The Road to Isengard

by Nefertiti

Rating: NC-17

Pairing: (Series) Gandalf/Saruman; individual chapters, Gandalf/Erestor, Gandalf/Legolas, Gandalf/Radagast

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.

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

Author's note: Book-canon.

As always, many thanks to Sarah for her excellent beta work and helpful suggestions.

Chapter Twelve

October 8, 3018 Rivendell

Erestor finished reading the message that had arrived in Imladris less than an hour earlier. It had been brought by a group of three Elves who were close kin of Gildor Inglorion. They had been traveling with a party led by Gildor that had recently encountered Frodo and his two Hobbit companions in the woods of the Shire. Immediately upon receiving the letter, Elrond had called a meeting of his chief advisors, passing it around for all to see. The assembled Elves strove not to watch Erestor as he perused it, for it told of the mysterious absence of Gandalf, an absence which had disturbed Gildor enough that he had quickly sent word of it. Erestor's face went pale, and he blinked rapidly and focused his eyes on the table as he leaned across it to return the letter to Elrond.

The Master of Imladris looked at him with grave sympathy. "Erestor, have you heard anything from Mithrandir in the past months? If he had sent you some brief personal message, I would not expect you to have mentioned it to me before now-but obviously under the circumstances any communication at all might provide a vital clue."

Erestor could not meet his eyes but shook his head as he said quietly and with a tremor in his voice, "No. I know nothing about his doings more recent than the meeting with him that Estel reported having had at the beginning of May. I have absolutely no idea where he could be."

Elrond nodded, and there was a brief silence. Finally he addressed the group. "It seems almost impossible that Frodo and his friend Sam could have come such a great distance with all nine Riders seeking them and still remain free. That they should not have Mithrandir's guidance seems potentially catastrophic. Nonetheless, we must struggle to act in his place and search for the Hobbits ourselves. There are few here who could hope to withstand the Nine, but those few should set out tomorrow at dawn. Preparations for what you will need on the journey will be made tonight. I deem that the East-West Road would not be the only place to look. The Ring-bearer might have turned aside to avoid pursuit. Therefore someone should also go to the North and someone to the South. Glorfindel, as the most powerful of those whom I am lucky enough to have aiding me, will you undertake to travel West along the Road?"

"Of course."

Erestor bit back a plea to allow him to take the Western route, for if Gandalf was safe, he would surely attempt to join the Ring-bearer on the Road. Perhaps they were even now reunited and traveling together. It could prove the quickest way to see Gandalf again and help him arrive unscathed in Imladris. He struggled, however, to think of the Ring-bearer's safety first, and he had to admit that Glorfindel stood the best chance of rescuing him. He said, "I shall take the areas to the north, if you wish."

Elrond nodded. Another was chosen to go south, and after a discussion of the mundane strategies of the hunt, the meeting ended in grim silence.

Erestor retired to his room, quickly making the few necessary preparations and then sitting through the night, staring unseeing into the fire as it slowly died.

After eight days of lonely and frustrating searching through the bleak lands north of Imladris, going as far as the Ettenmoors, Erestor felt deeply discouraged. There had been no sign of any Hobbits. He encountered a couple of Rangers at one point, but they had no news for him. At last he turned back, going somewhat out of his way to skirt around the eastern edge of the Trollshaws, which were too rocky for his horse to navigate. He neared the Ford of Bruinen, longing to cross the borders of Elrond's domain and reach his home. Perhaps, he thought in an attempt to cheer himself up, one of the others has had better luck. And possibly Gandalf has arrived at Imladris in the interval. The fruitless hunt impressed upon the Elf's mind just how much they had always depended upon the Istar in formulating strategies. He hoped that Elrond had some ideas about how to carry on the West's struggle if Gandalf never reappeared. Throughout the journey, Erestor's mind had endlessly sought reasons for the Wizard's absence. Some were innocent explanations that might lead to a happy conclusion, and others were difficult to contemplate, for they implied that Gandalf had finally met his match, defeated on some lonely road or in some dark clearing by the Riders.

Erestor could not imagine being able to continue his life in Middle-earth if that proved to be what had happened. He hoped that he could bear his grief and go on helping Elrond and the cause of the West, but his spirit would constantly long only for flight across the Sea. Perhaps in the Uttermost West he could be reunited in some way with his lover. Riding on gloomily, he finally reached the Ford as the light began to fail.

As Erestor urged his horse across the rushing shallows of the Ford, he became aware that someone was seated on a log not far from the water's edge. To his amazement and immense relief, it was Gandalf, who saw him almost immediately and quickly stood up, taking a few steps forward to stand with a grin, awaiting his arrival on the bank. The Wizard was barefoot, and he had evidently been eating something that looked like dried meat, a strip of which still dangled from his hand.

The moment his horse stepped onto the shore, Erestor slid off its back and ran the few paces to where Gandalf was waiting. The Elf threw his arms around his lover and hugged him so tightly that Gandalf had to struggle for breath-but after a moment he enthusiastically returned the embrace, taking care, however, to hold the greasy scrap of meat away from the Elf's elegant clothing.

Finally Erestor pulled back to look at him. Apart from perhaps being even thinner than usual, the Istar appeared quite fit and healthy. Gasping with relief, the Elf said, "Where in Arda have you been? We have been so worried! Worried for you, for Frodo, for us all."

Gandalf put one fist on his hip, still holding the meat with the other, and looked across the river. "Well might you worry! I am very worried myself, for I have no precise idea where Frodo and the others are. I was hoping that you might have news of them, but I gather that you don't."

"Alas, no. I was seeking them but have found nothing. If you have no precise idea, might you have even a general one?"

"Somewhere over there, I sincerely hope, or, with even greater good fortune, now already safely in Imladris. I could not link up with them, and I have been evading the Black Riders. I had to go North to do it-as far as the Ettenmoors and then down through the Trollshaws. Initially I was on horseback, but unfortunately I had to abandon that when I tackled the Trollshaws. Where I was for so long before that-well, that is a complicated tale, one that I shall reserve for a time when I can tell it to Elrond and you and others of the Wise." He finished off the scrap of dried meat and wiped his hand with a handkerchief as the Elf nodded.

Erestor replied, "During the past few days you and I may well have crossed paths and just missed each other. I have been searching that area myself. I was mainly looking for Frodo and his companion, for I had no idea that I might find you instead! Fortunately I saw no sign of any Riders. I hope they never came near you."

"Near enough," Gandalf replied grimly, "but to my surprise I managed to hold them off and to draw some of them after me and away from the Ring-bearer. I would still be frantic with worry, but fortunately I learned in Bree that Estel met them there and is now guiding and guarding them. Not just Frodo and his companion, but a whole passel of Hobbits-four of them!" He chuckled. "I was not quite sure whether to be glad or anxious that there were two unexpected extras. Would they be able to protect each other more effectively, or would they just get into trouble that much more easily? From what I know of Merry and Pippin, Estel no doubt has his hands full."

"Perhaps he now has help. Nine days ago, Glorfindel set out westward on the Road, just as I went North."

"Did he? Splendid news! Well, that cheers me up considerably. By the way, my dearest Elf, do you have anything to eat with you? I have been surviving on very little over the past two weeks and more. Dried food I carried from Bree, and some mushrooms and late-ripening fruit and a few fish that I was able to catch, but ..."

"Yes, I have a little. I am nearly at the end of my search, so it is mostly lembas, I fear." The Elf pulled his packs down from the horse's back and dug in one, handing a leaf-wrapped piece of the waybread to Gandalf.

"That will do nicely until dinner-a dinner which I have much anticipated, I must say. At any rate, as I traveled, I tried to calculate how long it would take Estel to bring the group from Bree to the Last Homely House. I don't think they can be all that far away now-assuming that they, too, have managed to escape from the Riders."

Erestor shrugged. "I have had no news myself for nearly nine days now. We may find them there."

"Let us hope so! Still, I doubt it. According to the innkeeper at Bree, they lost their ponies and would have had to proceed on foot."

The Elf looked down at a small fire that Gandalf had started. He had paid it no heed at first, but now he noticed that two grey socks were suspended above it. He raised his eyebrows.

Gandalf chuckled sheepishly. "Yes, here I was being so prudent, taking off my boots and socks and rolling up my trouser-legs to wade the river-and then I slipped and dropped the socks. In the scramble to retrieve them before the current washed them away, I very nearly fell, and I soaked my trousers thoroughly. They are still distinctly damp, but I decided not to remove them as well."

The Elf's dark eyes stared at him with a hint of teasing irony. "How many times have you crossed this Ford by now?"

Gandalf returned the look with good-humored exasperation. "Times beyond counting, I must admit, though if I had a while to think, I could probably give you a number. Usually, though, I am on horseback. The beasts from Elrond's stable are surer-footed than I in such a situation."

The Istar sat down on the log again and unwrapped the small cake, nibbling it as Erestor joined him, sitting very close on his left side and slipping an arm around his shoulders. The Elf pressed his lips against the bearded cheek and nuzzled into the white mane, and Gandalf leaned against him, placing his left hand on Erestor's knee and squeezing it gently as he ate.

Soon the Wizard had finished his frugal meal and the socks were reasonably dry. Riding together upon Erestor's sturdy horse, they arrived within hours at Imladris. Many of the household came quickly upon hearing news of Mithrandir's arrival, and there was general rejoicing that night at dinner. Over the meal, Gandalf briefly consulted with Elrond and others of the Wise as to whether he ought to set out westward to try and find the Ring-bearer and his companions. They decided that it was probably not a good idea. Glorfindel could deal with the Riders if necessary, and the little group could not be all that far from Imladris by now. The Wizard agreed but said that if there was no sign of them after three days, he would set out in search of them anyway.

After dinner, Elrond invited his advisers and Gandalf to his study, and there the Wizard related the tale of his trip to Orthanc, his imprisonment on its roof, and his lengthy journey back to Hobbiton and subsequently to Imladris. Erestor felt warring emotions as he listened. The White Istar's betrayal of the West was a grievous blow to their cause, and the Elf deplored it even as he chided himself for feeling a huge sense of relief. Although he had known that for several years Saruman and Gandalf had not been lovers in any real sense of the word, Erestor nevertheless had harbored an unspoken dread that they would eventually reconcile. It had happened once before, in the year of the attack upon Dol Guldur, though then their estrangement had not been as serious as it later became. Now at last the possibility of such a reconciliation had utterly disappeared. The Elf could not help being glad in a deep, secret region of his heart.

Having decided not to travel westward himself, Gandalf had no immediate commitments, and his worries he struggled to put aside. After dinner he went with Erestor to the Elf's spacious bedroom. Quickly they stripped and crawled under the covers.

"Just hold me for a while," Gandalf murmured, settling with a little moan of happiness against the length of the Elf's strong body. "What a luxury, to lie at last in a soft bed and to have loving arms around me! During those ten very long weeks atop Orthanc, I yearned so much to be here with you."

Soon the Istar seemed to be nearly dozing off. Erestor brushed his lips over his ear and whispered, "Would you rather sleep or let me give you pleasure?"

Drowsily Gandalf squirmed against him and looked at the Elf with a delighted little smile. "I feel like sleeping, but perhaps you could make me interested in something else."

Erestor's fingers sought and rubbed his lover's nipples, and his rigid length pressing against Gandalf's hip helped further to drive away any desire for sleep. Soon they were writhing in passion, and they celebrated their reunion in the most blissful way possible. The Wizard spent many hours over the next few days with the Elf, making up for the months of discomfort and loneliness that he had been held at Isengard and on the journey back. After experiencing the treachery of one lover, time shared with such a devoted one briefly helped take his mind off the future.

Gandalf had been sitting by Frodo's bedside for nearly four days now. Despite Elrond's success in removing the shards of the Nazgûl's blade from his shoulder, the Hobbit continued to decline. Elrond must have missed a piece, the Istar strongly suspected. Even a tiny sliver could easily have the grim effect of turning Frodo into a wraith. If he was not improving by the next morning, Gandalf would insist that Elrond probe the wound again.

As he was making this resolve, there was a soft knock. The Wizard opened the door to find Elrohir standing outside. Gandalf moved into the hallway, leaving the door ajar. The Elf said quietly, "I am sorry to disturb you, Mithrandir, but I was sure that you would want to know that Legolas has arrived with a small group from Mirkwood."

Gandalf stared at him with a small frown of puzzlement. "Legolas, here in Imladris? Whatever can he want? Has his father's realm come under some kind of threat?"

Elrohir shrugged. "I don't think so. He says he has come with news for you. He was delighted to learn that you are here and not out somewhere on the road."

"Ah, I see. Yes, I think I know what his news is. I am grateful that he has taken the trouble, but I really cannot talk with him at any length until Frodo's crisis is resolved. Please, convey my greetings to him and say that I shall rejoice to see him when I am at liberty to. I'm sure you can explain to him the seriousness of Frodo's condition and the necessity for me to remain here."

Nodding, Elrohir departed toward the public area at the front of the house. Gandalf returned to his chair and resumed his vigil. Legolas had seldom traveled to Imladris in the centuries that the Istar had been in Middle-earth, but Gandalf felt sure that he had come to report that Gollum had escaped. Well, it would be interesting to hear the details, but he already knew the basic fact. He looked forward to seeing the lovely Elf-until suddenly he recalled what Legolas had said centuries ago about there being no need for jealousy as long as he was in his home and Erestor here in Rivendell. Now, for the first time, the two were in the same place with the Istar. Ordinarily that circumstance would not worry Gandalf overmuch, for they were both very reasonable and generous people--but he had just witnessed the depths to which festering jealousy could take even the wisest. He could not so easily dismiss worries about what could happen in the current situation.

The Wizard was distracted from these unpleasant thoughts when the door opened and Sam appeared, carefully balancing a small tray with a cup of wine and a slice of dense, sweet bread made with nuts and fruit. "Sam, this is very kind of you! I hope you had something to eat yourself before you took the trouble to bring this to me."

The Hobbit set the tray on a small table at Gandalf's elbow. "Yes, Master Gandalf. I'm fit now to stay here the whole night, if there's any chance I could help," he said, moving to the bed and standing on tiptoe to examine Frodo's face. "No change, it seems," he said with an air of discouragement, glancing back at the Istar.

"Not yet, no. You might again wash the affected arm in warm water, if you will." Gandalf did not think that such bathing would help, but it certainly would not hurt, and it would give Sam a sense that he was contributing something. The Hobbit's loyalty was touching, and Gandalf reflected that his hunch in deciding to send Sam along on the journey to Rivendell had worked out well. Now that loyalty might even mean that Sam would soon have a more important role, accompanying the Ring-bearer to Mordor itself. Gandalf settled lower in his chair and nibbled at the bread as he watched the Hobbit carefully going about his task.

It would be nearly three days before the Istar was able to catch even a glimpse of Legolas. On the following evening Elrond searched the Hobbit's wound again and finally found the miniscule sliver that Gandalf had insisted must still be lodged there. Frodo woke the next morning, and after a lengthy conversation with him, Gandalf left so that the Hobbit could get some more sleep. Hasty conferences with Elrond about the Council and swift meetings with those of various races who had, by a seeming coincidence, unexpectedly converged upon the Last Homely House meant that Gandalf could do little more than greet Legolas in a public situation. So brief was their exchange that Gandalf could not even mention that he already knew the tidings that the Elf bore or assure him that the escape of Gollum was relatively harmless in the face of the great tide of events now rushing onward. The Istar realized that Legolas' news was only one small part of the vast range of information that would be revealed at the Council of Elrond.

To Gandalf's relief, the Council turned out much as he had hoped. He had long sensed that Frodo was destined to be the Ring-bearer, and the Hobbit had heroically and voluntarily accepted the task of taking the Enemy's great weapon to the fires of Mount Doom. It had required considerable persuasion to convince those attending that such a Quest was the only possible solution to the challenge posed by Bilbo's finding of the Ring. Even though Erestor had questioned the wisdom of Gandalf and Elrond's proposal, by the end he and all the others seemed to accept it.

Over a lunch considerably delayed by the length of the Council, Gandalf and Elrond arranged for scouts to go out, mostly eastward and southward, to seek news of the Black Riders and to carry messages to the Rangers and perhaps to Thranduil as well. Clearly the Fellowship would not be able to depart for weeks, possibly for months. Aragorn and Elrond's sons went together, and various Elves made up other small groups. Once the plans had been agreed upon, those who were to set out left the table to make their arrangements and be on their way as quickly as they could manage. Erestor, as one of Elrond's chief advisors, was not to participate in such missions.

Those at the main table lingered after the meal was over, and by the time Gandalf rose, Legolas and the Hobbits had departed. He turned to Elrond. "I think Frodo is probably in need of a bit of encouragement. I shall go and see if he is in his room."

"I suspect that you are right," the Elf replied. "If you could spare me a little time after that, I think we need to discuss the composition of the group that will go with the Ring-bearer, at least to make some preliminary plans. My thought is that some of those who so unexpectedly converged here at the same time might be asked to join that group. Just as the Council was a pleasing mix of representatives of the Free Peoples, so Frodo's companions should ideally reflect several of the races joined in this struggle. I would like to prevent their simply departing and returning to their homes right away."

"Of course, we must make at least a few tentative decisions for the very reason that you mention. I shall join you shortly."

The next two hours were busy, but finally, as the late afternoon was waning, Gandalf sought out Legolas. The Elf was in a small study chatting with two members of the household, but he excused himself and followed Gandalf to his bedroom to talk. As soon as the door was closed, Legolas drew in a breath with a guilty look, but before he could speak, Gandalf said, "Peace, my dear Elf! Believe me, I do not reproach you. As I said at the Council, it is a minor matter. I am quite certain that I got all the information I could from Gollum during my unpleasantly memorable visit to your father's kingdom early this year." He paused with a little chuckle. "Unpleasant during the day, that is. What happened at night was quite a different matter! At any rate, by that point Gollum had already told what he knew to Sauron. The creature had no idea that the Ring would be brought here and that it will soon go south with the Fellowship-of which, I may now tell you, you will almost certainly be a member, if you are willing."

During this speech Legolas stared at the Wizard with a combination of surprise and relief. "Truly, you can accept it so easily? During my entire journey I have been horribly worried ... but I should have known you would be understanding and forgiving. And if I am to be chosen as one of the Fellowship, I shall accept gladly, hoping thus to make up a little for my laxness with the prisoner you entrusted to us. I--"

Gandalf grasped the Elf's upper arms softly and silenced him by brushing his lips across Legolas'. "You need not make up for anything. If you accept, it should be because you want to contribute your considerable abilities to this important mission. Let us speak no more of Gollum's escape. I am delighted to see you, of course, yet, well, your being here raises an unaccustomed problem."

Legolas smiled wryly. "Yes, but do not worry. I have long thought on the matter, and I do not feel that I have any right to share your bed here in Imladris. Much though I am tempted to renew our intimacy, that would have to wait until after we both leave here." He hesitated before continuing, "That is, I would be overjoyed if we could later resume that intimacy, yet I fear that it might not be the right thing to do. Having been here for a few days, I have the impression ... well, I would not be surprised to learn that Erestor sleeps alone when you are not here-and has done so for a long time now."

Gandalf stared at him, quite startled and worried. "Do you really think so? I find it hard to believe that he would decide upon such a thing without telling me."

"Well, naturally I am more than a little curious about him, and I have studied him more closely than I ordinarily would. You had told me long ago that you and he were not exclusive to each other. Of course, even though you were closeted away in Frodo's sickroom for days, Erestor might not lie with anyone else while you are in Imladris. Still, one would expect that he and his lover would behave differently between themselves than with others. Yet he has not seemed to have that sort of familiarity with anyone. He has friends, to be sure, many of them, but a lover ...? I doubt it.

"If I am right, I'm sure he remained silent so as not to worry you. With all your troubles, you should not in addition feel guilty about not being able to stay with him. Indeed, I would not mention this to you now if I did not realize that you will most likely accompany Frodo on the Quest. You would be setting out on a journey of such peril that the coming parting with Erestor might possibly be your last, at least in this world. In a way it is none of my business, and I hate to betray what is obviously to him a profound secret, but I could not bear for you to depart without knowing what he might be feeling deep in his heart at watching you walk away."

Gandalf shook his head, still troubled over Legolas' revelation. "But I know that he had another lover when he and I ... and I'm sure that went on for some time. I tried not to pry or even to pay attention to that part of his life. I could offer him so little, really. I had just assumed ... And I wasn't true only to him. We never agreed on such a thing. On the contrary, I did not want him to make such a sacrifice!"

Legolas stared fondly into his eyes. "Perhaps he did not consider it so great a sacrifice, if it was for you."

Gandalf lowered his gaze to the floor and stood with a little frown on his face. After waiting awhile for the Istar to speak, Legolas smiled and leaned in to chastely kiss his cheek. "Whatever you decide, I am so glad that we became lovers long ago. Having you visit me has always been wonderful."

Gandalf snapped out of his reverie. "What? Decide? Oh, yes. Well, so am I. Glad, that is. Very glad! Being with you is invariably a joy beyond description." He softly caressed Legolas' hair. "But now you have certainly given me something to ponder! I am grateful that you told me. You ... you are very kind to me, and always have been."

Legolas went to the door and looked back with a knowing, slightly sad little smile. The Istar had already sunk deeply into thought again. The Elf said, "I shall see you at dinner, then." Gandalf murmured a brief, abstracted response.

The Wizard remained where he was for a time and then began to pace, still with his eyes fixed on the floor. He thought back through the many times he had spent with Erestor. He could not remember one single tiny sign that something so profound had changed in the Elf's life and that that change had happened because of him. Could Legolas be sure of what he believed? He had simply said that it was his impression, so perhaps it was not true.

Yet upon turning the idea over in his mind, Gandalf considered it more and more believable, and he was surprised at how very happy it made him. In fact, he would be greatly disappointed if he were to learn that Legolas was wrong-far too disappointed, he reflected, since he still would have to be away from Imladris most of the time and hated the thought of how lonely Erestor might be. He could not rest until he found out the truth of it. He hurried to Erestor's room and rapped sharply at the door. The Elf's slightly startled voice bade him enter.

Erestor was seated near the fire. He had been reading, but as the Istar entered, he was twisting in his chair to look at his visitor. When he saw who it was, there was only the suggestion of a smile about his lips, but his eyes lit up. He stood and moved toward the Istar, trying to embrace him. Gandalf prevented him, putting his hands on Erestor's shoulders and holding him at arm's length. He had meant to confront the Elf about what Legolas had said, and yet now he found himself at a rare loss for words.

"What is it?" Erestor asked, his eyes widening slightly.

Gandalf frowned. "What do you mean, 'What is it?'"

"Well, you look so odd. Why are you staring at me in that way?"

Gandalf crossed his arms and again began to pace. Abruptly he turned to face Erestor, breathing deeply. "Have you been sleeping alone, my sweet Elf? Between my visits, that is."

Erestor's eyes could not meet the Istar's. He could not remember dropping the slightest hint of this to the Istar, and he had certainly managed to keep his secret for many years. Being loyal to a single lover was an odd thing to be accused of as if it were a betrayal, and yet the Elf realized that he had been far from candid with Gandalf. "Yes," he finally answered.

Gandalf's mouth dropped slightly open, and a look of concern came over his face. "For how long?"

Erestor glanced at him hesitatingly and looked away again with an odd little smile. "Oh, a few hundred years now. I did not intend for you to know."

"Obviously, but I feel quite the fool for never having noticed!" Gandalf said with an embarrassed little snort. "I'm afraid I cannot say the same. I have gone on with my other lovers as before-or at least up until my estrangement from Saruman and now this rather definitive split with him."

"Of course! I never asked you not to."

Gandalf sighed and chuckled ruefully. "No, unlike someone else I know. It was bad enough being deceived by Saruman, but now I discover that two of my lovers have kept me in the dark. I must be far less insightful than I had thought."

"You are the wisest person I know, but you have been so absorbed in penetrating the tactics and strategies of our great Enemy that you could hardly spare time for the little webs that we wove. And the two lovers who deceived you are both quite brilliant themselves, don't you agree?" Erestor asked with another of his rare smiles, "I must say in my own defense that I simply did it to avoid making you feel guilty about continuing your intimate relations with the others. Your life here in Middle-earth has been so full of difficulties! I could not ask you to add to them lengthy celibacy on my behalf. I do think my motives were discernibly better than those of the White Istar."

"Oh, no doubt! I didn't mean that. You have been immeasurably generous in this and so many other ways. It's just that I should have realized what was going on under my very nose-or in your case I should say what was not going on!" He shook his head and took a few hesitant steps toward Erestor and gazed earnestly into his eyes. It struck him that for the first time he desperately wanted to accept and return such devotion. He struggled to think rationally. For so long he had resisted Saruman's desire that the two Istari should pledge themselves to each other. That was very different, though. The White Wizard had put enormous pressure on him and striven to draw him from his duty. Erestor had never done so, and he never would.

Gandalf tried to keep his voice steady as he went on, "At any rate, now that my blindfold is finally off ... well, from what I know of Elves ... does that mean that you are willing to commit yourself to me for all time? Even ... across the Sea?"

Erestor's smile faded, and he clenched his teeth. His solemn eyes shone as he stared at the Istar. "Willing? It has long been my dream," he said softly.

Gandalf drew in a deep, shuddering breath. He stepped forward and took the Elf's hands in his, raising one and holding it to his lips for a short while. Finally he lowered it and said simply, "Then for me as well, from now on and forever, there is only you."

Tears brimmed in Erestor's eyes, even as another smile transformed his face, one wider and more joyous than any the Istar had ever seen there. Gandalf grinned briefly in return before they suddenly stepped into each other's embrace, hugging fiercely, their cheeks pressed together. Neither moved for a long time.

Finally they relaxed their hold enough to gaze into each other's eyes again. Gandalf fingered a strand of the silky black hair and said softly, "Well, my sweet Elf, I hope that this makes up for some of your loneliness those many nights."

Erestor's smile broadened again, and he said jubilantly, "This makes up for everything!"

The Elf lowered his head slightly to capture Gandalf's mouth, and the tender, teasing kiss went on as they delayed their passion so that they could savor the moment. Eventually, as Erestor's lips slid across Gandalf's cheek and down to his neck, the Wizard unfastened the top two buttons of his shirt. Erestor straightened up and encircled Gandalf's waist with one arm while stroking his hair with the other. The Istar nuzzled inside the shirt, languidly tonguing the base of Erestor's throat before licking his way around the top of his chest. He undid two more buttons and moved back, opening the shirt wide and surveying the pale, smooth skin and dark nipples, already taut as the Elf anticipated what was about to happen.

The Istar stared at the little nubs and their pebbled areolas, and soon Erestor shifted impatiently. "You have seen them before," he pointed out. "Many times."

"Yes, but now, somehow, touching you and seeing you has changed. Every bit of you is more wondrously beautiful than ever. And how you excite me!" he added with a sigh. Swiftly he leaned in and fastened his lips around one nipple, suckling avidly and occasionally flicking the tip of his tongue lightly across it. A quiet whimper escaped the Wizard, and his eyes slid shut. Lost in pleasure, he continued to suck as one hand fumbled until it found the other sensitive bead, gently rolling and pinching it.

The Elf's head lolled back as the intense pleasure darted to his cock and brought a rush of heat to it. He cupped Gandalf's head lightly and cradled it against his chest, panting. His other hand sought one of the Wizard's nipples and rubbed it through his lover's shirt. Gandalf jerked at the first touch and moaned as he continued to suckle.

At last Erestor grew desperate, and he grasped the Wizard's hand, moving it down and cupping it over his straining erection. Gandalf straightened up and undid the knot of the Elf's trouser-laces, gradually pulling the crossed strings loose and pausing to flutter his fingertips provocatively across the trapped, heated flesh. When the trousers finally slid down to bunch low on Erestor's hips, the Wizard drew out the fully rampant member, pressing his hands along each side of its length and rubbing it. Leaning against the Elf, he explored the cock, staring at it raptly as he traced the veins, fingered the sensitive ridge, and lifted and massaged the testicles.

Erestor took the opportunity to unfasten the Istar's clothing, rubbing his cheek atop the white head. He grasped Gandalf's penis and shifted until their members lay against each other, circling them both with his long fingers and stroking with an agonizingly slow rhythm. Keening, the Istar shed his shirt before suckling once again at Erestor's nipples. Soon he stretched up to initiate a deep, ravenous kiss, pushing his tongue far into the Elf's mouth. Erestor's grip on their erections tightened momentarily before he controlled himself. Gandalf was struggling to thrust through his fist, and the Elf's tongue wrestled with his, demanding entrance to his mouth.

Breathlessly they broke free from the embrace. Erestor gripped the Wizard's shaft and said hoarsely, "Put this inside me. I want you to set me on fire with pleasure!" He backed toward the bed, staring pleadingly into Gandalf's eyes and swiftly taking his shirt and trousers off. The Istar struggled to remove his own trousers as he followed Erestor. The Elf sat on the edge of the bed and spread his legs, pulling Gandalf between them until their rigid members met again. They hugged tightly and put out their tongues to lap eagerly at each other. Their hips thrust, making the erections pressed between their bellies grind together.

Suddenly Erestor released the Wizard and pushed himself backward toward the head of the bed, reclining and parting his legs wantonly. "I am yours, utterly. Take me, please!" he begged. Gandalf gulped, staring at the dark little entrance between the Elf's buttocks and the swollen shaft that hovered and bobbed above Erestor's muscular abdomen. He scrambled onto the mattress and knelt between the Elf's thighs, bending over to lick the glistening drops that were beginning to roll from the small slit down the underside of the cock's tip. Erestor twisted and reached up for the jar he kept on a bedside stand whenever the Wizard was visiting. He handed it to Gandalf and grasped his own shins, pulling his legs up to expose himself more fully to the eager finger that probed the tight, creased hole and finally pushed through it.

"Gently," Erestor urged in a strained voice. "I may spend too soon if you press that special place hard." The Istar circled his finger delicately, barely nudging the spot that made the Elf writhe and moan. He added a second finger and a third, stretching and feeling the tight ring open gradually to him. Withdrawing his hand, he coated his member liberally and rubbed its end against the loosened, puckered entrance. Clenching the muscles of his buttocks, he breached the ring and pushed forward in a single, agonizingly slow glide until he was half buried. With enormous effort, the Istar paused and savored the hot, moist pressure as the narrow passage clutched him. He rocked his hips to create tiny thrusting movements that did not drive his length any deeper. The movements slid over Erestor's pleasure gland so firmly that he keened and soon gasped, "Further!"

The Wizard shifted his knees slightly to brace his body as he lengthened his thrusts, forcing himself gradually deeper even as he strove to avoid slipping over the edge into ecstasy. His shaft rubbed constantly against Erestor's prostate as it moved forward and back, and the Elf murmured, "Perfect! Just like that." Gandalf found a pace that kept himself hovering near the brink of climax, and he watched the blissful grimaces move across Erestor's face as he drifted in pleasure. When he found himself becoming dizzy with the effort to stave off completion, the Wizard grasped his lover's shaft and pumped it, delighting as the silky skin slid along the hard flesh beneath it. He shut his eyes tight and thrust with longer and faster strokes, yearning to hear Erestor's cries of delight so that he could allow himself to find relief. Just as he thought he could not bear to hold off another instant, loud moans and hot liquid slicking his fingers signaled the Elf's climax. Gandalf sought to keep working his partner's erection while he gave a hoarse groan at the waves of bliss running through his cock and out into his loins. With each thrust he grunted slightly, focusing on the diminishing spasms of pleasure, until the last one slipped away, leaving utter satisfaction in its wake.

For a short time the pair remained unmoving, breathing heavily and looking at each other with hooded eyes. Erestor reached again and handed a cloth to Gandalf, and the Wizard wiped them both as he withdrew. Still trembling with the force of his climax, Gandalf dropped down beside his lover, and they lay flat on their backs, their hands tightly enlaced.

After a short time Gandalf rolled slightly to run his eyes along the Elf's body and back up to his exquisite face. "I have never dared to think that I could have such beauty all to myself-and not just your appearance, but also the beauty of your sweet, generous nature. What a wonderful feeling to know suddenly that you are mine-the only one I shall ever need from now on!"

"You have certainly changed your tune! In the past you never seemed to want or need only one. You were neither possessive nor jealous-and you certainly enjoy this sort of thing far too much to go without for long stretches of time."

Gandalf shrugged. "I didn't believe I had the luxury of asking anyone to be my sole lover. In a way, I'm not sure I should do so now, much though I love you, just when I am most likely leaving soon on a very long and crucial journey. Yet it is true, the Quest makes it almost certain that my mission here in Middle-earth is finally drawing toward an end, if only slowly. Whether the West succeeds or fails, I may not have to wander alone around the continent any more, spending only a brief time in any one place." He paused. "Even if the West fails or I perish in the coming War, somehow we would eventually be reunited beyond the Sea."

Erestor sighed. "I trust we would, for I love you, too, and would pine greatly for such a reunion. Yet you would be very different if the West fails. With Saruman's betrayal, the responsibility for its defense now largely falls on your shoulders. You would blame yourself terribly, more than would be reasonable. Hope has always been such a great part of you, and it would be replaced by a sense of guilt that would shadow your entire being. Inevitably some of our joy in each other would be gone as well."

The Istar clenched his teeth. "If indeed I fail, no doubt that is true, though in time perhaps we could regain some of that joy. And I know you would be an enormous solace to me. But let us not dwell on such a future! Maybe you are still not completely convinced that the Quest is a viable project, but I think it has a chance of succeeding. Otherwise I would not have proposed it, nor would Elrond have supported me. Anyway, whether at this point I should or should not have pledged myself to you, I certainly have no regrets about it!"

"I should think not," the Elf replied with a serious expression. "After all, you were running out of lovers. Best that you seized upon one before it was too late."

Gandalf laughed. "Yes, and how lucky that it should have been you who was available!"

"I am glad you think so, but in fact you had not entirely run out of other lovers. How will this development affect Legolas? I suppose you will break it to him immediately, for though you never could be true to any of us, you have always been scrupulously honest."

"Certainly I shall, but I suspect that he knows already. In fact, he may have known before I did! He was the one who revealed to me that you had forsaken other lovers."

"Was he? But how did he know?"

"The uncanny intuition of Elves, I suppose-as opposed to the obliviousness of Istari."

Erestor squeezed his hand. "Do not go on blaming yourself for not seeing what I was determined to keep invisible to you. And even in my most optimistic daydreams of a happy future with you, I did not expect that I could possibly gain you for my own this soon. I assumed that such happiness-if it ever came at all-would come only after the defeat of our Enemy. I feel enormously lucky that things have turned out as they have."

Gandalf caressed his cheek. "I certainly feel the same way. My darling Elf, you have made me happier than I would have thought possible in these dark days."

After dinner, the pair retired immediately to Erestor's room and eventually made love again. The next morning Gandalf awoke somewhat later than usual. The blissful contentment in his body swiftly reminded him of all that had happened the evening before. He smiled drowsily and rolled over to look at his lover. Instead he found the other side of the bed empty, and Erestor was nowhere to be seen.

"Erestor, are you in the bathroom?" the Wizard called. There was no response. He frowned. True, in the past when they slept together the Elf had occasionally been absent in the morning, but it seemed odd that on the day after they had committed themselves to each other he would not wait until Gandalf woke up. The Istar was just pondering whether he should go and search for his lover when Erestor came in, carrying an armful of freshly cut autumn flowers and foliage. He smiled at seeing Gandalf awake. The Wizard grinned back at him, stretching lazily and relaxing back into the pillows. They both murmured "Good morning," and Gandalf watched as Erestor carefully arranged the bouquet in a large, clear glass vase on a round table near the bay windows.

"Thank you," the Wizard said as Erestor moved back to the bed and stood looking down at him. "They're lovely. Almost as lovely as you." Gandalf felt almost giddy with joy. He patted the mattress beside himself, and the Elf kicked off his shoes and reclined, propped on one elbow, beside him, pushing the long beard aside and running his flat hand over the Wizard's torso.

Erestor said with a sigh, "I find it almost impossible to believe that I at last have been granted what I so long desired."

Gandalf gazed adoringly up at him. "What must I do to make it more plausible to you?"

"Simply stay here and love me. Not for long, I know, but probably for longer than usual. The scouts sent to the most far-flung destinations will surely not return in much under two months. If you remain with me for such a stretch of time, that in itself will be a gift. For I assume that you will decide to go with the Fellowship as its leader."

"Yes. I felt that for now I could tell Frodo nothing more than that I might go with him. Personally, I am convinced that I will. How could I stand here beside Elrond and just wish those bound on the Quest good fortune? But Elrond has not yet made the final decisions, and he will be the one to make the announcement that commits me officially to the task.

"In the meantime, staying here and loving you will not be difficult. I cannot imagine being able to tear myself away from you. It has been difficult enough in the past, but now ...!" The Istar nestled happily against Erestor's side.

Erestor gazed down at him worriedly. "But I do not want to lure you away from your great tasks. That has long been my fear. That is why I have not-"

Gandalf brushed his fingers over the Elf's lips to silence him. "I am all too well aware of it, my lovely Erestor. I shall leave you, of course, because I must. Afterward, though ... with luck I shall have more leisure to prove my love to you. As a scholar, I believe in providing considerable evidence and supporting my case in detail. The process will be slow indeed, but I think you will find it convincing." He gently pulled on the back of the Elf's neck to bring their faces together and then kissed him slowly and thoroughly.

Erestor sighed with pleasure as he pulled his mouth free. "I shall look forward to that. In the meantime, shall I order breakfast to be brought to us here?"

"Yes, do! Elrond may tease me about it later, but it would be worth it."

January 14, 3019 Orthanc

Saruman was sitting near his fireplace in one of the large, comfortable chairs lined with cushions. He sipped his after-dinner drink and reviewed in his mind his earlier conversation with the Dark Lord through the palantir. Sauron had seemed gleeful and triumphant, though the White Istar could not fully understand why. Naturally the Enemy never told him everything, but Saruman grasped that Gandalf and the Fellowship had been thwarted in an attempt to cross the Misty Mountains via the Pass of Caradhras. The Dark Lord had caused a huge storm that drove them to retreat. What advantage did that gain for Sauron? Saruman had wondered. No one was captured. Nevertheless, he had congratulated the Enemy.

No, the prevention of the Fellowship's crossing of the Mountains seemed to benefit Sauron little-yet it might inadvertently cause a great stroke of luck for Saruman. There were not that many options for traveling to Minas Tirith-for that was whither Sauron claimed the Fellowship, bearing the One Ring, meant to go. The West, he said, was planning to use the Ring in their war against Mordor. The Istar did not know if he was right, but it seemed likely. After all, the group contained both the heir of the Steward of Gondor and that of Isildur. Clearly Gandalf had opted not to hide the Ring but to use it in some fashion to aid the cause of the West. Sauron, the White Istar suspected, feared Aragorn nearly as much as Gandalf.

And yet now the Fellowship had suffered a setback at the Enemy's hands. They might well, Saruman reflected, be forced to come through the Gap of Rohan. That would be a splendid development, having the Ring so close to his grasp and so far from Mordor. His spies were already surveying Rohan minutely, in preparation for the attack that he would need to launch in little more than a month. Saruman resolved to send messages the next morning, ordering that the spies keep a particular watch for the Fellowship, ready to send word the moment they were spotted. He would dispatch a sizeable group of soldiers to seize the Hobbits and Gandalf and kill the others.

Saruman smiled. The very fact that Sauron might force the Fellowship to travel through the Gap of Rohan was a good sign. It suggested that the Enemy trusted Saruman to be obedient and to turn the Ring over to him if the White Istar were the one to wrest it from its Bearer. So far his pretense of humbly working to aid the Dark Lord must have been convincing.

Briefly the White Wizard imagined Gandalf's current plight, trapped in the storm, forced to spend his nights camping in the cold, and his smile faded. He himself was comfortable, for the blazing fire kept his study pleasantly warm. His mind went back to a frigid night many years earlier. Gandalf had arrived on foot, shivering hard from having spent several days and nights exposed to the weather. Saruman had rushed him to a seat near this same fireplace, quickly wrapping him in blankets and preparing some mulled wine before sitting beside his lover and embracing him. He had held the Grey Istar tightly, moving warm lips over his cold face and ears and holding the hot cup of wine up to his mouth for him to sip. The memory of being able to provide so much comfort and to inspire loving gratitude in the other Wizard wrung his heart for a moment. His mind and body ached to experience such joy again.

Saruman had wanted to make love immediately, but the other Wizard had protested that he had not had a chance to wash in days. Both retired to a warm bath, caressing each other tantalizingly, forcing themselves to linger despite their arousal. Only when they were dry and in their large bed did they unleash their passions. Saruman closed his eyes and sighed sadly at the memory. Even if he did somehow manage to bring Gandalf here and force him to stay, such blissful, loving exchanges would probably never happen again. Yet eventually, when the Grey Istar became resigned to his fate, perhaps some semblance of their former love could be created. Saruman wondered if his Voice could help make that possible.

As the White Istar rose briefly to put another log on the fire, he was reminded of a problem that he had recognized in recent years. Between the underground forges, the heating of the great tower's occupied portions and of the nearby barracks, and the cooking for such a large population, it was getting more and more difficult to keep Isengard supplied with fuel. It had come to the point where he now had to send orcs as far as Fangorn to gather wood. For the first time he pictured someday leaving Orthanc. He could perhaps return to Minas Tirith, living there either as the lieutenant of Sauron or as the master of Middle-earth itself, as the new Lord of the Ring. How appropriate that the White Istar should rule the White City, he thought with a faint smile. He could devise a secure but luxurious place there where Gandalf could be locked away and where he could visit the other Istar in comfortable and pleasant surroundings.

Time now to make some further preparations for the coming war, the war that might end with the White Istar's triumph. Saruman rose and moved to the desk. He needed to write and instruct Gríma about doing such things as informing the Wizard about which troops Théodred would be leading. The death of his son and heir might well be the final blow that would drive Théoden into utter despair. And Gríma might not be smart enough to realize for himself that he should supply that sort of important information. As he addressed the letter, Saruman smiled again. Gríma had recently complained that many in Edoras had taken to calling him "Wormtongue" behind his back-and occasionally to his face. "Well, why not, if you turn traitor?" Saruman muttered as he wrote. "I pay you enough that you should be able to ignore such talk." In the morning the letter would go via the system of bird messengers and spies that Saruman had created for his own purposes.

The White Wizard felt distinctly more optimistic than he had been in quite some time. He rang the bell twice, the signal that he required a specific sort of service. He returned to the fireside and sat down, delicately stroking the swelling front of his trousers with his fingertips. A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door, and a young, beautiful soldier entered. Having been Saruman's favorite for several weeks now, the lad knew what was expected of him, and he walked immediately to stand in front of the chair. Saruman smiled lazily up at him, slumping a bit and opening his legs wide. He often enjoyed talking with these temporary lovers, but only afterward. It was exciting to have them obey him without his having to tell them what to do. He began to pant as the soldier knelt and unlaced his trousers, drawing forth his rampant cock and caressing it with his hands. As his lips descended to suck on the tip, the Istar sighed, "Take your time about it." The fellow slid his mouth gradually along the shaft until nearly the whole length was engulfed and then repeated the movement over and over at a pace that would keep Saruman suspended in bliss. The Istar spread the fingers of both hands over the back of the boy's head, enlacing them. He exerted no pressure but savored the resulting sense of control. At last his hips began to rock slightly, a sign that he no longer could wait, and the soldier increased his pace and pumped the thick base with his hand. Soon the Istar shuddered and moaned as his seed gushed repeatedly into the fellow's throat.

As the Man withdrew his mouth and licked the shrinking member, Saruman wondered briefly why he could not be content with such pleasure and with the luxury he enjoyed here. Why pursue the Grey Istar for so long and with only a slim chance of success? And, he reflected, at enormous risk to himself, for the game he was playing with the Dark Lord could easily turn deadly. The answer was already in his mind, however, for similar thoughts had occurred to him before. Saruman needed a lover as wise and as powerful as himself. Much though he had striven to stop wanting Gandalf, he had never succeeded. These young Men were not enough to dispel his loneliness-not nearly enough. Besides, they were mere mortals, and he could not afford to give his love entirely to one that would inevitably leave him grieving. No, his plans for seizing the Ring had to go forward. The only other option would be to serve Sauron faithfully and remain merely his servant forever. That was unthinkable.

Having risen and given the soldier a glass of wine to rinse the taste of semen from his mouth, Saruman sat down beside him and began to kiss and fondle him, preparatory to leading him to his bedroom and undressing him. The Wizard did not take these Men in his study on the floor in front of the fireplace, for that reminded him too much of lost happiness. This particular young Man was unusually attractive and skillful at arousing his desire, and before long Saruman felt lust stirring again. The pair retired for the night, leaving the fire to burn low and the room to darken.