heard the Greenwood called "Mirkwood" instead, as the Shadow crept over it. That appellation had quickly taken hold, and now hardly anyone except the Elves of Thranduil's realm remembered that it had ever had another name. There were still animals and birds about, but signs of their presence were less frequent, as if they, too, felt the oppression of the growing gloom. They were suspicious of strangers, and he seldom got near enough to address them before they fled.

He was weary in body and mind. Since his arrival in Middle-earth, he had struggled to move about the huge continent, learning about its lands and peoples, helping them when and where he could. His travels earned him the name Mithrandir from the Elves. It had often been a lonely and dreary time, and occasionally he wondered why the Valar had sent him to Middle-earth. The situation seemed to get worse and worse, and he felt helpless to prevent it. At first, after conquering his initial doubts and fears about coming here, he had been optimistic, eager to join his fellow Istari and act in concert against the spreading evil. He had met Radagast less than two years after his arrival on the continent, and yet now, after all this time, he had not seen or heard from any of the others, and he encountered Radagast but rarely.

When first they had met, the Brown Wizard had told him that after the Battle of the Last Alliance, Sauron's formless Shadow had fled into the vast lands of the East. Saruman, as the Eldar had named him, and the two Blue Wizards had decided early on to travel to those lands, hoping to find information about the Enemy and his plans. Radagast had asked whether Mithrandir intended to follow them. After much thought, he had decided not to do so. He knew so little yet about the continent. The areas to either side of the Misty Mountains were so extensive that it would take him quite some time to get to know them. The darkening of Mirkwood needed investigating, and the various peoples would have to be encouraged to be vigilant and organized if the return of the Shadow was to be prevented. Mithrandir had also considered, though he did not say this to Radagast, that Saruman, as their leader, was far stronger than either of them. With the help of the other two, he could handle the situation in the East-if anyone could.

In the hundreds of years since their departure, no word had come from any of the three. Gradually Radagast and Mithrandir had started tentatively to acknowledge that they might be dead or might have turned aside from their mission. Anything could have happened. The Grey Istar often wondered if he should indeed have tried to journey to the East, seeking to join them. Had he been too frightened at the prospect of such a long, lonely quest on his own?

During those years, he had come to know many of the peoples of Middle-earth. He had found friends, in some cases close friends, though there were often long intervals during which he was unable to see them. He treasured his rare reunions with Radagast. Above all, more and more he longed for news of Saruman and the others--to meet them, to receive their counsel, and to take strength from it.

Recently he had needed that strength all the more. Many dreadful things had occurred in the centuries he had been here, but the past three years seemed the worst. In 1634 there had been the ravaging of Pelargir by the Corsairs of Umbar, who had killed King Mindaril of Gondor during the battle. Two years later the great plague had struck Gondor, and for the second time in two years that realm was deprived of its monarch when Telemnar and all his children perished of the disease. The death of the White Tree in Minas Anor had portended greater loss to come for Gondor. The plague had spread quickly through the lands south and west of the Misty Mountains. Much of Eriador was ravaged and now lay desolate. Even the merry little Hobbits of the Shire, usually so isolated from the wider world, had lost many of their number. Mithrandir had traveled tirelessly during this catastrophe, which lasted for nearly a year, helping to ease the misery of the sick and to dispose of the bodies quickly to slow the spread of the disease. Finally it had abated, and he determined to return to be among the Elves for a time. He had always loved the Elves best of all the peoples, and his few weeks with Elrond and his family and household at Imladris had been sheer bliss after the horrors he had witnessed.

Now he had resumed his travels, for he especially wanted to check the state of Mirkwood and to reestablish contact with Radagast. First, though, he would stay a short while with Thranduil's folk. With great good luck he might find the Brown Istar there, or at least receive word of him. It was one of the places where they regularly left messages for each other. He longed for news of the areas east of Mirkwood, more than Elrond had been able to furnish during his recent visit. If the great forest was indeed growing even darker, it almost certainly meant that the fell power that inhabited the southern tower of Dol Guldur was waxing in strength. Was it really a Nazgul, as others of the Wise suspected? He yearned as well to see old friends and in particular Legolas. As night fell, he reckoned there could not be more than five or six hours of hiking to go; he would probably arrive at the caverns of the Elven King by early afternoon the next day.

He soon stopped for the night. There had been a time when he would have wandered away from the Road in search of a stream, a clearing, any sort of hospitable place for camping. Now by night the woods held a vague, disquieting menace, and he hesitated to move far into the dense foliage. Instead he spread his bedroll on the greensward that lay beside the Road. For tonight he would depend on the dwindling contents of his water-bag. Despite all his worries, he soon fell asleep through sheer exhaustion.

Shortly after noon the next day he at last encountered the outposts of Thranduil's realm. He stopped at a challenge shouted from a nearby tree. Halting and looking up, he saw a structure among its branches-not as graceful in its shape or construction as the flets of Lórien, but heavy and solid and built for long, mundane usage by the King's guards. Quickly an Elf descended from it, and two more silently appeared from the forest to the Wizard's left. They stood before Mithrandir, their arrows drawn and nocked, but with bows held down before them rather than pointing at the Wizard.

Mithrandir realized that in the shadow of the forest, they probably could not see his face beneath his broad-brimmed blue hat, and he slowly reached up and removed it. At once the slightly tense expressions on the Elves' faces relaxed, and one of them exclaimed, "Mithrandir! In the name of King Thranduil, you are most welcome. No doubt you bring news of the grim events happening in the world of Men and counsel to help in our great struggle."

"I thank you for your welcome, my good Elf. Yes, I bring news, though whether my counsel will be of help remains to be seen. I am glad to find that the vigilant care of Thranduil's realm continues as faithfully as ever. I shall feel much easier on this last stretch of the road."

One of the Elves undertook to escort the Istar to the main entrance to Thranduil's great underground city. It was a walk of about an hour, and as they went the guard told Mithrandir of the long and weary task of keeping that part of the great forest fair and safe. From what he said, it was clear that attempted encroachments were increasingly common. Still, the light seemed brighter along this stretch of the road, and the oppression lifted noticeably as they walked. The guards at the gate also recognized and welcomed Mithrandir, and having thanked his escort, he followed one of them inside.

"You presumably would like time to rest and refresh yourself before meeting with the King," the Elf said, and Mithrandir nodded happily. It was good to be back in a place he had visited so often, sometimes specifically to consult with Thranduil's folk and sometimes just to spend a few nights while moving back and forth on the Road. They walked along a broad hallway with many doors opening off it until they were in a wing of guest rooms. The Wizard was shown into one of them, a small but well-furnished chamber hewn, like the rest of the great city, in the living rock of a huge outcropping that lay near the eastern edge of the forest.

Mithrandir tossed his small bag onto a chair and sank gratefully down onto the comfortable bed. His daydreams had been filled with the exquisite comfort that he would finally experience upon having a room and a bed, however briefly, and now at last he was experiencing that comfort in reality. He had been lying there for a few minutes when he heard a knock on the door, and a servant appeared with a tray, which he placed on a small round table near the cold fireplace before going out. The Wizard rose and poured some water into a basin atop the chest of drawers to wash his face and hands. Feeling much more presentable, he sat down to a very welcome meal of fresh fruit and cheese and bread and cold, clean water. Once finished, he went out to the main area of the caverns and was escorted to a small throne-room which Thranduil also used as a study.

Mithrandir bowed slightly as he entered the room, but the Elven King rose and embraced him. "It is too long since we have seen you, Mithrandir. I understand that you have labored assiduously among the mortal races, helping to stem the ghastly disease that has so devastated them."

He gestured for Mithrandir to sit, and, still being weary, the Istar dropped gratefully down and accepted the glass of wine that Thranduil offered. "Yes, it had been a long and disheartening task. I have seen many dreadful things during my time in Middle-earth, but such widespread suffering and death ..." He shook his head sadly.

Thranduil looked solemnly at him and sighed. "Undoubtedly, and apart from the innate tragedy of such devastation, we must face the fact that our allies' ability to sustain their share in the struggle against the Shadow has been severely reduced. The Elves will continue to do what they can, but . . ." He shrugged.

There was a silence between them. Finally Mithrandir said, "Frankly, I find myself at a loss as to what to do next. The populations of Gondor and Eriador will surely grow to their previous sizes, but that will take many years. There is no way for me to speed that process. The thing that worries me most is the severe decline in Gondor's ability to guard Mordor and the southern reaches of the Anduin. By the way, I don't know if you have heard yet that Tarandor had succeeded the unfortunate Telemnar as King. I know, I had never heard of him either, but he is the late King's nephew-the son of Mindaril's second son. He seems a worthy enough fellow, if unprepared for the heavy duties of a leader of so great a country. And he faces growing dangers. Already I hear rumors of dark forces assembling in Mordor. I feel so inadequate to do anything to counter that. It would be the worst possible time to try and assemble a combined army from the Free Peoples and try to attack such an amorphous foe."

Thranduil nodded, but suddenly he smiled and said more cheerfully, "Perhaps I shall be the conduit for good news that will encourage you." He opened a drawer in his desk, pulled out an envelope with a wax seal upon it, and handed it to the Wizard. "I received this a few weeks ago. A bird messenger brought it from Radagast. It is for you."

Mithrandir eagerly took the envelope and glanced at the seal to make sure that it was indeed that of the Brown Istar. He broke it and extracted the missive within. Slowly an incredulous and joyful smile spread across his face as he read. Thranduil watched him closely, impatient to hear the news.

Finally Mithrandir lowered the letter and grinned at him. "This letter contains the best news that I have had in ... well, perhaps in my whole time in Middle-earth. Radagast has heard from Saruman! He is returning at last from his long journeys in the East."

Thranduil grinned in return. "Wonderful news indeed! Does Radagast say when?"

"Yes. Not precisely, of course, but he bids me meet him in Lothlórien in ... well, let's see, it would be about five weeks' time from now. There is no mention of Alatar and Pallando, but I presume that they will be with him." He paused, almost too relieved and thrilled to speak. "Finally! We shall learn so much from them about the situation in the East-whether Sauron has taken shape again and made any overt moves to regain power, what we might do to combat him. We can begin to plan, to coordinate the efforts of the free peoples of Middle-earth more effectively ... to ..." He trailed off and sat staring abstractedly for a short while, a little smile on his face. "Finally!" he murmured. He drained the last contents of his glass.

They sat silently for a moment, trying to absorb all that this momentous news meant to them and their cause. At last Mithrandir said, "I presume that you met Saruman and the Blue Wizards before they departed on their long travels."

Thranduil nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, though only once. The Blue Wizards kept rather to themselves, I thought. They were pleasant enough, but I did not get to know them to any extent. Saruman was quite different. He was tall and commanding. His hair and beard were jet black, which made him quite an impressive figure, dressed as he was in robes of gleaming white. And he talked with me at great length, telling me of his plans and thoughts on the sources of the evil that has crept back into Middle-earth. He inspired great confidence. I only hope that that confidence was justified, and that he and the others will return with good news of their accomplishments."

Mithrandir listened to all this eagerly. "He sounds like exactly the leader that we need to help organize the Istari and allow us finally to start working as a team. I cannot wait to meet him!"

"I can imagine! Well, it will not take you five weeks to travel to Lothlórien. I trust that you will accept our hospitality in the interim. You deserve a time of peace and rest, I should say."

Mithrandir sighed happily. "Well, I recently spent a very joyous time in Imladris, and I had planned to make only a short stay here and then to travel on eastward. I gather that Men continue to establish scattered settlements in the wide plains there, which is all to the good-especially given the fact that the plague never spread there. But this news changes everything! Soon I shall need to set out in the opposite direction. But in the meantime, yes, I find myself in the pleasant position of being able to relax a little more and delight in the beauty and comfort and conviviality that your court affords in such abundance. I thankfully accept your offer." He rose from his chair.

Thranduil stood up as well. "You are most welcome. We shall talk further of politics and strategies during your stay. Nothing of great import, for that must wait upon the other Istari's return, when they can give us their sage counsel. In the meantime, I know that you will be interested in local doings as well-our growing relations with the various little groups of Men that, as you say, continue to settle in the Long Lake region and other areas east of the Greenwood. But that can wait. Until dinner, then."

"Until dinner," Mithrandir responded cheerfully, and he went out, carrying the letter to read again more slowly, savoring the hope that it brought him.

Late that afternoon, Mithrandir sat in the shelter of a large, partially covered porch high in the Elven complex. It was one of the few public areas that were open to the outer air, and it afforded a view out over the forest. The sky was a vivid blue above, with white clouds drifting majestically across it. After days in the dark forest, it was a joy to see the sun. Thranduil had sent the Wizard a sheaf of letters he had received over the past few years from leaders of the areas to the east of the great forest. He was perusing them, pausing now and then to enjoy the view. He was not alone, for all the members of the vast household loved this porch. It was occupied by Elves, singly or in groups, embroidering, chatting, or absorbed in games. One sat off to the side, playing a soft but cheerful warbling tune on a small woodwind instrument.

After Mithrandir had been there for nearly an hour, he felt a light touch on his shoulder and looked up into the fair face of Legolas, Thranduil's son and the head of the main body of guards who patrolled the nearby areas of Mirkwood. The Istar's face lit up with a delighted smile that echoed the one on the Elf's face.

Legolas said in the soft, musical voice that the Wizard had long missed, "My father sent word that you had arrived. Welcome, Mithrandir!"

The Wizard rose and embraced him for a moment. They withdrew to arm's length and stood looking at each other.

"It has been far too long since we have seen you, young Man," Legolas added in a fondly teasing tone.

"Far too long indeed, my dear, elderly Elf," Mithrandir responded with a chuckle. It was a long-established joke between them, for the Wizard's long white beard and bushy eyebrows, wrinkled face, and slightly stooped posture made him look vastly older than the fresh, beautiful, yet ancient Elf he faced. Yet Legolas had long since realized that his friend had aged but slightly since they had first met centuries before, when he himself had been centuries old already. He did not know who or what Mithrandir was, but from the start he had recognized his wisdom and power, and the teasing was all done with a great underlying respect.

"I did not mean to interrupt you in an important task," Legolas said, glancing down at the stack of pages that the Istar had deposited on the chair as he rose.

"Oh, well, it's important, but nothing that cannot wait. Your father has invited me to spend some time here, both relaxing and discussing politics and strategies with him. I shall have leisure enough to look at these later."

"Yes, Father told me that you would be staying and also of the upcoming return of the other Istari. It brings great hope, not just to you but to all of us who oppose the Shadow."

Mithrandir's face crinkled into a broader smile. "Yes, I was overjoyed at the news, and even now I can hardly believe our good fortune. It has lifted a great weight from my heart."

"Good! So, I take it that you would be free to come to my room for a more private talk?"

"I should like nothing better."

Quickly Mithrandir straightened the letters and slipped them inside a leather folder. Carrying it, he followed the blond Elf along the maze of corridors to the royal wing.

Legolas opened the door and politely stood aside for the Istar to enter. At once Mithrandir felt the sudden impact of a small body against his legs, and momentarily he wondered if a miniature orc had somehow crept in and launched itself at him. He staggered backward in surprise and, once he had regained his balance, he looked down to discover a half-grown, awkward brown puppy jumping up against his legs excitedly, its pink tongue lolling out.

Immediately Legolas said firmly, "Down, Maerfarad! Down! I'm sorry, Mithrandir, I had forgotten that I asked my brother to bring him here when we arrived." He had caught hold of the puppy's collar and was restraining it from leaping up, which, ignoring his master entirely, Maerfarad was still endeavoring to do. Legolas clicked his tongue in exasperation. "He is not yet well trained, I am afraid, and I begin to suspect that he never will learn his manners entirely."

The Wizard smiled down at the wriggling, eager little creature, tossed the file of correspondence onto a chair, and knelt by the beast. He held out his hand so that Maerfarad could sniff it and acquaint himself with the Istar. Then he stroked its head gently as he leaned forward and murmured softly into its ear. At once the puppy stopped straining at the collar and stood staring at the Istar, his head cocked to one side and his eyes bright. Abruptly he sat down and made a soft noise, between a whimper and a growl.

Mithrandir stood up again. "You can let Maerfarad go now, Legolas. He promises to be good."

Legolas smiled and shook his head. "I remember now that you can talk with birds and animals, but I have never seen you do it. I always rather doubted the tales, but after this I shan't. What did you tell him?"

"Simply that if he let you and me have some peace for a while, we would play some games with him later. Not surprisingly, young animals are like young children. They don't listen to reason, so you must make little bargains of that sort with them."

Legolas stared at the Wizard calculatingly. "Could you tell him to obey all my orders from now on?"

Mithrandir laughed. "I'm afraid not. He's really too young to grasp that concept. I had to speak with him in very simple terms. Besides, how would he know what your orders meant unless you teach them to him? And apart from that, there's really nothing big enough for me to offer him in exchange for total obedience! No, you shall have to go through all the tribulations of training him. But I'm surprised to find you with a pet. You never have had one before. Animals have such short life-spans. I should think to an Elf the grief of losing a pet so quickly would make it a sad proposition to obtain one in the first place."

"True, Elves tend to enjoy animals in the wild without befriending them too closely. Nevertheless, we have made this change fairly recently for strategic reasons. These days there are more of our enemies about than ever-and they have become more ruthless and cunning as the Shadow grows over the Greenwood. We Elves are skilled at tracking, with ears and eyes second to none. Dogs' noses are keener than ours, though, and sometimes they are of great help-if a band of orcs has passed a rocky area without leaving tracks, for example. We obtained some of them from the Men who are now gradually populating the area around the Long Lake. And I cannot bear putting the poor beasts in a kennel at the end of their hard work. Nowadays I always have one living here with me, and several of the others in my guard feel the same way and provide hospitality for the others. None of our dogs stays in a cage. Even so, I try not to become overly fond of them, for, as you say, their lives will pass like a gust of wind in the treetops. This one is the second I've had. I am using the same name, in the hope that it will make them all seem to blend together into one dog-except, as I am now realizing, for the repeated need to train each one anew."

They both chuckled, and Mithrandir replied, "An admirable point of view--wanting them to live in freedom, that is. And a cute, intelligent little fellow-as intelligent as dogs can be," he added in a whisper as he leaned closer to the Elf's ear. The Wizard turned and looked around the familiar room with a happy sigh. It was a large bedroom, its flat, smooth walls hung with exquisite tapestries depicting scenes of nature. Gracefully carved furniture stood on tiles of rich earth tones. A broad door, left standing open in the fine weather, led to a covered porch, much smaller than the communal one where the Istar had been sitting earlier. This porch looked out over Mirkwood, as did the other, but it faced east, and in the distance the majestic shape of the Lonely Mountain loomed above the trees. The Istar stepped out into the open and leaned on the railing, staring at the Mountain.

Legolas followed the direction of his gaze and said quietly, "Beautiful, is it not? So dramatic for being on its own, not part of a range. Long ago, when I grew old enough to live on my own, I asked for this room because of that view."

"Yes, and the Mountain seems so near in this clear light. Deceptively near, given how long it takes me to get from here to that area or back!"

"But you're not going there on this trip, are you? Father said that you would depart for Lothlórien to meet the other Istari."

"True. I had intended to go on and familiarize myself with some of the new communities of Men about whom your father was telling me, but that journey will have to wait."

"Good," Legolas said softly, leaning in to brush his lips against the Istar's ear. "Well, I have not brought you here to admire the view, beautiful though it is."

The Wizard sighed happily and closed his eyes, letting the Elf's tongue tickle him for a moment before turning to embrace him. This time they did not restrain themselves but held each other closely, their lips meeting and clinging and beginning to suck more eagerly.

After a while they pulled slightly apart, breathing more deeply and staring into each other's eyes. The Istar ran his fingertips through the long blond hair on one side of the beautiful face. He leaned forward and began to kiss his way slowly down the Elf's cheek, along his jaw, and back to the ear, which he licked wetly as he unbuttoned Legolas' tunic. The Elf moved slowly and somewhat awkwardly backward toward a day-bed at the side of the porch, encumbered as he was by a clinging Wizard. He cooperated as the Istar removed the tunic and tossed it onto a nearby chair. He slipped off his soft shoes as Mithrandir undid the laces of his leggings, tugging them down until Legolas' slender, long shaft was sticking halfway out through the gap. Gulping, the Wizard lowered his lover quickly onto his back and placed one knee on the bed between his legs. He leaned down and licked the bobbing member as he continued to pull at the tight garment. The Elf was trying to reach down beneath Mithrandir's beard to unbutton his shirt, but as the Wizard succeeded in removing his leggings altogether and engulfed the erection's crown in his mouth, Legolas gasped and lay back. Unable for the time being to do anything to reciprocate in the exchange of pleasure, he relaxed against the mattress and abandoned himself to the exquisite sensations that the Wizard was giving him.

Mithrandir eagerly caressed his torso and plucked at his hardening nipples with one hand while he rolled the Elf's testicles with the other. His lips tightened and pulled, withdrawing to the ridge of the tip and sinking slightly further each time. At one point he allowed the rigid cock to spring free, but before Legolas could protest, Mithrandir was sucking at each ball in turn, pausing to moisten his fingers with saliva before returning to licking the testicles and rolling them with his tongue. Gently he rubbed at the Elf's tight opening and pressed until the top joint of one finger entered. Legolas gasped repeatedly, but not with pain, for he spread his legs further and pressed against the Wizard's finger and mouth. He reached to stroke his own upright sex slowly, and Mithrandir could just glimpse the blissful abandon on his face through the gap between the moving hand and the Elf's thigh. Mithrandir's own cock was straining at the tightly-laced cloth that confined it, and his hips quivered with the desire to thrust and bring him release.

At last the Istar rose slightly and nudged the Elf's hand away with his own, lowering his mouth to seize Legolas' length again. To his surprise, the Elf's hand pushed at his shoulder. He looked up inquiringly, and Legolas said breathily, "Do not wait for your own pleasure, Mithrandir. Please, take it now, along with me. Go inside me, if you will."

The Istar's face was slack with passion, and he nodded, rising to kneel between Legolas' spread, bent legs. He was fully clothed, but they were both so aroused that he paused only to unlace his own trousers and free his rigid purple erection. "I ... hope you won't think me presumptuous, but I ..." He chuckled, reached into his trouser-pocket, and pulled out a small bottle. "I came prepared."

Legolas smiled. "Far from presumptuous. Foresighted, I should say-and considerate."

Serious now, Mithrandir coated his fingers and loosened the Elf, sliding over the most sensitive point enough to maintain his partner's considerable arousal and yet not enough to drive him over the brink into his final pleasure. His own need made his breath come in great, shuddering gulps of air, and he edged his knees forward as he quickly coated his member. Legolas grasped his own legs and bent them up against his torso, offering his cleft for penetration. Gritting his teeth in his effort to control his own insipient orgasm, the Wizard pushed slowly inside, pausing briefly at intervals but moving always forward until he was fully embedded.

He paused again, but Legolas keened and twisted, striving to bring the invading organ into contact with his pleasure spot. The tugging on his own erection drove Mithrandir beyond any hope of delaying their gratification, and he seized the Elf's shaft, pumping it as he drove harder and harder, using the wiry strength of his loins and thighs to push his large tip repeatedly along the front of the tight passage. Legolas' quiet, pleading moans rose abruptly into loud, high-pitched keening, and in the tiny portion of his mind that was thinking rationally, Mithrandir wondered fleetingly if any other windows or porches lay nearby in the cliff's side. It was too late now to do anything about that, and he thrust faster until the Elf's desperate sounds dissolved into harsh groans of release, and his come jetted up and fell onto his chest. At once the Istar allowed himself to reach the brink and topple over into bliss as well, emptying his balls with a series of short, sharp thrusts and a long, growling sigh through clenched teeth.

Both remained unmoving for a few moments, and then Legolas lowered his feet to the mattress so that the Wizard could place his hands on the Elf's knees as a support until his head stopped spinning and his breath began to return to normal. With a long, satisfied sigh he grinned down at the Elf and carefully withdrew. Legolas shifted so that Mithrandir could lie beside him. Their bodies were pressed together, as the bed was fairly narrow. They both glanced downward at the Wizard's legs, where his trousers were bunched up around his thighs.

"I look quite ridiculous," Mithrandir said with a chuckle, though he felt too weak as yet to do anything about the situation.

"Maybe, but it's also quite romantic. So eager for love that you couldn't even pause to take your clothes off!"

"Mmmm, I was that!"

Eventually the pair struggled to remove Mithrandir's shirt and trousers and boots, and he was soon as naked as the Elf. Legolas departed to the bedroom long enough to bring a moist cloth and two glasses of cool wine the color of sunlight. Once they had cleaned themselves a little, they lounged side by side, sipping the wine and enjoying the warm summer breeze on their exposed skin.

Mithrandir examined the lovely face, so close to his own. "We make an odd couple, you and I. Even now, I do not quite understand why you allowed me to sleep with you. We had been friends for so long and could have gone on in that fashion."

Legolas shrugged thoughtfully. "I suppose it was partly because I sensed how lonely you were. When you visited here, you would speak of the Istari and how you missed Radagast and longed to meet the other three. It made me very sad, because I knew how much you were doing for us all. Not that you need think that I slept with you out of pity! No, at first I vaguely thought of trying to find someone for you, and that made me ponder what I might say to make him think of you as attractive in that way. It made me realize that despite your elderly appearance, I suspected that you would be a passionate and considerate-and skillful-lover. So in thinking of how I might convince someone else, I ended up convincing myself! There was a time when you were here and I was feeling lonely myself and ... well, I was certainly very curious by then about what it would be like to make love with you. I remember we agreed that if we felt the whole thing was too awkward or forced that we would forget about it and remain friends. Well, you know how that turned out! I most definitely have never regretted it. Quite the contrary."

Mithrandir smiled reminiscently throughout this. When Legolas fell silent, he shook his head and said teasingly, "Well, if you have a taste for Istari with big beards, my lovely Elf, there are Radagast and Saruman and Alatar and Pallando." It was a silly remark, but the Istar delighted in pronouncing the list of names, thinking of how soon they might be united. "You must have met all of them before you met me."

"Of course, I had met them all, but I knew from the start that you are unique. So wise and passionate and joyful and loving."

Briefly Mithrandir wondered if Legolas might say this because he detected without realizing it the effects that the Istar's possession of Narya had had upon his nature. The Ring of Fire. Perhaps some of the Wizard's eagerness for the pleasures of life stemmed from its power. If so, he thought with an inward chuckle, he was all the more grateful to Cirdan for having entrusted the Ring to him. On the other hand, he thought as his eyes once more wandered over Legolas' face, such a beautiful companion would be enough to enflame anyone's desires!

Mithrandir sighed and said softly, "I have not seen you for so very long! I'm sorry that I have not had time to visit you sooner, my sweet Legolas."

The Elf stared at him solemnly. "There is no need to apologize. I know where you have been these past few years. I dread to think what you have had to see and do while aiding those struck down by the relentless disease."

"Yes," the Wizard replied slowly. "It was far worse than any dangers I have undergone in trying to support the troops of Gondor-or anywhere else during my long efforts."

They were silent for a while before Legolas resumed, "That is easy to believe, but now you have time for a rest, you said. And I would be very surprised if you had not made at least a short stay in Imladris on your way here."

"You are right. I have had some chance to shake off the effects of my long, grim labors. Otherwise you might find me far more morose than I am now."

Legolas grinned slyly at him. "And I suppose you are also less morose because you saw Erestor while you were there. How is he?"

The Istar stared off into the azure sky with a little smile on his face. "Yes, I saw him. He is well, as always. He managed to cheer me when I thought that nothing ever could again. He and the wonderful peace and hospitality of the Last Homely House. I would have found it very difficult to force myself to leave had I not been able to anticipate the joy of seeing you again." He turned to look into Legolas' eyes again. "But I shouldn't talk about him. That isn't very polite to you."

"Well, I did ask. And I am grateful that from the start you have been so honest about your relationship with him. After all, I can hardly begrudge your having a few other intimate friends. I realize that your journeys are often long and lonely and difficult-and dangerous. I would be very selfish if I were to be upset that you have Erestor and Radagast to comfort you-and maybe by now one or two others that I don't know about. And you are well aware that I do not always sleep alone here, either. It would not be natural. After all, you see any of us so seldom. Years pass by sometimes. No, I think as long as I am here and Erestor is in Imladris and the others are wherever they are-there should be no jealousy."

Mithrandir nuzzled into the blond hair and whispered, "You are very generous and understanding."

They lay for a while, kissing and caressing languidly until they finished the cool, sweet wine. Suddenly they heard a soft sound behind them and turned their heads. Maerfarad stood in the door, his tail wagging and a damp, heavily chewed leather belt hanging from his mouth. He made another little soft growling noise, and the Wizard turned to Legolas with a wry smile. "I am afraid that our quiet little interlude is at an end. Maerfarad points out that he has fulfilled his part of the bargain and that it is definitely time for a game or two. A little tug-of-war, I gather," he added, looking with some distaste at the belt. He stood up reluctantly and stretched, reaching for his clothes. "That is the problem with making bargains with children and animals-they never forget!"

Mithrandir glanced up at the gathering dusk. The sun had just set, and he was making his final preparations for a splendid display of fireworks. Less than a hundred years earlier he had learned the secret of making a powerful blasting powder. Experiments had quickly revealed how, combined with various other substances and carefully controlled, it could create fiery sparks in a beautiful-if fleeting-display. Since then he had reveled in his ability to create a great variety of rockets and bright pictures. It was a hobby that he could pursue only in Rivendell, for he could not carry the necessary equipment and supplies about with him everywhere. Still, he always brought as many as he could when he traveled from Imladris to Lothlórien, and by now he had accumulated enough to make quite an impressive little show in honor of the occasion. He longed to meet Saruman and the Blue Wizards. A fireworks display seemed the perfect celebration of their return and of the tremendous change that it would mean for their great mission.

The display was to take place in a large open area of lawn on the eastern side of Caras Galadhon. As he worked, Mithrandir thought happily back to the scene at dinner earlier that evening, when Galadriel had suddenly stopped talking and sat for a moment staring, seeing with her mind rather than her eyes. At last she had looked at him and Celeborn and Radagast with a smile. "I sense a new presence in the Golden Wood, at the eastern border. Not a hostile presence but a friendly one. I cannot say for sure, but I would imagine that our highly anticipated guests have arrived. Our guards should be able to escort them here within the next few hours."

From that thrilling moment on, Mithrandir had been working hard to recheck and adjust all of his fireworks, and now he was ready. The other Istari could arrive at any moment. Elves were drifting out from the city, bringing small, light, carven folding stools upon which they sat, ranged in small groups across the grass, to watch the presentation. Mithrandir finished his preparations and calmed his nerves by checking the fuses a third time. At last the Lord and Lady appeared, accompanied by Radagast, and they sat down in three of the seven chairs set in a slightly curved row in the middle of the stretch of lawn. Placed before it was a low table, covered with food and drink for the newcomers. Mithrandir moved to join them, though he was too excited to sit.

Seeing the question in his eyes, Galadriel smiled. "The escort is very near. It should only be a few minutes now. I trust you have devised a particularly special program for us tonight. Celeborn and I always look forward to those rare occasions when you can show off your skill in this new art."

They chatted for a few moments, but Mithrandir kept glancing off toward the eastern side of the broad clearing. Full darkness arrived, and a few lamps were lit, to be extinguished later when the display began. At last Mithrandir whispered, "There!" The others followed the direction of his gaze and saw a pale figure emerging from the deep gloom of the forest. As he moved forward, they could discern his appearance better: a tall figure in white astride a large horse of the same color. His hair was dark, as was his long beard. Apart from a single Elf who was leading the horse, the rider was alone.

Saruman surveyed the great sweep of grass before him, occupied by Elves. Somewhere in that group must be Radagast and the fifth Istar. Despite the gloom, his keen eyes quickly spotted the row of chairs at the center, where a small group of figures stood awaiting him. He had been tense and worried for months--nay, many years--but especially on the long, perilous trip back from the East. Skirting all too near Dol Guldur, he had sensed the malignancy that had invaded it, and he had been enormously relieved to reach the safety of the eastern edge of Lothlórien. He had visited the Golden Wood only once, centuries before, but he remembered its serene quality, its sense of timelessness, the luxurious hospitality afforded by the Lord and Lady, and not least, their wisdom and insightful counsel. Immediately upon his arrival at its eastern border, he had encountered Elven guards and learned that Radagast had received his message, and that both he and their other colleague were there awaiting him. In all his time in Middle-earth, he had never felt such a sense of respite and sudden safety.

Now, after a short ride among the great mallorn trees, he had reached the edge of the group. Exhaling a long sigh, he dismounted and walked the short distance to the cluster of chairs. The Lord and Lady stepped forward to greet him formally, and he nodded and thanked them. His eyes were already straying to the two figures standing a little way behind. Radagast, he noted, seemed little changed since last he had seen him. The Brown Istar approached with a welcoming smile, and he and Saruman embraced. The White Wizard cast glances at the fourth figure, whom he was most anxious to meet.

Now Galadriel moved slightly aside and gestured for that figure to come forward, introducing him as "Mithrandir." A strange name, Saruman thought. "The Grey Pilgrim." True, his assigned color was grey, but why a pilgrim? Some word conveying strength and authority would better suit their mission. He brushed the thought aside as Mithrandir gripped his hands and stared delightedly into his eyes. "Welcome, Saruman! I have longed for so many, many years to meet you!" He seemed about to speak further, but tears stood in his eyes, and he suddenly embraced Saruman, who returned the gesture.

The White Istar was startled at how short Mithrandir was, how aged in appearance. The "Grey" of his title did not refer to his age-and indeed his hair, beard, and bushy eyebrows were white as snow. True, appearances could be deceiving. Radagast looked far more like a mighty Wizard than did Mithrandir, and yet Saruman had long since concluded that the Brown Istar was not nearly as knowledgeable or powerful as he was himself. And indeed, as he drew back from the embrace and looked into Mithrandir's eyes, he thought he discerned a depth and sparkle that might hint at lively intelligence and insight. It was hard to tell in that dim light. It might just be the reflections of the torches.

Those shining eyes left his, however, and glanced at the wood whence Saruman had appeared. "And the Blue Wizards. Will they be arriving soon?" Mithrandir inquired with puzzlement and a trace of worry in his voice.

Saruman hesitated, looking down at the grass and drawing in a deep breath. "They are not with me, nor will they be arriving. Let us not mar our meeting and my reunion with Radagast and the wise Lord and Lady of the Galadhrim by going into explanations. There will be time for those later. I am also, as you can imagine, rather tired."

Mithrandir's expression grew alarmed at the news that Alatar and Pallando were not coming to Lothlórien, but he at once nodded sympathetically and gestured toward a chair, saying, "Of course, you must be exhausted after such a long journey. Please, sit down."

Saruman gladly complied, taking the glass of wine that was offered him, as well as some pieces of fruit from a bowl that Radagast lifted from the table to proffer to him. All the others except Mithrandir sat in the row of chairs, of which three were conspicuously empty. Galadriel ordered two of the chairs to be taken away, so that they would not remain as a silent reminder of the worrisome absence of their other keenly anticipated guests.

Mithrandir faced Saruman, smiling once more. "A long journey," he repeated," and one which must have been quite lonely and dangerous. Now that you are with us, please rest and refresh yourself. We can, as you say, talk later and for days to come. In the meantime, I have prepared a welcome for you-a little entertainment that might divert you from your cares for a while."

Saruman's eyes followed him curiously as he walked directly away from the group toward a small fire at the edge of the clearing, the light of which dimly revealed some mysterious shapes ranged around it. He glanced out of the corner of his eye at his companions. All were watching the Grey Istar with little smiles of anticipation, and the other Elves ranged across the clearing quieted and, after putting most of the torches out, sat down, all facing the fire beside which Mithrandir was now performing mysterious actions. At a gesture from Galadriel, a group of musicians off to their side began to play lively music. The White Istar was very hungry, and he helped himself to the delicious bread and cheeses, small tarts, and other Elven delicacies. His plate full, he sat back and relaxed, reflecting that whatever mysterious welcome Mithrandir had in mind, it would at least afford him an interval to rest and eat his meal. He took another sip of the exquisite wine of Lórien, relishing it and deciding that whatever fine ales and vintages he had been offered during his long travels, few if any compared with this. He nodded as a servant stepped forward to refill his goblet.

A small hissing noise coming from the direction of the fire did little to prepare him for the loud crack that followed, and Saruman started in alarm. The wine in his goblet sloshed but fortunately did not spill. He tilted his head back in time to see colored sparks drifting downward and fading. At once another crack split the quiet, and a fountain of dazzling colors began, with the many vivid dots falling and disappearing. Time and again such explosions and brief displays of what appeared to be colored fire burst into various shapes. At intervals, hissing pictures made of the same fiery sparks erupted at ground level, more or less in the direction of the small fire where Mithrandir had gone. With each new dazzling image, Saruman struggled to analyze what the nature of this trickery could be, but he remained mystified to the end.

The grand finale of the program was another ground-level image, simply but recognizably representing the five Istari. A tall white figure occupied the center, with one grey and one brown Wizard on either side (these two apparently created partly with smoke). At either end, the two Blue Istari were balanced against each other. After a few seconds, the figures grew tall and blended, and a huge column of pure white sparks rose into the sky. Presumably, Saruman thought, a representation of the united strength of the Istari. If only it were that easy!

As the column slowly faded, the music rose to a grand climax and ended, and the Elves began to applaud. Galadriel looked around the small group in the cluster of chairs and said, "I believe that Mithrandir's skill at making fireworks has grown even greater since last he favored us with such a display." Celeborn nodded, and Radagast expressed regret that he had not been present on that occasion. Saruman did not join in the small talk but finished his meal as he watched Mithrandir put out the fire and walk back to rejoin them.

The Grey Istar sank into a chair and accepted a glass of wine. "Now that I have finished with the tricky business of lighting all those fuses, I can enjoy this. I offer a toast: Welcome, Saruman, and may this meeting of Istari herald success against our great Enemy!" All lifted their cups to that sentiment.

Celeborn then stood and said, "The night air becomes somewhat chill. Shall we retire indoors where we can talk more comfortably and privately?"

They carried their glasses and, along with the rest of the Elves, walked back into the mallorn grove and were soon climbing the long stairs up to the huge building that housed the Lady and Lord's gathering room and private quarters. The three Wizards and their host and hostess went to a small study where a fire was already burning cheerily in the grate.

Without seeming to stare, Saruman was closely watching the Grey Istar, who, as they arranged themselves and settled into their chairs, continued chatting happily with Galadriel about the fireworks display. Inwardly Saruman had to admit that once he had recovered from the initial surprise of the noise and strange lights, he had to some extent enjoyed the fireworks. Even so, it seemed merely a clever toy, a frivolous thing, and yet Mithrandir clearly had spent much time in devising the program and was proud of being able to entertain the group with it. The White Istar smiled and nodded as the others once again praised the show, but secretly he thought the whole thing a bit silly. Now that they were indoors and the light was better, Saruman found Mithrandir's appearance even less impressive. After the long, lonely, dangerous journey, he was relieved to be here, but the initial elation was fading into disappointment. He had hoped that Mithrandir would be nearly as powerful and wise as he himself, but now he found that hard to believe. The other Istar seemed almost child-like, indulging in trivial games. That sparkle in his eyes must have resulted from that trait rather than from deep wisdom. He smiled indulgently whenever Mithrandir looked at him, but he yearned to get away and sleep long before confronting the new tasks that loomed now that his journey was accomplished.

Soon, after the chat about the fireworks ended, Celeborn turned to Saruman with a somber face. "And now that you have rested a little, we are all anxious to hear about the Blue Wizards. Why did Alatar and Pallando not accompany you here? Have they gone elsewhere for some reason?"

Saruman suddenly looked very weary, and lines caused by his worries became apparent in his face. He sighed and was silent for a time. "Alatar and Pallando have . . . succumbed to the fascinations and pleasures of the East, and they will apparently never return hither. The countries there are strange and full of wonders. We were there long, of course, and we traveled extensively and saw nearly everything, I believe. I felt the attraction of life there, but ultimately I never became wholly accustomed to it, and I did not wish to stay. Beautiful and exotic though those lands were, there were also dark aspects to some of them-strange cults and practices that I found distasteful, even at times repellant.

"I assumed from the beginning that such cults were signs of the presence in those areas, long before perhaps, of Sauron and his minions. I could never induce anyone to speak of him directly, however-only in disturbing hints. Some fear was on the Men there, and nothing we could do was strong enough to counter it. Travel as we might, we never came across any actual traces of the Enemy, and yet we saw many things that might well be the results of his having passed that way. It was a disquieting and frustrating search.

"At first the Blue Wizards professed to feel the same way about those dark practices and cults, but very gradually they seemed to become involved in activities that drew them away from me. They would disappear for longer and longer stretches, and each time when I saw them again, they would have more secrets that I could not fathom." He paused and shook his head sadly. "At times I wondered if I should not be afraid of them. And I confess, when I finally said that we should return to the West, I was not entirely upset when they declared that they would not accompany me. I even felt a certain sense of relief."

The group stared at him as he fell silent. Finally Radagast asked quietly, "Did they betray our mission and go over to the Shadow? That would certainly make it harder to defeat Sauron."

"No, I think not. There was a selfishness, a desire for power, petty though it seemed to me, and ultimately a decadence about them that would not incline them to serve others. They would be no more eager to help Sauron than to remain loyal to our cause. They are simply ... no longer participants in our great struggle, either aiding or opposing us. If they have a part to play anywhere, it is in a different drama that does not touch us. I wish that I could explain further to you, but I do not understand myself what happened to them. I realize, looking back on our earlier days together, that they were probably never entirely frank with me. Initially they were pleasant companions and-I thought-friends, but ultimately I knew them little."

"How very strange!" Celeborn said at last.

"Indeed," Mithrandir chimed in. "From my own viewpoint, though, having worked alone so often, a meeting of three Istari seems something of a miracle. Radagast and I at least will not desert you."

Saruman nodded with a little smile, but privately he wondered just how useful his colleagues would be. Was he the only one of the Istari both faithful enough and powerful enough to be of any great use to their cause? he thought wearily. After the unfathomable actions of the Blue Istari, however, the friendly, rather ordinary behavior of Radagast and Mithrandir was at least somewhat soothing and encouraging.

After a short time he stood up and announced, "Well, the entertainment and refreshments have been very pleasant indeed, but they have not entirely banished my weariness. It is a great pleasure to be here at last and to enjoy your splendid hospitality." He nodded politely to his host and hostess. The group wished him a good night, and an Elf was summoned to show the White Istar to his room.

With others carrying the small amount of luggage that he had brought with him, they ascended the complex of stairways that led to various bedrooms in the heights of the great mallorn. They reached a spacious chamber with open windows admitting a gentle, fresh breeze and the soft sounds of wind in the branches outside. Once the guide and servants had made sure that Saruman had everything that he needed and had departed, the White Istar was about to begin to undress when he heard voices and paused. Opening his door only a tiny crack, he saw Radagast and Mithrandir walking along the broad, shallow stairway outside, presumably bound for their own bedrooms. He was about to close his door again when Radagast reached out a hand to detain his companion. He could hear their brief conversation as a faint murmur without being able to distinguish the words. They leaned in until their faces were very close to each other as they smiled, briefly clasped hands, and walked off together. Saruman opened his door enough to allow him to stick his head out and watch them. They both went into a room a short way beyond his, and the door closed. Saruman shut his own door, snorting softly in disdain. So those two were sleeping together. Well, they were evidently very suited to each other. The little episode he had just witnessed made him feel more alone and desolate than before. Saruman quickly went to bed, trying to put aside his disappointment and worry, and he soon fell into a dreamless sleep.

The next morning, after breakfast, Mithrandir caught up to the White Istar on the stairway outside the dining hall of the large complex. "Would you be inclined to go for a walk, Saruman? I realize that you visited Lothlórien once years ago, but perhaps you did not have time to see much of its beauty. And I would be glad of a chance to talk about our plans."

Saruman frowned doubtfully and looked around. "Should we not include Radagast in our conversation?"

Mithrandir hesitated only momentarily. "Later we shall all meet in a more formal way, but first, since you and I had never met, I would like to share my own thoughts and concerns with you, if you don't mind."

Saruman reflected that it might indeed be a good idea to speak with the Grey Wizard alone. He had got to know Radagast somewhat before departing for the East, and it would make sense to probe this new colleague a bit before they all settled down to serious discussion. He replied with a polite smile, "Not at all. You presumably know the Golden Wood well, so I shall depend upon you as a guide."

Descending the long stairway, they came to the base of the enormous mallorn, and Mithrandir indicated a path, along which they walked. Once they were alone, the Grey Wizard beamed at his companion. "I cannot tell you how glad I am that you have returned. I wish you could have traveled back to the West sooner, but in a way the timing of your arrival is perfect, even if you did not intend it."

"Really? Why?"

Mithrandir hesitated longer this time before speaking. "Did word of the great plague that ravaged the West of Middle-earth last year reach your ears, distant though you were?"

"Only vague rumors, perhaps exaggerated by fear."

"No, there was no need to exaggerate, for the reality was bad enough. Many thousands died. It began in Gondor and spread throughout Eriador, as far as the Blue Mountains. I spent many months trying to help as best I could. There was not really much I could do to halt the spread of the disease beyond seeing that the bodies of the victims were quickly burned or buried, but I tried to bring some relief to those who were suffering. It ... it was a dreadful time, the worst that I have lived through since I arrived here. I must admit that the whole experience reduced me to near despair for a while, but your return comes just as I badly needed something to revive my hope that we may finally begin to make some real progress in our mission."

Saruman watched his face thoughtfully. "I did not time my arrival in relation to the plague, which I had not heard of until I had already set out on my journey here. So I suppose that it was mere coincidence. Nay, I came now because another sort of plague approaches. The Dark Lord has had much time in hospitable lands to take shape again. He has become powerful enough to think seriously of returning to Mordor. I believe that already he has sent at least some of the Nine on before him, to prepare the way. They may be in Mordor even now. When I learned all this, I realized that there was nothing I could do to stop it if I stayed there. The battle ultimately would be fought in the West, though I am convinced that the Enemy will draw heavily on troops recruited from lands he has seduced and turned to evil, and he will also conscript more unwilling ones from those places he had conquered and placed under his yoke. I decided to come and help prepare the strategies for defense. Terrible forces have been set in motion, and here we are, with two of the five Istari gone-and now, you tell me, with large parts of the West's populations decimated or reduced." He did not mention his lack of confidence in Radagast's help, and privately he remained quite dubious as to whether Mithrandir would be any more use to him than the Brown Wizard.

By now they had come to a clearing, smaller than that in which the fireworks display had been held. A raised, covered wooden platform stood at the far edge, and they crossed to it and sat on a bench, enjoying the warmth as the low sun shone in from one side. Mithrandir took up their conversation. "I don't believe your return at this time was coincidence. Sauron is taking advantage of the fact that the plague has weakened the West to effect his return. He may even have caused it in some fashion. It started down near the coast of Gondor, where it could have been brought by ships arriving from the East or South. It spread north and west, but its most immediate-and predictable--result was the weakening of the guard upon the borders of Mordor. I well believe your suggestion that some of the Nine may already have slipped back into the Dark Land. Frankly, I do not know whether to be worried or pleased at the idea. If Sauron has returned, or plans to, it would at last give us something specific to struggle against. Part of my despondence, I believe, was due to a sense there was nothing active to be done-only a continuing exploration of the continent and an attempt to defend and preserve its peoples and other living things. Now we can at least begin to strategize and perhaps make progress, slow though it might be."

Saruman nodded at intervals during this speech. He found himself feeling a little more hopeful himself. Perhaps Mithrandir would prove a more effective colleague than he had thought. "You may well be right about the plague's causes and purpose. I suppose that in that case we should concentrate our efforts in Gondor to begin with."

"Yes, in Gondor and in Mirkwood as well-and specifically southern Mirkwood. Radagast and I are quite worried about the shadow that has fallen over the forest in general. It seems to emanate from the region of Dol Guldur. Ever since my arrival others of the Wise have suspected that some dark force, perhaps a Nazgul, now inhabits that fell tower, but our efforts to discover what it is have all been thwarted." The Grey Wizard looked doubtfully at Saruman before resuming, and he spoke reluctantly when he did resume. "Talking of Radagast, he is a wonderful colleague and a good friend, and he and I have naturally grown quite dependent upon each other in some ways. Still, I have noticed lately that he has become somewhat less active in our mission. He has hinted that he wishes to settle in Mirkwood. He has become quite fascinated by and attached to its birds and beasts, and he is less and less inclined to travel far from there. He has probably not told me of his full desire to establish a home, for he knows my opinion that it runs counter to the mandate that we were given by the Valar."

Saruman frowned. "Indeed? I cannot say that I am particularly surprised to hear such a thing of Radagast. To be honest, I have never had the impression that he would play a really major role in our more difficult work. Assuredly he will contribute in many ways, but ..." He shrugged.

"Exactly. I have been trying to think how. It was mostly to discuss the situation concerning Radagast that I wished to talk with you alone. At first I was ... well, to put it bluntly, upset that he should consider settling down. Upon reflection, though, I think that his love for Mirkwood could be turned to our advantage. If he settles somewhere toward the south-though not too far south, of course!--he could at least keep an eye on Dol Guldur and the area around it and alert us to any activity there. In that case, though, he would need to be able to communicate with us speedily. That led me to conceive a way in which he might make an even greater contribution that would well suit his current inclinations."

Saruman raised his eyebrows inquiringly. His confidence in Mithrandir's abilities was rising steadily as they talked. He realized that for the first time in he could not remember how long, he was able to speak with someone and not be guarded in everything he said. It seemed forever since he had encountered such casual honesty and trust as his companion brought into the conversation. He wondered if he himself could ever regain such qualities. The thought nearly made tears come to his eyes, and he struggled to focus on Mithrandir's words.

"Well, a number of times in recent years, Radagast has sent messages to me that were borne by some of the birds he has befriended. He tells me that none of the letters that he has sent me in that fashion has ever gone astray, though in some cases it did take rather a long time for the messenger to find me. I suspect that it would be fairly easy for him, and I hope for us as well, to do that sort of thing on a more regular basis, creating a system of bird messengers that could greatly facilitate the exchange of news among us and also among others of the Wise. In all my time in Middle-earth, one of the most persistent problems has been the slowness with which news travels. Leaving notes in the various Elven enclaves or sending messages by someone on foot is a chancy and often slow way of communicating. After all, if we Istari were given the power to communicate with birds and beasts, we might as well utilize it in our cause."

"I quite agree. If Radagast would be able and willing to arrange such a system, it would be an enormous boon." Saruman sensed a great weight of worry easing from him. Clearly Mithrandir was far wiser than he had at first seemed, and his determination to make plans for them to act in concert was most encouraging. He suspected that he and this new colleague could work well together. He went on, "Have you suggested such a thing to him?"

"Yes, recently I asked him if he thought that creating a system of that sort would be possible. As I expected, he thought that it probably would, and he actually seemed rather intrigued with the notion. I think he would enjoy such a task, and it would make him feel useful despite his partial withdrawal from our mission-and therefore perhaps more inclined to cooperate with us in other ways when he can. I sense that he feels a little guilty about becoming so peripheral, and I have to believe that hearing of the defection of Alatar and Pallandro would exacerbate such thoughts. If you and I and perhaps Galadriel could work out what sort of system we want, I'm fairly certain that he would implement it. Given how close we are to Mirkwood, he could presumably start quite soon."

As Mithrandir talked, Saruman looked keenly into his eyes and discerned there the depths of wisdom that he had noticed at first but had dismissed as a result of his misleading first impression of the Grey Istar. He sensed too a lively sense of humor and a hidden power. He realized that he not only respected his companion a great deal more but also that he would probably come to treasure him as a friend. It had been so long since he had had a true friend! Mithrandir had said that Saruman's return had drawn him out of near despair. Saruman now felt the same way, and he was enormously grateful that he had decided to set out from the East when he did-coincidence or no.

They sat talking then, losing track of the hours passing as they moved beyond discussion of their task and told each other stories of their doings, both great and small. Each wondered at the other's fortitude in the face of enormous difficulties. Most strikingly, for the first time since reaching Middle-earth, each recognized something of his own nature and way of thought in another being. Neither was accustomed to resembling anyone else, and the recognition was deeply moving to both.

At last silence fell between them, as if both were struggling to assimilate such momentous changes in their lives. Finally Mithrandir asked in a soft, tentative way, "Saruman, do you ... do you remember the Blessed Realm?"

The other Istar stared at him somberly and replied, "Only dimly. I know it exists, that we lived there, that we were sent on our mission from there. I know its history in the way that a schoolchild of Middle-earth might learn it, as a chronology of facts. I have fleeting recollections of parts of it, but when I try to concentrate on them and remember details, the memories slip away altogether."

The Grey Wizard nodded sadly. "Much like my own experience. I suppose it is to keep us from despairing at being exiled from it for so long. We cannot fully remember its wonders and hence will not suffer so much at losing it. Yet even such fleeting, partial memories make me yearn to go back. Yearn very much, at times."

They stared at each other in mutual sympathy, and Saruman thought with a thrill, At last! Someone who understands-and not only understands but shares that desolate feeling. Their eyes both brimmed with unshed tears until they looked away, surveying their surroundings until they had mastered their emotions.

At last they could not ignore the passing of the hours and recognized that their talk was perforce at an end. Saruman reluctantly rose and smiled more warmly than before. "Perhaps you can take us by a different route back to Caras Galadhon and show me more sights, and at lunch, we can ask Radagast and Lady Galadriel and Lord Celeborn if we might all meet this afternoon for a discussion."

Mithrandir nodded joyfully, and they stood and descended the steps of the little platform. As they began to stroll across the grass, Saruman turned his face toward his companion and said, "I don't believe that I ever thanked you for the charming fireworks display last night. It was very kind of you to take the trouble for my sake."

Mithrandir shrugged dismissively. "Oh, it's not really any trouble. I enjoy both making and displaying them. I'm delighted that they entertained you." The Grey Wizard's smile revealed that he was far more pleased at Saruman's compliment than his words would indicate. Saruman suddenly felt very glad that he had thought to mention the subject.

They walked in silence for a while, admiring the scenery of Lothlórien. The morning had been an idyllic interlude, and yet now that the conversation was over, one nagging thought tickled at the back of Saruman's mind. Was Mithrandir actually in love with Radagast? He had to admit that it seemed quite plausible. They had known each other for so long, and they clearly were sleeping together regularly. Not a jot of seduction had been needed during the little scene that he had witnessed the night before. True, the Brown Istar did not have the wit and liveliness and wisdom that Mithrandir did, but they nonetheless clearly had much in common and had presumably been thrown together for want of any other companions like in kind to themselves. On the other hand, Mithrandir seemed well aware of Radagast's weak points. How deeply could he love him? Saruman would keep his eyes and ears open to find out. He frowned slightly as he wondered why he should care in the slightest. The White Istar was not interested in petty gossip of that sort. His new friend was free to do as he liked. It presumably would not affect their work together. Then with a shock he recognized the faint stirring within himself of an emotion that he had not experienced in a long time. Jealousy.