The Road to Isengard

by Nefertiti

Rating: NC-17

Pairing: Gandalf/Saruman (also in some chapters, Gandalf/Radagast, Gandalf/Legolas, and Gandalf/Erestor)

Disclaimer: These characters belong to their respective rights-holders; I offer my original story based upon them free of charge to fellow fans.

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

Author's note: This chapter derives almost entirely from the chronology in Appendix B of LOTR.

Many thanks for Sarah for her beta work, wise suggestions, and encouragement.

Chapter Ten

Gandalf's joy over the attack on Dol Guldur and the killing of Smaug was short-lived. He quickly began to suspect that Sauron had not truly fled but had instead secretly returned to Mordor. The Wizard again spent more time in the south, in Minas Tirith and other areas of Gondor, urging the maintenance of a watch on the borders of the Dark Land.

Being in the south would seem to open opportunities to draw his fellow Istar away from Orthanc, and yet no such thing happened. The renewed joy he had experienced with Saruman and the greater dependence he had hoped to place on the other Istar faded. Despite numerous invitations that Gandalf had sent, Saruman refused to meet him in Minas Tirith or Edoras or anywhere else. Wanting to preserve their love if possible, the Grey Istar gave in and returned to his old habit of visiting Isengard when he could. Again there was an oppressive sense whenever he was in the tower that Saruman had many secrets and that he was engaged in mysterious projects that would not help their cause. Gradually Gandalf's trips to see the White Wizard came longer apart, and he found he spent much of their time together trying to divine what Saruman was up to. Greatly though he enjoyed the tenderness and physical pleasure that they shared in abundance, Gandalf felt that such pleasure should not be the sole purpose of their time together. And yet, increasingly, they had little else in common.

Gandalf continued to encourage cooperation among the races. The Battle of Five Armies had brought the Elves, Men, and Dwarves of the northeast together, and trade was kept up between Thranduil's realm and the new kingdom of Erebor. King Dain proved an ideal monarch for the Dwarves, and Gandalf felt that he could rely upon him to rally his troops against the Enemy, if the need arose. The Grey Istar traveled as often as he could in the company of the surviving Dwarves from the Quest. In 2949 he and Balin went west together to revisit the Blue Mountains. They stopped in Hobbiton to see Bilbo, and during their agreeable stay, Gandalf reflected happily on the considerable change in the Dwarves' attitude toward Hobbits since the conversation he had had with Thorin that memorable night at the Prancing Pony.

Yes, in the north things were going reasonably well. The south was another matter. Ten years after the Battle of Five Armies, the Enemy openly asserted his dominion over Middle-earth. With the Dark Lord ensconced in his own land, protected by formidable mountains on the west and north, it would be far more difficult to defeat him militarily than it had been at Dol Guldur. Indeed, the Grey Wizard did not believe it would be possible unless some new development that he could not foresee improved the situation of the Western peoples.

Two years later, in 2953, the White Council met again. Gandalf raised the issue of the One Ring, suggesting that perhaps Sauron had at last found it and was wielding it to rebuild the Dark Tower and to fortify Mordor. Saruman, however, declared that he now had proof that the Ring had passed down the Anduin River to the Sea. He resolutely turned the discussion to means whereby Gondor and Rohan could be strengthened in their roles as the lines of first defense against the forces of the Enemy. As far as the Grey Istar was concerned, the Council's meeting accomplished little.

After that meeting, Saruman returned to Isengard, and when next Gandalf visited, he noted that the White Istar was strengthening the fortifications of Orthanc and its surroundings. Saruman claimed that raids by Orcs coming down from the Misty Mountains necessitated such measures, but the Grey Wizard had seen no signs of greater activity among those creatures. Gandalf also discerned an increase in the number of spies in the Shire and the lands immediately surrounding it. He was baffled by Saruman's continued interest in that little country, but although he diligently questioned the other Istar, he could learn nothing.

One of the bright spots in Gandalf's life during this period began a few years after the White Council's meeting. The Wizard encountered the leader of the Rangers of the North and the Heir of Isildur, Aragorn, son of Arathorn. The Man proved to be the opposite of everything the White Istar seemed to have become. Aragorn was straightforward, supportive, and utterly devoted to the cause of the West. He also admired Gandalf enormously and offered any help that he could provide. For the first time in centuries, the notion that a King might again sit up on the throne of Gondor seemed real to the Istar, and he did everything he could to advise and encourage Aragorn. The two quickly formed a close friendship. At times Gandalf reflected on how ironic it was that a young, mortal Man should be so much more helpful in his tasks than the mighty Istar who was supposed to be the leader of the West's struggles.

3002, Isengard

Saruman sat rigidly behind his desk, his hands clutching the arms of the chair and his eyes determinedly shut. The palantir was summoning him, and he sought to resist its terrifying call. It had been nearly three years now since he had suddenly had another overpowering urge to look into it after many decades of leaving it untouched. At first he could not fathom why he should want to do such a thing. Perhaps, he thought, it had simply occurred to him to check once again if any of the other stones survived. Circumstances had changed so much that a palantir long hidden might possibly have been found. Indeed, he had recently heard rumors implying that the one belonging to Minas Tirith still was in that city, in the keeping of the Steward Denethor. If he could make contact with that one, he could communicate with Denethor far more frequently-and quickly, in cases of emergency.

Still, he had felt that there was something else, something more sinister that made him want to bring the globe forth from its long hiding place and set it on his desk. He had paced around it for many minutes and then ... He recalled the whole event with a shudder-how he had eventually succumbed to the urge and moved to peer into the depths of the stone and learned to his horror what force had actually lured him to use the palantir again. The stone that he contacted was that of Minas Ithil, now Minas Morgul. Sauron had obviously taken it to Barad-dûr and had been seeking other palantiri so that he might control their users. The pain and terror of that first encounter dwelt vividly in the Wizard's mind. At first, when the Enemy stopped questioning and threatening him, Saruman had been able to withdraw his mind from its dreadful link with the Dark Lord. Yet he had been dismayed to find that that mind was no longer entirely his. At intervals an even more overpowering need to look into the stone seized him, and try as he might, he had never managed to resist. He knew he would surrender this time, too, and yet he fought it, for speaking with Sauron was anguishing-despite the fact that they were now supposedly allies. Saruman did not trust the Dark Lord to carry through with the many promises that he had made in exchange for his aid in finding the Ring and tricking the White Council. Nonetheless, he had no choice but to go on pretending to cooperate, to play a dangerous double game of deceit and try to find an opportunity to break free.

There were only two ways he could imagine shaking off Sauron's control. One was very specific: to find the Ring and to use it against the Dark Lord. He had renewed his efforts in that direction immediately after the attack on Dol Guldur, again employing teams of Men to search the Anduin in the Gladden Fields area. The other way was vague: he would appeal to Gandalf, for surely the Grey Istar loved him enough to help him, somehow. How, Saruman couldn't imagine, but Gandalf was so brilliant and courageous. At times, the White Wizard's thoughts went further. He could do both: find the Ring and gain Gandalf's sympathy and aid. He could picture them together, using the Ring-again, he could not think how--to finally achieve their great mission. They could throw down Sauron, heal the lands, and create the new order that would follow. The two Istari could then live together in peace and happiness, in Orthanc or wherever they wished, overseeing the cooperation of the races and enjoying the bounty of all lands, sent in grateful tribute. His mind's eye saw that part so vividly!

The only problem was, Gandalf would never agree to this tactic. Or would he? To save his lover from Sauron's thrall, would the Grey Istar go so far? Quite possibly not, since Gandalf was utterly devoted to their mission and might make any personal sacrifice, choosing duty over love. More than that, Saruman could never imagine himself being able to tell Gandalf about the palantir. To admit to such weakness, such an inability to reject the Dark Lord's command-it was unthinkable. At least, unthinkable until he had tried every possibility, seized every opportunity that arose to obtain the Ring for himself. Once he had it, he would be free. He would even gain what he had long dreamed of: some measure of control over Gandalf that the other Wizard would be powerless to resist. Yes, perhaps Gandalf would be in thrall to him the way the White Istar was to Sauron now-but in a loving way, not through hatred and fear.

Saruman gave a groan of frustration and opened his eyes, pushing on the chair's arms to propel his reluctant body into a standing position. He then crossed the room to fetch the palantir from its hiding place. Once again, Sauron had defeated his resistance. He steeled himself to behave in an obedient and cooperative fashion, hiding his plans and hopes from the Dark Lord. Someday he would have his revenge.

3003, Isengard

The Grey Istar had not visited Isengard in an unusually long time. Finally, however, a bird had arrived with a message announcing that Gandalf was on his way. Saruman breathed a sigh of relief. He had begun to wonder if his lover was deliberately avoiding him. True, they had for several decades been on amicable terms, but over the earlier years the White Wizard's displays of jealousy and temper might have had a cumulative effect, making Gandalf even now prefer the company of his other lovers. Certainly the Grey Istar's visits were less frequent these days.

This time Saruman was determined that everything would be perfect for his most welcome guest. The sex, the food, the atmosphere, everything. And for the first time in many decades, he had an important new surprise for Gandalf, something to make the tower seem more appealing as a permanent home. Not that the White Istar expected that in itself to have the desired effect and make Gandalf suddenly decide to settle down and devote himself to Saruman. But it would help, it would subtly revive the old invitations and would mark the place as the Grey Wizard's home as well as his own.

At last, late one afternoon, the keenly anticipated announcement came. Gandalf was here! Saruman glanced around his study, checking for the hundredth time whether everything was ready. Quickly he went down to the large entry hallway, flung open the door, and descended the flight of steps to the flagstones of the path before it. Gandalf had just given his horse to a groom. He smiled delightedly at the White Istar, and yet to Saruman there was the barest hint of trepidation and uncertainty in his demeanor. The White Wizard vowed inwardly to banish those feelings as soon as possible.

They greeted each other with soft words and embraced, kissing before turning at last to ascend into the tower.

As they almost always did, the pair retreated to Saruman's study. The White Wizard drew his arm away from his lover's shoulders, grasping his hand and pulling him toward the hearth. Gandalf glanced down, obviously expecting to find the usual array of cushions and blankets. The floor's bare flagstones seemed most uninviting as a site for lovemaking, and he looked inquiringly up at Saruman. The White Istar smiled and coaxed him to sit in a particularly large, deep padded chair, pouring him a glass of wine. The other Wizard accepted it gratefully, taking a sip and again looking up with a quizzical expression.

In answer, Saruman gazed lovingly down at him for a moment before picking up a cushion and tossing it onto the floor in front of the Grey Istar's feet. Gandalf grinned in surprise and happiness as his lover knelt, pushing his knees wide and beginning to slide his fingertips over the growing bulge, just hard enough to make Gandalf's grin fade as a tiny frown of arousal crossed his brow and his mouth fell slightly open. Saruman gently kneaded the erection through the trousers. His other hand reached up to seek and find a soft nipple that hardened under the smooth cloth of the shirt as he gently pinched it.

Already panting with arousal, Gandalf still looked a little surprised. Saruman realized that he had never done this when the other Istar arrived. Usually he could not control his overwhelming desire to take his lover soon, even immediately. This time he had deliberately not constructed the familiar makeshift bed in front of the fire, and he tamped his desire, wanting to display how concerned he was to please Gandalf. The Grey Wizard writhed as Saruman's fingers explored him through the increasingly taut cloth and laces. His eyes slid half closed and his hips rocked slightly to push himself against Saruman's hand. Slowly he slumped down in the chair, his buttocks now at the edge of the seat.

The White Istar watched his face as he rolled the nipple and undid the trouser-laces. He could feel the Grey Wizard's thighs quivering on either side of him, and Gandalf stared back at him with a rapt little smile, his eyes rapidly glazing with passion. Saruman pulled the gaping cloth down and nuzzled his nose and lips inside the opening, breathing the musky heat of Gandalf's private area with a gasp of desire. He licked and kissed the tip and upper part of the shaft, trying without success to move his tongue further down to the trapped portion of the erection.

"Oh, yes," Gandalf whispered, and Saruman had to pause and master his own soaring arousal. Later, he told himself. Soon. He pressed his forehead and cheek against the other Istar's lower belly, maneuvering his lips over the tip, deepening into dark purple, of Gandalf's member. Drawing it greedily inside, he sucked hard and swirled his tongue around it. A whimper, wordless and pleading, reached his ears.

Panting around the shaft with his own suppressed need, Saruman hooked a finger over the laced front and pulled it further down, gaining access to the full length of Gandalf's engorged, thick member. With a moan, he freed his mouth to move along it, sliding his parted lips along the ridge that faced him as the cock pressed up against Gandalf's body.

The Grey Wizard moaned again and murmured, "This is the sort of welcome I enjoy." By now Saruman had drawn his head back to survey the crown and shaft, glistening where he had licked them. This was certainly not the way he ordinarily greeted the other Istar. He tried to keep his voice light, not hinting at any jealousy. "You receive this sort of welcome often?"

Gandalf opened his eyes and waggled his eyebrows as he replied with a tiny chuckle, "Not often enough!"

Saruman smiled at him, hoping this was simply a humorous comment on the fact that he himself had never greeted Gandalf with this particular act. Well, that was what he wanted, to make Gandalf feel as welcome and happy as possible, to give him the sense of returning home, not coming just to visit. He turned his attention back to the purple tip, laving it slowly, his eyes dropping closed as the lovely feeling of Gandalf's soft, heated skin under his tongue drove away all thoughts except the pleasure of their reunion. Over and over, he slowly pushed his tight lips down to the slight flare at the end of the crown, flicking the tiny slit with the hard end of his tongue, and then drew up off it with a wet kiss.

Gandalf caressed his lover's cheek briefly and then closed his eyes, his head lolling onto the back of the chair. As his heavy breathing became more audible he whispered, "That's lovely." He clenched his teeth and grimaced as Saruman's mouth sank onto his member, now fully engorged. The White Istar's fingers wandered lightly over the lower half of the shaft as he sucked, lingeringly tracing the wandering veins. Gently he tugged the trousers further down and lifted the heavy testicle sac out. He drew his mouth free and pressed the erection up against Gandalf's stomach again, rubbing the prominent ridge with his flat fingers as he licked the balls and opened his mouth wide to suck one testicle partly inside. The skin of the other Wizard's abdomen twitched, and he took in irregular gulps of air as one exquisite sensation followed another.

Suddenly Saruman decided that he wanted to take his intimate welcome even further. Settling back on his heels briefly, he stripped Gandalf's trousers entirely off. He coaxed the other Wizard to slump down, opening his legs in a wider V and hooking his bent legs over the arms of the chair. Saruman cupped Gandalf's buttocks with his long fingers and separated them until the little puckered opening was directly below his mouth. Gandalf's breath caught in his throat as he realized what was about to happen, and he stared with loving gratitude as Saruman glanced up at him and flicked his tongue over the sensitive hole. Gandalf's eyes closed again, and he scratched his thumbnails softly over his own nipples through the cloth of his shirt, his head rolling slowly from side to side in utter sensual abandon.

Again Saruman could barely control his desire to rise and thrust into the other Wizard, but he paused briefly, raising his head and clenching his teeth before tickling Gandalf's anus more firmly. He pressed his tongue's tip against it, feeling only the faintest give in the taut ring of flesh. Determined to breach it, he pushed rhythmically. Eventually he loosed his grasp of one buttock and slicked a finger in his mouth, pushing it quickly inside. Gandalf flinched slightly but then sought to open his legs even wider to encourage the invasion. Saruman's finger pulled and stretched rapidly, and he added a second finger. Finally, having loosened the hole, he licked the opening with a teasing flicker and then pushed the end of his tongue inside. He thrust rhythmically for a long time, savoring Gandalf's helpless keening. His hand pumped the other Istar's iron-hard shaft slowly, pulling the loose skin to stretch high around the tip and letting it slide down.

Eventually he realized that Gandalf's entire body was tense and shaking, desperate for release. The Grey Istar was pulling and squeezing his own nipples harder, and his keening grew shriller and louder. Saruman withdrew his tongue and again replaced it with his first and second fingers, confidently stroking the front of the hot passage until Gandalf thrashed and groaned. At once the White Istar's other hand pulled the moist cock upright, and he engulfed it with his mouth, relaxing his throat to sink lower after every clinging retreat. Finally he took the tip deep inside, pushing further, over and over by tiny degrees, until nearly all of Gandalf's length was embedded by the end of each stroke. By now the Grey Wizard was tense and quivering in the chair, beyond words or sounds, gasping raggedly. Saruman teased him for a while, slowing his mouth and finger as the other Istar reached the brink and hovered there, only to be drawn back. The White Istar did this as much to tease himself as to tantalize his lover, for he was extremely aroused and more desperate for the act that would soon follow.

At last Saruman knew that neither of them could bear any more, and he slightly increased the speed of his fingers' firm stroking and the depth to which he took his lover's cock. Within seconds Gandalf gritted his teeth and grimaced, plucking hard at the little nubs on his chest as ecstasy seared through his member in rapid, intense bursts and his balls clenched tightly, expelling his seed in spurts into Saruman's throat. He froze as he concentrated fiercely on the diminishing spasms that went on for an extraordinarily long time, sinking slowly to little jolts of pleasure that came further and further apart and finally expired in a last fillip of bliss. Instantly his body went limp, his legs dropping down so that his feet hit the floor with a thump. The sudden change of position dislodged Saruman's fingers, but he continued to lick and kiss the softening member.

Gandalf panted for a while and then finally opened his eyes and smiled up at Saruman with a delight that brought all the wonder of their early love back to the White Istar. He felt as though his cock would explode if he did not seek relief in Gandalf's body, even if it meant not allowing the other Wizard to recover after such a strong climax.

"I need you," he whispered with pleading eyes.

Gandalf nodded and managed to raise his legs again, holding his shins to support them. "Then go inside me," he said. "I shall no doubt enjoy giving you pleasure. And you deserve it," he added with an ecstatic grin. Again the love in his face took Saruman back many centuries, and he sighed and tried to concentrate on the present moment as he reached for a jar of lubricant that he had placed ready for this moment. He slicked his own member and ran an oil-coated finger around Gandalf's opening, which was still loose and ready for penetration, he deemed.

Without further preparation or foreplay, Saruman eased the tip of his aching member inside the puckered, slightly swollen ring. Yet again he had to stop and grind his teeth and will himself not to spend immediately. He had given Gandalf bliss, as he had intended, and yet now he decided to try and drive his lover to ecstasy a second time before he himself came. He concentrated upon finding the perfect angle, thrusting gently but steadily into the moist, gripping channel. The sensation was so exquisite that it nearly undid his resolve. Soon he found the spot he had aimed for, and Gandalf moaned hoarsely and opened his legs more fully to him. Saruman began to pump rhythmically against his lover's pleasure gland.

At first Gandalf lay breathing deeply and uttering occasional sighs and whimpers of pleasure as Saruman worked to arouse him once more. The White Istar gently grasped his lover's flaccid member and squeezed and pulled it in time to his own cock's strokes. Saruman willed himself to prolong his pleasure, stopping short of thrusting hard and fast enough to come, though it was an enormous effort after such a long time apart and such arousing acts as they had already performed. Saruman unbuttoned the other Wizard's shirt and spread it open. Licking the finger and thumb of his free hand, he reached to roll and rub Gandalf's nipples. As usual, this caused the other Istar to writhe, and his cock rose and thickened slowly within Saruman's hand. Patiently the White Istar worked his partner's sensitive places, denying himself release longer than he would have believed possible. After many minutes Gandalf had utterly regained his erection and was begging for his lover to thrust harder.

Using all the skill he had accumulated in his time in Middle-earth, Saruman drove himself into the other Wizard with impeccable aim and milked his shaft and teased his nipples until finally Gandalf erupted a second time, his seed scattering across his chest and the leather cushions of the chair as Saruman yanked hard at his erection. Sucking in a deep breath, the White Istar at last allowed himself to topple over into bliss so intense that he shook and thrust wildly, his thighs spasming as he poured himself into Gandalf's depths. By the time it faded, his head was buzzing and he barely could move. After remaining perfectly still for he knew not how long, with a great effort he picked up a clean cloth and wiped himself and his lover as his shrinking member slipped free. He had lost the control of his body that he had maintained with such effort up to now, and he dropped heavily forward onto the other Wizard, his cheek resting on the sticky chest. It was an awkward position, and Gandalf wrapped his legs loosely around Saruman's hips to prevent their being pressed downward painfully by his lover's weight.

Gandalf lay gasping and shifting below the White Istar for a long time. Finally Saruman raised his head to look at him. Gandalf seemed so bleary that he might drift off to sleep at any moment, but gradually he recovered enough to stare up with astonished pleasure at Saruman. "I think in all my very long time here in Middle-earth that is the most amazing welcome I have ever had! I wouldn't have believed that you could make me come again so very soon. You are a Wizard indeed! You're marvelous!" He hugged Saruman, drawing him closer down upon himself and kissing his cheek and ear, still panting slightly. Despite their somewhat uncomfortable position, the White Istar felt that he could happily stay there for hours. Perhaps Gandalf was exaggerating a little in the ecstasy of the moment, but apparently neither of his other lovers had managed to welcome him so satisfyingly, Saruman thought smugly. He drew in a shuddering breath and rubbed his cheek against the Grey Wizard's.

After several minutes had passed and the two had recovered further, Gandalf murmured, "It's a pity you don't have that lovely heap of pillows there on the floor. We could slide down onto them and rest."

Saruman chuckled fondly. "I deliberately didn't put those pillows out, because I wanted to do this for you."

Gandalf looked at him adoringly and smoothed his hair. "Well, I am very, very glad that you did. Did I mention that you're marvelous?" The Grey Istar, who had been somewhat dubious about coming to Orthanc, was immensely relieved that everything was going so well. They seemed again to be back to the earlier, blissful days-the ones in Minas Tirith and elsewhere, before the other Istar had come to live in the tower. Saruman's tender expression made him feel wonderfully safe and relaxed after his long journey.

Now he yawned and went on, "There is only one thing that could make all this perfect-dinner and then straight to bed. Not to make love again! I doubt that even you could revive my interest in that for tonight. But I want the joy of falling asleep in your arms. I must say, I have had trouble sleeping on the way here, given how cold it has been. And after what just happened, I feel that I won't wake up until late tomorrow morning. What a luxury that will be!"

The pair savored the typically lavish welcoming dinner that Saruman had ordered, though Gandalf's eyelids drooped at intervals and the White Istar arranged for the courses to be presented in a somewhat quicker succession than usual. Then they went up to Saruman's bedroom. They found a fire already started, and the bed warmed for them. "This is the first time in several weeks that I have been able to wash in comfort," Gandalf remarked, unbuttoning his shirt and moving to the pitcher and basin near the bed. After the Istari had cleaned themselves and, more frequently, each other, they slipped between the sheets. Saruman delighted in cradling the Grey Wizard closely. Just before he drifted off, Gandalf opened his eyes slightly and murmured, "This has all been even better than I could have hoped!" Saruman kissed his forehead and pressed his cheek against it for a while. Soon he, too, was ready for sleep-but, he reminded himself, I must get up before Gandalf does and arrange things.

Gandalf did indeed sleep late, and when he opened his eyes and stretched, he found the other side of the bed empty. At first he frowned in puzzlement, for he could barely remember a morning when the White Istar did not linger to greet him, even if he had woken up considerably earlier. They almost invariably would simply lie for twenty minutes or so, talking quietly as they nuzzled and caressed each other before rising. Well, Gandalf thought, his lover did not have sleep to catch up on, so he had probably wanted to rise at the normal time. The Grey Wizard had to admit to himself that he had never slept so late while at Orthanc.

Gandalf slowly put aside the bedclothes and rose to sit on the edge of the bed. At once he realized that something was wrong. Where was his staff? He habitually leaned it against the wall to the right of the door, and it was not there now. Quickly he glanced around to see if Saruman had moved it or it had fallen onto the floor, and he opened the wardrobe in case the other Istar had put it in there for some reason. He even looked under the bed, absurd though the notion that it somehow had been put there seemed. But no, it was definitely not in the room. In the two thousand years he had been in Middle-earth, Gandalf had always known where his staff was. Not a minute had gone by when he was unsure of its location. Not to know upset him, arousing a panic he had never experienced before. Losing the staff would handicap him in his execution of his mission, in ways both vital and mundane. It was almost like a physical part of his body.

Gandalf struggled to think. He hardly could credit the idea that Saruman would disturb his staff. Surely no one could have taken it but the White Istar, yet why should he do such a thing? He had a staff of his own, equally powerful. With a little shiver of fear, Gandalf returned to the wardrobe and groped for his cloak, squeezing the secret inner pocket under the sleeve. He calmed down a bit as he felt the reassuring hard lump that was Narya, there as always. But the staff ... for a moment it crossed his mind that perhaps Saruman had stolen and hidden the staff in order to force him to stay at Isengard. He might have whisked it away and secreted it in one of the many, many hiding places-some of them locked-in Orthanc. No, that was absurd, he realized, and yet the fact that such a thought could even enter his mind demonstrated how odd and disturbing Saruman's behavior occasionally was by now.

As he quickly pulled on his clothes, Gandalf realized that for many years he had been making excuses to himself for some of the disquieting things Saruman had been doing: for his jealousy, for his secrets, for his lack of contribution to their mission, and for what amounted to attempts to lure the Grey Wizard from his duty. After all, he was the head of the Order of Istari, and Gandalf had long been able to trust him. This latest episode was, however, too dramatic to explain away, and he wondered sadly whether he could ever again feel entirely safe in Orthanc. This morning was such a contrast to the bliss of the night before!

He hurried down the steps toward Saruman's study, but before he reached it, he saw the other Wizard coming up to meet him. It occurred to Gandalf that his lover must have stationed a servant outside the bedroom door as a sort of spy, listening for signs of movement within the room and going off to inform his master that the Grey Istar was awake. From good motives, perhaps, but given the current situation, such a practice was unnerving.

Saruman paused in front of a door that Gandalf had never really noticed before. It had never been open when he passed by. The White Istar was looking very happy but a trifle apprehensive as well, as he always did when he introduced some new feature designed to lure Gandalf into spending more time at Orthanc. Gandalf felt a jolt of anger that Saruman should be so cheerful and complacent at such a moment.

"Saruman, where is my staff? What have you done with it?" he asked bluntly and urgently.

With an indulgent smile, the White Istar put up his hands toward Gandalf and waggled them in a calming gesture. "Don't worry, it's not gone. I have done nothing with your staff except put it where it now belongs-right in here." He indicated the door with a sweep of his arm and turned to open it.

Gandalf felt exasperated, despite his worry about his staff. Really, he thought, why does he always show things off to me? He's like a proud housewife displaying a splendidly redecorated room, done up at great expense. The Grey Wizard knew why, though. Since early on, Saruman had done such things to lure him to settle down in the great tower. He resolved to try, as he had done long ago when blandishments of this sort had first been offered, to take an interest in whatever his lover showed him, despite the fact that he was hardly in the mood to exclaim delightly over some new comfort or luxury. As had been increasingly the case in these situations, Gandalf resented his lover putting him in this difficult position.

As the White Istar threw open the door, he stepped aside to let Gandalf enter, beaming eagerly but also obviously watching his reactions closely. Looking hastily around, Gandalf had eyes only for his staff, which was leaning against the wall behind a desk. He sighed deeply in relief.

After a slight pause, Gandalf felt composed enough to examine the rest of the room more closely. He quickly comprehended that this new place was very different from anything the other Istar had ever shown him. It was a second study, similar to Saruman's own in its size and arrangement of furniture, but lacking the many objects and documents that cluttered the White Istar's workplace. The beautiful space was centered on a big carven desk that probably had been brought from Gondor. The rest of the furniture was equally well-made and handsome. There was a fireplace and an area with equipment for research hanging neatly in little racks. A large bookshelf ran the height of one wall, with a sparse selection of books obviously intended as the start of a library. The room was luxurious as well, with hangings and thick rugs, and a large day-bed placed near an open, sunny window. It even had a pipeweed jar on a small table. Despite the Grey Wizard's continued anger caused by the pointless scare over the moving of his staff, he felt a reluctant pang of sympathy for Saruman. It must have cost the White Istar quite a sacrifice of pride to include that jar, since he so adamantly disapproved of Gandalf's smoking. He examined the room with some unquiet. Finally he turned to Saruman, who looked at him anxiously, seeing the displeasure in his lover's face.

"You see, Gandalf?" he said reassuringly. "You would have your own area, entirely separate from mine. Believe me, you would not be merely assisting me or sharing in my work, as you have said. You could do anything that you like here."

Gandalf paused, looking around again to give himself a chance to think. For the first time, he felt almost trapped. This change was so specifically done to cater to him that he could hardly refuse without seeming to reject Saruman. He didn't want to do that, for he loved the White Istar, and the intense sex of the evening before had shown how much they still meant to each other. Yet at this moment he was tempted to make an excuse and leave Orthanc as soon as possible. He was tired of trying to find ways of gently letting Saruman down about this matter. Each time the other Istar seemed to accept his arguments and to give up urging him to move in, yet often Gandalf's next return simply brought more such temptations, each more splendid than the last-and this one the most splendid of all.

Finally Gandalf turned to Saruman. He still felt angry and was tempted to ask the other Istar how he dared take another Wizard's staff without explanation. Saruman understood exactly how much a staff mattered to an Istar, and yet he seemed to take the whole thing so lightly, apparently viewing it as simply a little enhancement to his dramatic revelation of the study. Why did he not grasp how frightening and strange the staff's absence would seem to Gandalf? The Grey Wizard realized that he had lost some of his faith in Saruman during that short period of fear, and he did not think that he could ever entirely regain it. There was no point in starting an argument now, though. Quietly he said, "I wish you had not moved my staff. You gave me quite a fright."

Saruman assumed a reassuring smile. "It never occurred to me that you think that you and everything you own are not safe here. I just thought it would make a lovely touch to mark the room as yours."

Gandalf nodded reluctantly. In his heart he knew that from now on he would watch Saruman's behavior closely for other telltale signs of some strange warping of the Istar's attitudes. He wished he could hide his staff as secretly and safely away as he could the Ring of Fire.

Then, suppressing his lingering anger, he put on as pleased a smile as he could muster. "But as to the study, it's beautiful, truly beautiful, my dear." The White Istar's face became radiant, and Gandalf reluctantly pressed on. "It will make a wonderful place to work when I visit you. No doubt having such a study will allow me to acquire things that would be useful in our tasks and yet which I could not carry with me. I could safely leave them here."

As he had expected, Saruman's smile diminished during this speech. "You already do that at Rivendell. You leave most of your things there during your travels."

Gandalf sighed. "Some things, yes. We've been over this before-many times now. Rivendell is so much more conveniently located than is Orthanc. My trips to the Iron Mountains, the Shire, Mirkwood, and the Long Lake region all tend to take me through it-or near enough to make a quick visit feasible. I understand, of course, why you chose Isengard, and I have always looked forward enormously to visiting here." He wondered if that would be true in the future but went resolutely on, "And this study will be of great help. I shall think of it as my own, not just as a part of your home." At least he hoped that he could think of it that way. Even at Rivendell, with a permanent room assigned to him, he always felt he was a guest. He moved with a smile to embrace Saruman. The Grey Istar murmured, "Thank you for being so kind and creating this lovely room for me."

Saruman's tight little smile gradually relaxed, and he seemed resigned to Gandalf's response to his gift. The Grey Wizard glanced at the day-bed. "I presume you put that in here for a reason-beyond any sudden bout of weariness that may come upon me as I labor here. I must say that I remain satisfied after that wonderful lovemaking yesterday evening. Still, shall we lie down and hold each other and relax before you feed me some breakfast? You got up so early-or I should say, I got up so late--that we did not spend a quiet time together in bed this morning. Since I arrived, I have barely had a chance simply to kiss you!"

Saruman smiled more broadly and nodded. "Yes, shall we try it out?"

The bed proved extremely comfortable, but even as they lay entwined and kissing slowly and softly, Gandalf realized that he would never be able to think of this new room as truly his. It was a loan, similar to Elrond providing him with horses and money and other necessities for his work and travels. He owned almost nothing. Radagast's charming little painting, his fireworks-making equipment-which he hardly had any time to use these days-and the clothes and camping supplies that he wore and carried with him. Even Narya was not really his, exactly, nor was his staff, since he would relinquish it upon returning to what he thought of as home. Why couldn't Saruman simply accept all this?

The few weeks of Gandalf's stay with his lover gave him additional reasons to worry about the White Istar's state of mind. After the episode with the staff, Gandalf watched Saruman more closely, noticing odd and secretive behavior that he might have overlooked or dismissed previously. And there was one night when Saruman suddenly became very distracted and tense and made an excuse to have the Grey Istar leave his study. That he should send his lover away was unprecedented. Gandalf did not see him again that night, for Saruman did not come to bed. When the Grey Istar went down the next morning, he discovered that his lover had slept on the day-bed in Gandalf's new study. He looked strained and worried and exhausted but denied that anything was wrong. "I kept working and didn't want to awaken you by coming to bed so late," was all he would say by way of explanation.

Another incident worried Gandalf even more. One evening he decided that it might help if he reminded Saruman of their early devotion to their mission. He tried to sound cheerful as he said, "Do you remember that first lovely day in Lothlórien, my dear? How we wandered through the woods alone and talked and talked?"

Saruman nodded with a look that blended regret and fond nostalgia.

The Grey Istar went on. "Most of all, I think, I was thrilled at last to have someone who felt about Valinor as I did, longing for it without being able to remember fully what we had lost. That was so many centuries ago now! Sometimes I wonder if we ever shall finish this mission, but I suppose eventually it will end in our success or failure. At any rate, dreams of going home have helped sustain me, as I am sure they have you."

Saruman stared at him for a while without answering and then gazed abstractedly at the floor. Gandalf began to think that he was not going to reply. Finally, almost as if he were speaking aloud to himself, the White Istar murmured, "Perhaps, yet there we are but servants."

Gandalf tried to hide how profoundly shocked he was by that brief statement. He realized that those words just might have revealed to him more of Saruman's true mind than he had seen in hundreds of years. He felt almost as if the person sitting opposite him had become a stranger. The Grey Wizard suddenly wanted to be alone and to think. He left the room, saying that he needed to find something that he had left in his new study. Saruman barely acknowledged his departure, continuing to gaze into space.

Once Gandalf had reached the other study, he closed the door and lit a lamp, sitting down to ponder what the White Istar had just said. It had never occurred to Gandalf to consider himself a mere servant of the Valar. To the extent that he thought about such things at all, he supposed that he saw the Maiar as more like the Valar's children. They were lesser beings, but each learned from those among the Valar who favored them and felt akin to them. Indeed, another way of thinking of it was that the Maiar were students, privileged to learn from the most gifted, knowledgeable teachers possible. Gandalf recalled enough of the Blessed Land to know that he had delighted in being able to go on learning perpetually. That learning, if the individual Maia was diligent and faithful, made him or her grow and over great stretches of time become more like a Vala. One thing he could remember, though not fully, was trying to be like Nienna and Varda and Manwë-and how they had encouraged and helped him. In many ways they somehow still did, he felt, even here in his long exile. Tears pricked at his eyes as he thought of what it would mean to finish his task and return to such beings and again fully experience having them care for him and accept his devotion.

Gandalf could not conceive of the services that he and the other Maiar performed as being menial. Now that he knew something of earthly life, it seemed to him that such services were the sorts of things that children did in families among the races of Middle-earth, tasks that contributed to the household and helped them to mature in the process. He had always considered that whatever he could do for the Valar was simply performed in gratitude for all that they had afforded him. And one of his greatest joys had been to pass along something of his own learning to the Eldar, the Children of Eru, even though they seldom knew whence that learning came. Gandalf's most heart-felt longing was to return to the expansion of his mind that had been suspended when he came to Middle-earth. That, as much as the glorious beauties of his home, so dimly remembered, was what he missed. He yearned for the powers of thought that had been taken from him during his embodiment as an old Man. He had never gotten used to the limitations on his abilities to ponder and learn. He was determined someday to regain his old self.

Saruman, though, apparently felt very differently about such things. If he resented being a "servant" in Valinor, perhaps he did not want to return there-even if the West proved victorious and the Istari were free to depart after having accomplished their mission. What could the White Istar hope to have instead? If being a "servant" in Valinor displeased him, then he coveted status, and that meant power-and not one desired through an urge to aid others. The power that the White Istar wanted, Gandalf realized sadly, was apparently over people, over the races of Middle-earth. Saruman now sought to do what the Istari had been forbidden to: to lead people, not simply guide them to lead themselves. The White Wizard's fascination with the notion of making a new Ring of Power now became downright sinister to Gandalf, and he forsook any lingering belief that such a Ring could significantly aid their cause. It occurred to him, too, that Saruman's long aid to Rohan might be camouflaging an attempt to dominate that country as a first step toward further conquest.

The Grey Wizard shook his head. Perhaps he was making too much of Saruman's strange statement. After all, a discontent with his status in Valinor did not automatically mean that the other Istar was deserting their mission and striving to become a tyrant, he reassured himself. He should not judge on too little evidence. By the same token, he should be cautious in confiding any crucial information to his colleague.

For these reasons the Grey Istar decided not to tell his lover about a new optimism that was quietly creeping over him. Gandalf was beginning to sense that he had found the specific task that he had to accomplish in order to defeat Sauron. After centuries of vague attempts to unite the peoples of Middle-earth, he had realized that could never happen without some specific, crucial goal that could shake them all out of their long complacency and mutual distrust. Now such a goal might possibly be emerging.

Gandalf thought how ironic it was that Saruman should study the lore of the Rings for so long and still be unable to put the results to use. Yet he himself had stumbled across vital information about the One Ring largely through chance-though he had to admit that he had been quick to seize upon the signs. Two years ago Bilbo Baggins had left his home for good, wandering out into the world for more "adventures," albeit of a rather less alarming sort than the Quest of Erebor had provided. He had passed his Ring on to Frodo, his nephew. Based on Bilbo's odd behavior just before that happened, the Grey Istar had begun to suspect something that at first seemed impossible: that Bilbo had somehow come into possession of the Enemy's Ring. Gandalf had set out to try and confirm or disprove that suspicion, but he had little doubt in his heart that he was right. Someday, perhaps, when he knew much more than he did now, he would tell Saruman all about it-if his trust in the White Istar was ever fully restored.

The Grey Wizard remembered how many spies Saruman had long kept in the Shire. The thought made him itch to go back and check on Frodo-and to warn the Rangers who quietly patrolled the borders of the Shire to be on guard against those agents. He resolved to leave Isengard as soon as he could without making Saruman angry and suspicious over such a short visit and abrupt departure. He rose and picked up a book that would serve as his excuse for having left Saruman. As he blew the light out and closed the door of his unwanted study, he had to stiffen his resolve to go down the short flight of steps and rejoin the White Istar.

Not long after that evening's exchange, Gandalf said that he would have to leave in two days. Saruman looked as if he were about to remonstrate with his lover, but he just nodded glumly. "So soon? Where are you off to now?" he asked.

Gandalf was tempted to tell the White Wizard that he was bound for Lothlórien or Erebor, but he simply could not lie to him. "I am heading for the Shire this time."

Saruman stared at him resentfully for a moment, as if he could not believe what he had just heard. Finally he said reproachfully, "Again!? I swear you spend more time there than you do here. What in Arda is so interesting and attractive about Hobbits?"

Gandalf tried to be offhand in his reply. "I have some business there, and you know that I always enjoy visiting that pleasant, restful place. It is so different from anywhere else I go in Middle-earth. I have bored you many a time telling you about it, but I know that our tastes differ in this matter-as they do in other ways. And besides, you promised not to criticize my interest in Hobbits. Can't we simply accept the many tastes that we do share? And the physical joy? We have had such an extraordinarily wonderful time together for so long. I would like all that to continue."

Saruman nodded grudgingly, but for the rest of the evening there was an unusual silence between them. When they went to bed, they made love, but neither felt impelled to spend the time needed to give each other the degree of bliss that they typically achieved. When they finished, they rolled apart to fall asleep. Despite his physical satisfaction, Gandalf missed being held in the other Wizard's arms, as almost always happened, but for the first time he felt reluctant to move against Saruman and invite such tenderness. Previously his lovers had been dear friends whom he had come to know well. Now he felt he barely knew Saruman anymore. For a long time, he lay still on his own side of the bed until he finally fell asleep. On the last night of Gandalf's stay, the lovemaking again lacked the usual ardor, with neither taking the trouble that they usually did to make their last night together memorable.

Early the next morning the two Istari stood at the foot of the steps of Isengard beside Gandalf's horse. They exchanged the usual words of regret at parting and anticipation of meeting again, but they stared uncertainly at each other. Finally Gandalf drew a deep breath and quietly said what he had long been thinking: "I hope that in trying to bind me to you, you do not succeed rather in driving me away." He realized that he had probably spoken too late.

The bleak look that came into Saruman's eyes reflected how much this statement worried him. The White Istar struggled to speak in a conciliatory tone, "I regret having reproached you about anything. It's just that ... I miss you so terribly when you're gone. More so every time. I'm sorry, it makes me speak foolishly. But then, love is capable of doing that even to the wisest, I find." He gave a rueful little chuckle.

Gandalf smiled wanly. "True, I suppose. I hope you know that if there were not so much at stake, I would not have to be so adamant." He wondered if Saruman any longer considered the same things to be at stake that he did.

Saruman simply nodded, but then he abruptly embraced the Grey Istar tightly, kissing him deeply and at length, as though he would never let go. For the first time Gandalf found this farewell kiss too passionate and leisurely. It seemed overly intense for the strange, disquieting stage that their relationship had reached. Finally they drew apart, and Gandalf quickly mounted his horse and rode off, entering the tunnel through the circling wall and into the valley that led to Rohan. The sense of relief that passed over him once he was outside the Vale of Isengard made him realize just how much he had wanted to get away. Long ago he had determined to help his lover through whatever problem was making him behave so strangely, and yet he had never found a solution. If Saruman would not confide in him, even just a little, the Grey Istar probably never would be able to.

Gandalf visited Orthanc about a year later, but Saruman's behavior was even more clinging and disconcerting. After that Gandalf stopped going there. He had not broken with Saruman, and he had not entirely abandoned thinking of the other Istar as his lover. But as the years stretched on, that idea became more remote. He spent much of his time with Aragorn, hunting for Gollum and a possible breakthrough in the identification of the Ring. He went to Rivendell and to Thranduil's city, enjoying the straightforward, peaceful love that he found in each. He still exchanged occasional messages with Saruman via the system of birds, and early on he even renewed his suggestions that they meet in Minas Tirith or Edoras. He remained convinced that the tower, with its isolation and its grandeur, had contributed to Saruman's longing for power. Saruman always, however, made an excuse not to agree to the proffered reunions, hinting that Gandalf should come to Isengard instead.

Gandalf could only hope that in some way that he could not comprehend, Saruman was still striving to achieve their great goal. As the years went on, he had no means whatsoever to learn whether that was true. It had been almost exactly half a century since the White Council had met, and he doubted that it would ever convene again if Saruman remained in charge. He resigned himself to being the only Istar significantly pursuing the original mission which had been entrusted to five. His main consolation was that he now had an inkling of what needed to be done. At last he was beginning to understand his strange words to Elrond years before. The hands of the weak might indeed hold the greatest threat to the West, and its greatest hope.

Over roughly the next ten years, Saruman made extensive preparations for the time when he would finally find the Ring. He realized full well that simply possessing it would not allow him to stride into Mordor and vanquish the Dark Lord. He would have to fight for supremacy, and that meant creating a military force capable of attacking the Black Land. He found excuses to send the soldiers of Gondor who had populated Isengard for so long back to their homes. In their place, he built his own army. He went on pretending to be an ally of both Gondor and Rohan, but now he worked on behalf of no one but himself.

He recruited Men from Dunland and other parts of Eriador and even the outlying regions of Rohan. But he took in Orcs as well, and he kept packs of fierce wolves housed in the grounds of the tower. He cut down the trees outside the great wall and ripped out the fair gardens in Orthanc's grounds, using the wood to fuel the huge forges that he had built in pits sunk in the great circular area. There he manufactured the armor and weapons his troops would need. So great was the activity that a dark smoke wreathed the tower, and even the cool winds from the Misty Mountains could dispel it only briefly. He knew full well that he could never have afforded such massive preparations on his own, but the Stewards continued to trust him and supply his needs, including generous amounts of gold. At the same time, he enjoyed the cooperation of the Dark Lord, even while the White Istar plotted to overthrow the force that had for now ensnared him.

If the surroundings of Orthanc were loud with the harsh clangor of these activities, the interior of the tower remained a luxurious sanctuary where Saruman worked and dined and slept in isolated splendor. The absence of his lover did nothing to tamp his sexual appetites, and he continued his habit of choosing temporary favorites from among the most attractive of the Men he had about him. Someday, he frequently assured himself, he would find a way to regain Gandalf's love, and these casual partners would no longer be necessary. Yes, physically his day to day life was pleasant, but the occasional summons to look into the palantir increasingly clouded his mind. He was always anticipating the next conversation with the Dark Lord with dread. He had to pretend to cooperate, feigning convincingly to be helping Sauron. Under the strain, the Istar soon lost most of his remaining dark hair, until there were only wisps of black in his beard. Now his hair was almost the snowy white that he had long loved in Gandalf's.

Gandalf. Saruman had traced the other Wizard's movements as well as he could, though during the stretches when the Grey Istar went with Aragorn into the wild forests of Middle-earth, the spies soon lost track of them. Saruman especially took note of Gandalf's visits to the Shire, carefully recording the dates by the entries in the detailed list he maintained. The White Wizard was very surprised when, after 3008, those visits suddenly ceased. Nevertheless, the borders of the Hobbits' little land were now patrolled more assiduously than ever by the Rangers of the North, ever Gandalf's friends.

What, Saruman wondered often, was there in the Shire that was worth such protection? It was not as if that land was under a particular threat. Indeed, it lay as far from the dangerous parts of the continent as anyplace did. He resolved to find whatever clues he might possess and spent several evenings going through his voluminous notes on Gandalf's movements and the many accumulated reports sent to him from the Shire. At last on one night of mundane research the White Istar sat up straighter and peered more intently at the scrawled page he had been skimming. It was an item in a missive sent in 3001, recording what seemed like a trivial, absurd event. At the time he had dismissed it as irrelevant. It concerned the furor which had arisen in the community of Hobbiton when its most prominent citizen, Bilbo Baggins, had given an immense birthday party for himself and had simply disappeared-literally disappeared into thin air, never to be seen again.

Bilbo Baggins. The same Hobbit that Gandalf had taken on the quest with the Dwarves. The one who had helped to flush the Dragon out of its dwelling place and into the open, where it was killed. The same Hobbit that Gandalf had visited so regularly. That quest had happened sixty years before the famous disappearance. Saruman distinctly remembered Gandalf describing Bilbo as fifty years old at the time of the Quest. So, about a hundred and ten years old at the party. He glanced through the report again. One hundred and eleven, to be precise. An unusually long life for a Hobbit, as Saruman recalled. Long life and the ability to disappear. Only one object conveyed such powers. One object he had himself been seeking for so many years.

Immediately Saruman connected these events far away in the Shire with the complete lack of success that both he and Sauron had had in searching the Gladden Fields for the Ring. Admittedly it was a tiny thing to find in such a large area-but he had been systematically examining the Fields for over 150 years now. And spending a great deal of the Gondorian gold, he thought ruefully, all for naught so far. And Sauron had been looking nearly as long, with far greater resources at his command.

What if both their large networks of agents could not find it simply because it was no longer there? It seemed extraordinarily unlikely that someone else had found it earlier. Still, Saruman had been convinced that the Ring would actively seek to return to its Master. What if it revealed itself to someone by chance, hoping to control that person and somehow make its way, perhaps through several hands, to the Dark Lord? And finally, what if two of the hands into which it passed were those of Bilbo Baggins?

It would be just like Gandalf's luck to befriend some insignificant little creature and unwittingly discover that the Ring was in his possession! Saruman thought, clenching his teeth. With no effort on his part, no intention, while the White Istar had expended immense time and resources and effort looking for it, with no success at all.

If that were all there was to the matter, Saruman could try and get the Ring from Bilbo. The problem was, Bilbo had disappeared. Not one of the Istar's many agents had been able to send word to him as to where the old Hobbit had gone. Obviously Gandalf had spirited him away, hiding him while he decided what to do about the Ring. Saruman chuckled bitterly. Gandalf would not take the Ring for himself-at least, not yet. But could he resist its temptation forever? Most probably that was why he no longer visited the Shire. He could not trust himself not to seize the Ring and become a new Dark Lord. Then again, could even the Ring corrupt Gandalf? Probably not. Saruman still assumed that he himself, as a Maia, could wield the One while resisting its lure to evil. He had to admit that Gandalf was even more likely to reject its attraction. Maybe he could persuade the Grey Wizard of that.

But how could he persuade Gandalf of anything? They never saw each other anymore. In some ways he had come by now to hate Gandalf. He was profoundly jealous over the Valar's apparent favoring of the Grey Wizard, and he resented the other lovers that Gandalf persisted in keeping. He felt more and more desperate because Gandalf was adhering to their mission and thus presumably earning the Valar's love to an even greater degree. He could no longer see any way of competing for that love. His ambitions now lay entirely within Middle-earth and in gaining power there.

Yet despite his hatred of the Grey Istar, Saruman's longing for him had never gone away. It dwelt somewhere deep inside him, a perpetual ache that he really did not want to wholly suppress. For all the jealousy and loneliness and effort he had vainly suffered for the Grey Wizard, Saruman could not bear to relinquish his love for Gandalf.

He leaned his elbows on his desk and clutched his head with his long, spread fingers. It was very simple, really. He could never escape the thrall of Sauron without defeating him. The White Istar could not defeat the Enemy without the Ring-the Nazgûl alone would tip the balance in the Dark Lord's favor in a war fought under the current circumstances. And now it transpired that only Gandalf could help him obtain the Ring.

Yes, that was all simple and clear. The complexity lay in persuading Gandalf. No, he corrected himself, that was simple, too-simply impossible. Gandalf could not be persuaded. He would have to be forced to reveal where the One lay hidden. But how? Most basically, he had to get Gandalf to visit Isengard again. He strongly suspected that if he sent a message asking the Grey Istar to return to Orthanc, it would be ignored. Gandalf seemed to have taken a strong dislike to the place. He would have to ponder the question until he found a solution.

Near the end of the year 3017, the White Istar's spies reported that Gandalf was visiting Minas Tirith and that Denethor had allowed him access to the City's archives, albeit grudgingly. After the messenger departed to the kitchen for a meal, Saruman sat alone, tears coming to his eyes as he remembered how happy he and Gandalf had been together in the great White City-initially as friends and then as lovers. How he had indulged Gandalf by visiting local pubs, and how eager the Grey Istar had been to give and receive pleasure in bed. All that had ended because he could not bear not having Gandalf entirely to himself, continuously, forever. Well, perhaps that was still possible. The Ring would make it so.

"Not as the third." Varda's words resonated in his mind, as they often had done since he understood their significance. Why such favor to the other Istar? Saruman thought bitterly, and yet he knew. He knew all too clearly the qualities Gandalf had that could make someone respect and trust and love him. The full degree of the White Wizard's longing and desire resurfaced again with a force that he would not have believed would endure this long. He realized by now that he could never lure Gandalf into compliance. The White Wizard's only option was to utterly control him.

Late 3017, Gondor

As Gandalf's horse cantered across the rolling grasslands of Anórien, the Wizard was half enjoying the view and half wondering what the results would be when he reached Hobbiton and put Frodo's Ring to the test of fire. He suspected that the writing recorded by Isildur long ago most likely would be revealed. What then?

As he considered this question, he noticed that they were approaching the Mering Stream that flowed quickly down from the White Mountains that fed it, joining the many quiet channels of the Entwash as it flowed into the Anduin. The Wizard realized that in previous times he used to have to make a choice at this point. He had often gone on in the same westerly direction to visit Saruman and then to continue through the Gap of Rohan and across Eriador to the Shire. Or he had turned north, visiting Lórien and Rivendell on his way to the Shire. Nowadays Gandalf usually chose the northern route-or if he went west, he rode straight past the valley leading to the tower. Despite his personal estrangement from Saruman, though, the White Istar was still the head of the Council, and perhaps he should inform him of his discovery of the scroll and his suspicions about Frodo's Ring. He should not let his personal aversion to visiting Orthanc deter him from his duty.

Gandalf raised his feet slightly to avoid the splashing caused by the horse's legs, moving sure-footedly through the cold, foaming water. At the far bank, the Wizard bade the animal stop.

Under different circumstances Gandalf would consult the other Istar about the Ring. After all, Saruman was the expert on the Rings of Power. Yet the Grey Wizard was more reluctant than ever to confide in Saruman on this matter. He reflected that he had to tell Galadriel and Elrond about the contents of the scroll and his errand to the Shire. He felt a touch of guilt about his suspicions concerning Saruman, which were, he realized, fairly vague and no doubt affected by the fact that their love had cooled. Still, it did not seem risky to keep this information from the White Wizard for a while. Saruman at least knew the contents of the Scroll of Isildur, assuming that that had been his source for his information about the concealed markings on the Ring. There was no point in telling the him about Frodo's Ring until he had tested it to see if the writing appeared.

At last the Grey Istar decided that his decision to turn north was not due just to the decline of his personal relationship with Saruman. It really came down to the fact that Gandalf simply could not risk telling the other Istar about the Ring if, as he strongly suspected, the strange, unfathomable problem that had caused them to drift apart was having some effect on Saruman's devotion to their mission. If Saruman would not confide in him, why should he confide in the Man who was supposedly his leader? He turned his horse north, toward the Golden Wood.

As the animal sprang into movement again, Gandalf felt a tinge of regret. Once in a while now he thought back on how wonderful his relationship with the other Istar had been, and he was tempted to make yet another effort to confront and to try and help Saruman. But as he rode north, somehow he knew that he had made the right decision.