The Road to Isengard

by Nefertiti

Rating: NC-17

Pairing: (Series) Gandalf/Saruman, Gandalf/Erestor; individual chapters 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, based primarily on Appendix B of LOTR and the "Treebeard" and "The White Rider" chapters of The Two Towers.

Thanks as always to Sarah for her sterling beta work!

Chapter Thirteen

Late January, 3019 TA, Orthanc

Gandalf's luck had finally run out. That notion kept constantly running through Saruman's mind for days as he sat numbly at his desk. He cringed at the thought that he had ever resented the other Istar's great good fortune. Now Gandalf was dead, and Saruman could have wished nothing better than that his lover's luck had continued and saved him from the Balrog. The Valar had not anticipated that horrible confrontation. That such a hideous, powerful creature had survived since the First Age was something even they had not known.

His "lover." Saruman had never ceased to think of the Grey Wizard as his lover, even though they had not been intimate in fourteen years. Now that he was gone, Saruman could not imagine what to do next. What could he possibly strive for? Clearly he had made it impossible to return to Valinor, and yet that was the only place where he could hope ever to see Gandalf again. The other Istar would no longer be "Gandalf" there but instead would return to his being as Olórin. Centuries before, when both Istari had assumed they would be returning to Valinor, they spoken of their love as continuing there. They could embody themselves as they pleased and experience anew the joys they had found together in Middle-earth. Saruman grimaced and fought the tears that sprang to his eyes as he contemplated his loss and his own part in causing it.

The White Istar had not heard of the terrible battle on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm until about a week after it occurred. Orcs had pursued the escaping Fellowship to the eaves of the Golden Wood. Some had been foolish enough to go in after them and had no doubt been killed by the vigilant Elvish archers. Others had skirted the wood and come south, arriving at Isengard and delivering to Saruman what they thought was good news: the Grey Wizard had fallen to his death in the great abyss.

No, the Valar would never have allowed Gandalf to be killed if they could help it. It was all Sauron's fault. The Dark Lord had clearly planned this. Too late, Saruman had realized why the Enemy had sent the blizzard that forced the Fellowship back from the Pass of Caradhras. Only Sauron could have known the nature of the evil that dwelt deep in Moria, and he had sent the Grey Istar to confront and be vanquished by it. Saruman had long hated the Dark Lord and secretly opposed him, biding his time, but now his hatred had kindled wrath. He must seize the Ring as soon as possible and be avenged!

Sauron had apparently heard of Gandalf's demise at about the same time as the White Istar had. On that very night, a summons to look into the palantir had come. Saruman groaned, but he quickly complied. He must not drop the faintest hint that the death of the other Istar was anything but an enormously beneficial event for the Dark Lord and for himself. Fortunately Sauron wanted nothing more than to glory in his triumph over his most effective opponent. With Gandalf safely out of the way, the Fellowship would be much more vulnerable. Saruman said little, simply listening with clenched teeth to the Enemy gloating about this new turn of events. Occasionally he murmured some words of agreement. For the first time he found himself numb, feeling no fear as he communed with Sauron. Grief had at least had the effect of making him indifferent to that abhorrent voice. Either he would succeed in defeating the Enemy or he wouldn't. The final outcome seemed unimportant, but eventually he might find that he cared.

At the end, Sauron had ordered Saruman to assemble a group of his powerful Uruk-hai to be ready to set out for the region of the Anduin at a moment's notice. The Dark Lord was aware that his own soldiers were not familiar with the west bank of the River between Lothlórien and Gondor. Sauron still assumed that the Fellowship was taking the Ring to Minas Tirith. Once the remaining members resumed that southward journey from Lothlórien, spies would determine their route, and an attack further to the south could be planned-an attack that was to combine the strengths of the Uruk-hai, of the Enemy's Orcs, and of those from Moria. Saruman had dutifully agreed to give orders to his commanders that, as soon as the Ring-bearer was captured, the troops would take him immediately and directly to Mordor. Of course, the White Istar had no intention of allowing that to happen, but he made some fawning remarks to create an impression of utter submission and compliance. Apparently he was convincing, for eventually Sauron freed him from the conversation through the Stone without additional admonishments.

Immediately Saruman had sent out some of the birds that he now used as his own spies and messengers, bidding them to watch for the departure of the Fellowship from Lothlórien and to track them when they were traveling again. The Wizard also assembled a troop of his best warriors and gave orders for weapons and supplies to be made ready for a departure at short notice. His future in Middle-earth seemed bleak and pointless, but at least he wanted to face it without being in thrall to Sauron. Luckily the Dark Lord had little notion of just how powerful the Uruk-hai were. Ironically, the White Istar now stood a reasonable chance of defeating the great Enemy. He reckoned that by this point they were in a direct struggle to find the Ring-bearer and acquire the Ring. He might finally do what Gandalf had ultimately failed to-though in a very different way from what the other Istar had intended.

Not that under the current circumstances he could feel any joy at the prospect. Even so, Saruman dimly realized that there might come a time when he could think of something besides losing the other Istar. He might then take some pleasure in the power that the Ring would give him. If he could not have the love that he had wanted for so long, he could have power, riches, luxury, control of all sorts over the people around him. Perhaps some day that would seem enough.

The urgency of all the preparations to send out the search party seeking the Ring seemed to drain away, however, as it became apparent that the Fellowship had decided to remain in the Golden Wood for a time, no doubt to rest and to receive advice from Galadriel and Celeborn. Saruman was summoned again to the palantir and listened to the Dark Lord's rants about the delay, as usual compliantly agreeing and offering reassurances that he was ready to act as soon as the Fellowship left Lothlórien and became vulnerable to their soldiers.

During the long wait for news of the Fellowship's departure from the Golden Wood, Saruman sought to stifle his sorrow by taking one handsome soldier after another into his bed. The pleasure and the exhaustion that resulted allowed him to forget for a short time how miserable he was.

February 27, northern Fangorn Forest

In the midst of Fangorn Forest, Gandalf was sitting on a low boulder beside a stream that ran quickly down a rocky slope. He realized that he had been sitting there, taking little heed of the passing hours, since mid-morning, and now the afternoon was nearly half over. Two days ago he had performed a daring and frightening feat that had exhausted him. He had simply been hiking southward from Lothlórien. There he had spent one week of recovery after Gwaihir the eagle had rescued his newly resurrected body from the pinnacle of the Silvertine. Suddenly the Wizard had stopped, discerning with a shock that Frodo had put on the Ring. How he knew this he wasn't sure, but he was as certain as if he had witnessed the action. More than that, he was aware that Sauron had sensed the presence of the Ring, and his Eye was searching for it, looking afar from the Dark Tower to the section of the Emyn Muil that lay on the west bank of the Anduin, just above Rauros.

At once Gandalf had sought to warn Frodo by speaking to his mind, even as he strove with the Enemy, struggling to divert his thought and sight from the Hobbit. It had been his first direct contact with Sauron, for even though they were hundreds of miles apart, their wills clashed. The resulting struggle was unlike anything Gandalf had ever experienced, though he later reflected that it was a battle in his mind somewhat comparable to his physical battle with the Balrog. It had certainly not been as decisive, however-nor as deadly to him.

During that long stand-off between two powerful foes, Gandalf had been dimly aware that Frodo took off the Ring-and yet that he put it back on only a shortly thereafter. The Hobbit had decided to go alone to Mordor, Gandalf sensed with a shock that nearly drew his mind away from that of the Enemy. Fiercely he concentrated on occupying all of Sauron's thought, for it would be disastrous if the Enemy realized that Frodo was now actually on his own and headed directly for Mordor. Fortunately Gandalf soon sensed that Frodo had again taken the Ring off-and this time with a determination not to use it further. The Istar was at the limits of his endurance, and he withdrew his mind from that of the Dark Lord.

Afterward he had sat for hours against a tree, trembling with exhaustion and slowly regaining his ability to take note of his surroundings. Of one thing only he was certain. His defiance of the Dark Lord had succeeded to a considerable extent, for Frodo had not used the Ring again, and no one had taken it from him or learned where he was. Even in his weakened state, Gandalf had been reasonably sure that he would know if either of those things had happened. But he desperately needed to learn what the Ring-bearer had done after that crisis had passed. Had he succeeded in departing from the company, or had some of them insisted upon going with him? Finally the Istar had arisen and headed southward.

He had been wandering slowly in that direction ever since, with long pauses to rest. Now, sitting by the stream, he still felt weak, and he reminded himself that he needed to eat. He had become emaciated during his struggle with the Balrog and during the three days he lay upon the mountaintop after returning to life. A week of healing in the Golden Wood had not returned him to his normal slender body, and since leaving it he had had nothing but lembas to eat. He unwrapped one small cake and consumed it in a leisurely fashion. Suddenly he remembered having seen Treebeard the day before, but that had happened after he had come far, and he had been too weary even to call out a greeting. Treebeard waved and walked on, seeming to sense the Istar's inability to indulge in a casual conversation. He felt grateful for the old Ent's tact. Perhaps someday they would meet again, and Gandalf could explain his own silence. At least the Wizard was feeling distinctly stronger than he had during that encounter. Little by little he was recovering.

During the two days of hiking and resting, the Wizard's mind had harbored dark thoughts. To be sure, the fact that he had been able to confront Sauron and contend with him and accomplish his purpose was encouraging. It reminded him of what Galadriel had said many years earlier, when he had returned from his first visit to Dol Guldur: that he was learning something of his own power. Now that had happened again. And he had to learn, for that power was now enhanced in ways he had not yet had a chance to explore. He was Gandalf the White. Still, based on the extent to which even a distant brush with the Dark Lord had debilitated him, he comprehended full well that in a face-to-face confrontation with the Enemy, only possession of the Ring would make victory certain. And in using the Ring to defeat Sauron, he would most likely succumb to its corrupting power. Still, the prospect of the Ring-bearer going into Mordor without his help appalled him.

The Wizard pondered Frodo's decision to go alone. In some ways it was wise, for a single Hobbit was less conspicuous than a group. He hoped that Frodo would realize the obvious: that he should impersonate an Orc and slip in unnoticed through the Black Gate. On the other hand, the Hobbit was so inexperienced that the thought of him traveling alone worried Gandalf enormously, and he half hoped that other members of the Fellowship had thwarted Frodo's plan and insisted on going along. But would they be willing to undertake that terrifying and quite likely fatal mission? Boromir and Aragorn had been headed for Minas Tirith, and Legolas and Gimli had pledged to go only as far as the passage of the Misty Mountains. Though that was now accomplished, they might still be traveling with the Ring-bearer. And the Hobbits? Terror might drive them to return to the Shire, but he suspected that the Ring-bearer would carry on, and Gandalf could not imagine Sam deserting the Quest as long as Frodo remained true to it. But Merry and Pippin would be cowed by the prospect, and they could not be a great deal of assistance to the Ring-bearer. The Istar suspected that Aragorn would be torn between his desire to help in the coming war between Mordor and Gondor and his sense of obligation to go with Frodo to protect him. The idea of the Ring-bearer going alone or with only a few to support him--and the Wizard not among them--made the whole Quest seem impossible. And here he was, far from the group and unable to move quickly to try and rejoin its members.

Just as Gandalf was steeling himself to rise and go on, he heard a loud fluttering of wings above him, and a moment later Gwaihir landed before him. The Wizard felt a rush of joy and renewed vigor, standing up in the hope that the great eagle had vital news for him. After an exchange of the customary greetings, Gwaihir revealed to Gandalf that the Fellowship had apparently been scattered. Flying over the entire area of the Emyn Muil, the eagle had seen two groups running across the Downs toward Fangorn Forest or Isengard. One was a large troop of Uruk-hai whose armor bore the emblem of the White Hand of Isengard, and various other kinds of Orcs, some wearing armor of Saruman, the rest of the Dark Land. They had at least two bound Hobbits as prisoners. Flying back toward the River to seek the other members of the Quest, he had seen three pursuers whom he described to the Wizard. Gandalf nodded, frowning and muttering, "Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas." The great eagle concluded by revealing that a Winged Messenger, one of the Nazgûl, had also reconnoitered the troop of Orcs and flown off toward Mordor, presumably to reveal that the Hobbit captives were being taken to Isengard.

The Istar thanked Gwaihir for all his help and agreed that the eagle need not continue his reconnaissance of the areas to the south. With the Fellowship scattered, it would be impossible to trace all their movements, and now Gandalf had some crucial parts of the information he needed. As the huge bird rose into the sky with a cry of farewell, the Wizard turned and again walked southward.

He was very upset at the news of the Hobbits' captivity, but he strove to reason clearly. Their safety might depend on the Istar's formulation of a strategy-though he also had hopes that Aragorn would overtake the band of Orcs and rescue the Hobbits before he himself could possibly reach the area. So, he wondered, what did the rest of Gwaihir's information mean? Boromir would surely not have been the only Fellowship member to go with Frodo if Aragorn still lived. Clearly the group had been waylaid, with some or all of the Hobbits captured, some possibly killed. Boromir either had died in the struggle or had already departed for Minas Tirith before the attack-the latter, he sincerely hoped. Gandalf was still fairly convinced that the Ring-bearer was on his way to Mordor and not among the captured Hobbits, but he had no solid evidence for that-only the knowledge that the Hobbit had planned to try and reach Mt. Doom. He reflected that Frodo's second brief use of the Ring would likely have allowed him to depart unnoticed from the group.

That the marauding band mixed soldiers of both Sauron and Saruman intrigued the Wizard. Clearly that mixture could not have existed had Sauron not trusted the Master of Isengard to aid him in capturing the Ring-bearer. Yet the troops had borne their prisoners away from Mordor and toward the Wizard's Vale. Saruman was playing a dangerous and treacherous game, risking all on the chance that he might seize the Ring for himself. Gandalf sadly contemplated the depths to which the once-admirable Istar had sunk and the enormous danger he was in. Despite their past joys together, however, there could be no question of trying to help Saruman now. He had inflicted a terrible blow on the Fellowship, and Gandalf was prepared to do anything he could to defeat the other Wizard.

Gandalf decided what he himself had to do. Most of the remaining members of the Fellowship would soon be south of where he now was. He would continue on his present course, more quickly as he gained strength, and try to link up with Aragorn's group to help save the captive Hobbits. The Man, Dwarf, and Elf could presumably tell him whether Frodo had made his escape or had been captured. Once he knew that and they had filled him in on other events that had befallen the group, they could make plans. Despite the lingering urge to seek to rejoin Frodo, gradually Gandalf was beginning to sense that his own duty lay on the west bank. Even if the Ring-bearer was not among the captives, it was unthinkable that Merry, Pippin, and Sam should fall into the hands of the treacherous Istar. If Saruman did not obtain the Ring, he would probably follow through on his plans to attack Rohan, even as Sauron prepared to invade Gondor. Yes, war was rushing toward them all.

Gandalf wondered whether he would be able to look into Saruman's mind as he had the Enemy's. They were both, after all, at the core of their beings Maiar like himself. When he felt stronger, he would make the attempt and test his new powers more fully. His thoughts became less dark. Although the plight of the Hobbits weighed heavily upon him, he took encouragement from the fact that at least he and Aragorn's group were bent on rescuing them. He even found comfort in once more being among the ancient trees of Fangorn, and he felt grateful that the path of duty led him through the forest.

As the White Istar walked on, now more confidently and vigorously, the shape of the new overall strategy that he must pursue began to form in his mind.

February 29, in the midst of Fangorn Forest

Gandalf had been walking through the day, his third since he had set out southward from the Golden Wood. He was distinctly stronger, and he felt confident that he could reach the edge of Fangorn late the next day or early the one after. He found a tiny stream in a clearing and decided that it would make a reasonably comfortable spot for camping. He lowered his small bag to the ground and sat beside it.

As he was about to eat his frugal meal and sleep, Gandalf frowned thoughtfully. Eventually he would have to try and contact the minds of Sauron and Saruman, but he did not feel equal to that endeavor just yet. Still, his most immediate worry was for the captured Hobbits. Could he make a modest attempt and somehow learn of their fate using his newfound mental power-without exhausting himself? He had been able to contact Frodo's mind, but that might simply be because of the Ring. Ordinary Hobbits were another matter.

The Wizard closed his eyes and concentrated, and to his astonishment, he not only found Merry and Pippin almost instantly, but he also discovered that they were with Treebeard! And not only with Treebeard but telling him about Gandalf's doings, to the extent that the two Hobbits knew about them. They then spoke to the old Ent of Saruman and what they had learned of his role in the evil deeds happening to the south-which was surprisingly little, considering all the opportunities they had had to question Frodo and Sam and other members of the Fellowship. Typical of the provincial Shire-folk, uninterested in what happened beyond their own borders. Well, they had received a powerful lesson in what Saruman was capable of, and at least they were doing their best to convince Treebeard that he must take a side in the struggle that was rapidly developing not far from his domain. Maybe during their ordeal they had lost something of their provincial outlook.

Gandalf shook his head slightly in exasperation. Treebeard seemed to be maintaining his own insular attitude. He remarked to the Hobbits, "I have not troubled about the Great Wars. They mostly concern Elves and Men. That is the business of Wizards: Wizards are always troubled about the future. I do not like worrying about the future. I am not altogether on anybody's side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me."

The Wizard muttered, "It's a good thing someone is thinking about the future, you foolish old stack of kindling! And there are plenty of people on your side, if you would only take the trouble to look about you." At least, he pointed out to himself, the Ent had somehow rescued the Hobbits, so that was one major worry the less. And to his delight, Treebeard began to ramble on about Saruman and his gradual descent into evil. The Ent gradually worked himself up into an angry state and vowed to do something about it. A slow process, and yet remarkably "hasty" for an Ent, Gandalf had to admit. And despite their relative ignorance, the Hobbits had helped that to happen. But would it truly lead to anything?

He continued to try and follow the conversation, and it was obvious that Treebeard actually was determined to gather his fellow Ents for some sort of action against Isengard. Gandalf was growing weary, however. His mind began to slip away from its focus on the Hobbits, and it became increasingly difficult to return to them. At last he ceased the struggle and allowed himself to come back to his present situation.

What of Sam? he wondered. He had not sensed the Hobbit's presence in that interesting conversation with Treebeard, but with luck Sam was with Merry and Pippin. Asleep, perhaps, he reassured himself. Nothing in the two Hobbits' minds had suggested grief over a lost companion. Anger over how they had been treated by the Uruk-hai, yes, and impatience over Treebeard's complacency, but not grief. He yawned. The next two days would bring answers to many of his remaining questions, and he should be rested and fit to face them.

February 30, the southern edge of Fangorn Forest

Saruman rode his horse at a brisk pace eastward, keeping the dark eves of Fangorn as a line on the horizon far to his left. He had tried to be patient and wait in his tower until the Uruk-hai returned to Isengard, but it proved impossible to suppress his overwhelming curiosity. Had they captured the Ring-bearer and perhaps other Hobbits that he could hold as hostages? And even if they had, had they managed to overrule Sauron's Orcs and bring the captives westward? The White Istar had paced restlessly around his study, feeling himself possibly close to reaching his goal, at last gaining the power to revenge himself on Sauron. It also crossed his mind that some of the Uruk-hai might begin to feel the lure of the Ring and investigate the Hobbits' possessions too closely. That unhappy thought led to a decision. He quickly called for his horse and a small supply of provisions and blankets. Soon he rode alone to intercept the returning troops and learn the answers to such crucial questions and concerns.

The areas through which he had ridden had been very familiar in the past. The early part of his journey took him around the eastern foothills at the end of the Misty Mountains. Years ago, he would have turned north, directly crossing the Entwood. In some cases he was headed for Lothlórien for a meeting of the White Council. He winced at the thought, for there he and Gandalf had become lovers, and the last stretch of real happiness between them had begun with a reconciliation there. Yet that route had also led him further north, skirting around the Golden Wood, during the many decades of his fruitless search for the Ring in the Gladden Fields region.

In those days he had enjoyed reasonably friendly relations with the Ents, and yet now he was glad that his goal would not lead him into the Forest. He did not know whether the ancient tree-herds were aware that he was responsible for the recent cutting of parts of the woods for fuel, but they were powerful creatures, and he would rather not meet any of them face to face to find out. Once he obtained the Ring, he reflected with a sardonic smile, such concerns would not plague him. It would endow him with enough power that he need never fear any creature in Middle-earth. Not that he was likely to meet any Ents then. The White Istar had decided that as soon as he gained the Ring he would move to Minas Tirith and take it as his principal dwelling-place. Reliance on firewood from Fangorn would become a thing of the past.

As Saruman rode, he received occasional reports from his bird-spies, which had flown on ahead to look for signs of the troop of Orcs he sought. As mid-afternoon approached, a large crow fluttered down and sat on an outcropping of shale near the Wizard's path. Saruman steered his horse aside to meet it. The bird told of a deadly battle that had taken place beyond the eastern horizon, just within the eves of the forest, where fierce horsemen from Rohan had suddenly come upon the Uruk-hai and attacked them. The Istar glared and looked into the distance. "Direct me there!" he ordered, and the crow soared back toward the spot. Saruman rode hurriedly after it.

Two hours later, as the sun was riding low in the sky, the White Wizard saw that he no longer needed the bird's guidance. A thin but tall column of dense smoke rose directly in front of him. In that isolated area, it was most likely a sign of war and destruction. One side had triumphed and had set the bodies of the defeated ablaze. Saruman tried to stifle both his panic and his hope. What if the Riders of Rohan had rescued the Hobbits? Would they simply free them or take them back to Edoras? Would Théoden welcome them? Would they beg for aid, telling him of the Ring and their mission? Would Gríma be sensible enough to send Saruman news of what transpired? Even better, would Gríma possibly manage to imprison the Hobbits and keep the Ring safe until the Istar could come and claim it? Or had the Uruk-hai prevailed? Perhaps they were close now, somewhere between him and that column of smoke, bearing the treasure he fervently desired.

There was no point in such speculation, he sharply told himself. If the Uruk-hai had been victorious, he would meet them soon. If they had been defeated, most likely the Hobbits had perished with them-in which case the Ring now lay somewhere in the heap of burning bodies. With wildly conflicting emotions he urged his already tired horse into a quicker pace.

Saruman's heart sank as he finally rode past the first trees on the edge of Fangorn. The smoke rose from a broad glade not far inside. The great dark heap starkly contrasted with the sparse, yellowed grass around it. There was no sign of life amid the smoke. A single goblin's head had been raised on a stake in the center, the emblem of the white hand still visible on its singed, damaged helmet. For a time he simply sat on his horse, surveying the grim sight. It was obvious from the piles of weapons and cloven shields and helmets lying nearby that the victims had been Orcs. He looked around for any signs of the victors, but all he saw was a low mound covered with cut and replaced turves and surrounded by a circle of fifteen spears. The Istar recognized them at once as being of the type borne by the Riders of Rohan.

He knew he would have to examine the gruesome remains. In the turbulence of the battle the Hobbits might have gone unnoticed and been killed along with their captors-or rescued as he had feared, and taken to Edoras. If they had been killed, it was unlikely that the soldiers would have searched their bodies closely enough to find a small Ring. Sighing, he approached the tangle of burnt limbs and flesh. He could not bear to touch them but moved around the perimeter of the ashes. After a few minutes, he stopped, realizing that there was no point in searching further. He was not skilled in warfare and could not make anything of the huge expanse of grisly bodies. How could he tell a Hobbit body from an Orc when they were burnt beyond all recognition? The thought of picking his way among the charred corpses, lifting them, trying to look beneath them or search their packs nauseated him. Besides, the Ring might well not be there for him to find. It had a way, he knew, of looking out for itself, passing from hand to hand as if it sensed how a new owner might benefit it, however briefly.

The sun was low in the sky, and Saruman decided that he would not set out that day to travel even part of the way back to Isengard. For one thing, he was exhausted, and his mind was in turmoil over the various possible fates that could have befallen the Ring-bearer. For another, it occurred to him that it might be better to go straight to Edoras and try to get news from Gríma. He would use this time to decide. Much though he loathed the idea, he would have to camp for the night and spend the evening contemplating his situation.

Not in this horrid glade, however. The Istar wandered a way into the woods, looking for a suitable clearing. At last he found a small one, with a narrow brook that presumably ran into the nearby river. He tied his horse and pulled a tightly folded blanket out of his pack, along with some of the food he had brought. Sitting on the blanket, he began to eat. As he did so, the sun set, and as the twilight faded he lit up the end of his staff, creating only a tiny glow. He did not wish to attract unwelcome visitors from within the forest.

After Saruman had eaten, he shifted into a less uncomfortable position on the blanket and tried to make plans. He snorted with frustration. How could he have the faintest clue what to do if he had no idea whether the Uruk-hai had captured the Ring-bearer? Calming a bit, he realized that Orcs of Mordor had been among the victims in the recent battle. If the troops of Saruman and Sauron had failed to take any prisoners, they would presumably have split up and returned to their respective leaders to report that news. The fact that they were still united and moving toward Isengard suggested that they had captured one or more Hobbits. But Sauron had said there were at least three Hobbits in the Fellowship, perhaps more. Even if the Uruk-hai had captured some, the Ring-bearer might not be among them.

The Istar sat thinking for about an hour but finally felt painfully stiff. As he stood up, he suddenly was able to see through the trees a spark of bright yellow light. Immediately he darkened his staff, the tiny glow from which would be visible for quite some distance in the inky darkness. Perhaps, he speculated, there had been a few Orcs who survived by hiding themselves in the forest. If so, they should be able to tell him whether the troops had taken prisoners during the attack on the Fellowship. Picking up his broad-brimmed hat, which he had doffed before eating, he put it on, pulled his cloak about himself, and firmly grasped his staff. Moving cautiously and quietly, he inched toward the light, feeling his way through the undergrowth with his feet.

When Saruman finally stood just outside the clearing where the fire was merrily burning, he stared intently at the three figures near it. Immediately he recognized one of them, a slim blond figure lying on his back, apparently in the dream-state that Elves assumed at night. He ground his teeth. The Istar had not known up to that point that Gandalf had had one of his lovers beside him on the journey south. He had not encountered Legolas for centuries--indeed, not since before he had set out on his great travels in the East. Now, seeing the Elf's beauty, Saruman felt a rage welling up within himself. Legolas had often lured Gandalf to visit him in Mirkwood and to linger there, thus stealing precious hours, days, and weeks that the two Istari might instead have shared. In all the jealous confusion of his mind, the only certainty was that his rival was before him and vulnerable. Could he somehow manage to kill Legolas? Although the Wizard did not carry a sword, he had a long, slim, exceedingly sharp knife in a sheath under his cloak. What satisfaction plunging it into the Elf's chest would yield him!

The Istar's eyes moved to the other two figures. He could not make out the appearance of the Man, who was curled up and facing away from him, sound asleep. Boromir, possibly? Had Sauron mentioned a second Man in the Fellowship? No, he had spoken mainly of the Hobbits and of Gandalf. A Dwarf sat near the two others, leaning against a tree with his head lowered. An ax lay across his lap. He seemed to have fallen asleep while on guard. Saruman did not recognize him, either, but he had had no dealings with Dwarves in hundreds of years now. That race, though, through its stubbornness and secrecy, had also kept Gandalf away from Orthanc, wandering on long and often fruitless errands in the North.

Saruman pulled his hat firmly down over his eyes and wrapped his large cloak tightly around his body. He wanted to see Legolas more closely, to assess his beauty ... and perhaps to give in to that first impulse and stab the Elf before either of his companions could come to his defense. If he had to kill them as well, he would feel no compunction about doing so. After a considerable hesitation, the Wizard stepped forward past the edge of the firelight.

Instantly he froze as the Dwarf leaped to his feet and stared at him. The abrupt movement woke the other two, and they sat up and turned to him. The Man was dark-haired and had a grim, weather-beaten face. Saruman gazed at him from under the hat-brim. He had never met this fellow before, yet he sensed a hidden power and a grandeur that were veiled. Who could this Man be? the Istar wondered, feeling a faint, unaccustomed thrill of fear. Any notion of possibly taking on all three foes in direct combat faded away.

The Man rose quickly and called out, "Well, father, what can we do for you? Come and be warm, if you are cold!" He started forward.

At once Saruman ducked back out of the firelight and swiftly walked away, turning immediately so that he was not moving in the same direction as when they last saw him. When he was a safe distance from the camp, he glanced back and saw that the three companions were standing by the edge of the firelight uncertainly. Suddenly in the distance there came sounds of horses wildly neighing. The Man, Dwarf, and Elf rushed off toward the edge of the forest, and Saruman made his way through the darkness back to his own horse.

As the Istar wrapped himself in his cloak and blanket and lay down, he mulled over this latest development. If three members of the Fellowship had pursued the band of Orcs, it was further evidence that some of their comrades had been captured. But which of the Hobbits had it been? And what should he do now? Again possibility after possibility occurred to him. The Man he had just seen was certainly not Boromir. Perhaps the heir of the Steward had gone on toward Minas Tirith, taking the Ring-bearer with him while his companions sought to free the captured Hobbits. It was maddening, having so little information.

Finally his mind turned to Sauron. If the White Istar had little information, the Dark Lord had even less. His troops would never return to report to him, for surely the skillful warriors of Rohan would not have let any escape. Perhaps Sauron had no idea that the band had headed west rather than east after attacking the Fellowship. Whatever the case actually was, however, the Enemy would expect Saruman to be in Orthanc, obediently preparing to attack Rohan and available for consultations through the Seeing Stone.

Rohan. If the riders had found the Hobbits and taken them to Edoras, there still might be a chance of his gaining the Ring. Théoden was too weakened and too ignorant of the Ring's powers to understand how to use it effectively even if he did obtain it. If the Istar struck swiftly, he might seize the Enemy's weapon from the ailing King. Sauron's command to attack Rohan now meshed perfectly with his own desires. He would have to hurry back to Isengard as soon as dawn came. He had already sent troops out to attack some of the outlying villages of Rohan. Now it was time to launch an all-out assault on the main strongholds of the Rohirrim. Even after the loss of some of his most powerful Uruk-hai in the failed raid on the Fellowship, he had enough troops to send out, and as soon as he reached the tower, he would order them to prepare for an immediate departure.

Most likely the bulk of Théoden's army would march quickly to Helm's Deep, but perhaps Gríma could contrive to persuade the King against this prudent move. Then the Rohirrim troops would have to do battle on the open plains.

Even if the troops did flee to Helm's Deep, though, the fortress would not be as safe as they believed. This time Saruman's Orcs would go forth carrying a secret weapon, the Istar reflected with the ghost of a wry smile. Once, long ago, when the White Council was meeting in Rivendell, he had crept into the Grey Istar's bedroom and taken a handful of the black powder he found in a keg in the corner where Gandalf customarily made his fireworks. After many experiments he had managed to replicate it, or something akin to it. Previously there had been no occasion for him to use such a substance in a weapon. After preparations for the attack on Rohan had begun, however, he had devised metallic shells that could be filled with the stuff and, when set alight, cause a devastating explosion. The Hornburg may have protected the soldiers of Rohan very well in the past, but its wall was finally going to be breached.

The Istar chuckled. Then another thought struck him. The main reason that the Rohirrim were in a weakened position was because Gandalf could no longer guide them. Saruman's face became grim again, as it did when anything reminded him of the other Wizard's death, and he lay grieving over his loss for over an hour until sheer fatigue brought him sleep.

February 30, in the southern reaches of Fangorn Forest

Gandalf strode briskly through the ancient forest. It had been four full days since his mental struggle with the Dark Lord, and he was feeling completely recovered in mind and body. By now he was only about two hours' hike from the southern edge of the Entwood, and he wondered mightily how the situation might have changed since he had heard Gwaihir's news. The Ents, he knew from a brief further contact with Pippin and Merry, were even at that moment meeting to decide what to do about Saruman. That could take quite some time! he reflected. The outcome might come to naught, though he felt reasonably confident that the Ents would confront Saruman in some fashion.

Coming to a clearing, he paused, enjoying the slightly warmer air left there by the sun's rays earlier in the day. The sky was fading from dark blue to black, and the stars were rapidly kindling. He decided to spend the night in the spot and sat down to rest and eat. It was, he suspected, the last night of this solitary and melancholy journey, for with luck the next day he would be reunited with Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas.

The Istar had had plenty of time to think through various strategies and plans that the group might undertake once they were together. Yet he knew that he could not make a reasoned decision as to what they should do until he learned more about what Sauron and Saruman were up to. The prospect was daunting. Mental links with Hobbits were one thing, but this! Still, it was time to test to what extent he could contact their minds. He was reluctant to make the attempt, for if he was as debilitated by it as he previously had been in dealing with Sauron, he would be hampered at the exact time when he needed to be most alert and strong, moving quickly to find his comrades.

Gandalf sat down and contemplated what he was about to do, trying to keep calm and prevent fear from marring his concentration. He was not sure how to go about the attempt. Before, knowledge of Frodo's actions and Sauron's awareness of them had simply thrust itself into his mind, unbidden. Now he was initiating the mental contact. Sighing, he closed his eyes and tried what he had with the Hobbits, concentrating on Saruman and trying not to allow any other thoughts to interfere.

Whatever he had been expecting to learn of the other Wizard's state of mind, what came to him was quite different. Saruman was in a welter of panic and doubt. He was close, too, rather than being safely in his distant tower. The confused, rapidly shifting thinking was difficult to assess, but gradually Gandalf grasped that the White Istar-the other White Istar, he reminded himself-had journeyed out to meet the troop of Orcs and Uruk-hai and was even then examining their burnt remains. He was seeking the Ring and yet feared that it might have been taken southwestward by the Rohirrim troops that had slaughtered the forces of Mordor and Isengard. He seemed to assume that the Hobbits had been slain along with their captors. Gandalf was very glad that he knew that was not true!

Gradually the other Istar's thoughts calmed somewhat, subsiding into profound discouragement and a determination to return home and direct his fury against Rohan. Gandalf let his mind slip away from that of the other Istar. Looking around and reorienting himself, he was relieved to find that the contact with Saruman had not exhausted him. The effort was tiring, to be sure, but apparently the fact that he had not had to seize the other Wizard's attention and strive with him made the whole process much easier. He felt a pang of pity for Saruman's situation, but he could not allow such a sentiment to affect his judgment.

After a few minutes, he summoned his courage and again shut his eyes to concentrate, this time on Sauron. Once more he made contact quickly, and he was careful not to let the Dark Lord become aware of him. Gandalf was greatly relieved to learn immediately that the Enemy had no knowledge whatsoever of the Ring-bearer's whereabouts. Sauron still had not the faintest inkling of the plan to destroy the Ring. Not surprisingly, his belief and fear was that the Ring would somehow reach Minas Tirith and be used against him. Until Gandalf had challenged him from afar days earlier, Sauron had known nothing of the Istar's rebirth and return to the struggle on behalf of the West. The Istar was startled and distinctly gratified to discover how much the Dark Lord feared him and Aragorn, thinking that either might be powerful enough to wield the One effectively.

Gandalf was pleased at Sauron's determination to attack Minas Tirith. The Enemy's full power was not ready, and yet he was allowing himself to be goaded into launching the war prematurely. The Wizard probed him further, sensing that Sauron's eye was turned in quite a different direction, toward the White City. Let it stay there, he thought with satisfaction. Let him drain the Dark Land of troops and clear the way for Frodo.

One undercurrent in Sauron's mind was evident: his doubt and anger over Saruman's behavior. The Nazgûl had revealed to him that the troops sent to attack the Fellowship had marched not eastward toward the entrance to Mordor, but westward toward Isengard. The Dark Lord knew that if the troops had seized the Ring-bearer, the Ring might easily fall into his treacherous ally's hands. Yet the captives might just have been some of the other Hobbits. He was torn between his desire to smite Saruman and his need to allow the Istar to carry through with their plans to attack Rohan. If the Rohirrim were left unmolested, free to ride to the aid of Gondor, the Enemy's attack might fail.

Sensing that he had discovered everything of importance, Gandalf quickly pulled his thought away from that of the Enemy, fearing that if he probed too far, Sauron would notice him. He felt distinctly tired from the strain of invading the Dark Lord's mind without revealing himself, but he was not weakened or exhausted. Despite all the worries generated by what he had learned, Gandalf felt exhilarated at this new ability. He would use his enhanced mental powers sparingly, for there were risks involved, but they gave him greater hope that he could effectively aid the West in its struggle.

He unwrapped the remains of a lembas cake and noticed that his hands were trembling slightly as he did so. As he nibbled at the food, he wondered if he had spent too much time probing the minds of his enemies. Yet he had learned so much of importance that it had been well worth the effort.

What he had discovered of Sauron's and Saruman's doubts and plans had been vital, but none of it really surprised him. Treebeard, however, was another matter. He felt reasonably sure that the Entmoot would lead to an attack on Isengard. Gandalf had not reckoned on the Ents as a force to help his cause, since they had always been reluctant to venture beyond their own borders or take a hand in any endeavors that did not directly concern them. Yet now, thanks to the young Hobbits, they might play a crucial role. Certainly if they managed in some way to control or defeat Saruman, it would relieve the Istar of the painful necessity of dealing with his former lover himself, and he would be free to concentrate on the wars of Rohan and Gondor. He only hoped that Treebeard could rouse the other Ents to action in time to make a difference in the events that were swiftly bearing down on the West. Saruman was clearly determined to launch his attack on Rohan immediately upon his return to Orthanc.

Gandalf spread out his blanket and lay back on it, stretching and gazing up at the starry sky as he sorted through all he had discovered that day and what it meant. He had been tired out by the long walk and by the effort of reaching the minds of his enemies and friends alike-but he was still far from being as drained as he had been after his struggle with the Dark Lord. Despite the darkness of the night, he could see his surroundings reasonably well by the dim starlight that filtered down through the leaves. He had already noticed that his eyesight, always keen, was better than before his transformation. It was one more enhancement of his power that might aid in the struggles to come.

Gandalf felt content in the belief that he would almost certainly meet Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas tomorrow. The Fellowship, so scattered by evil forces, could begin to reassemble to some extent-though it occurred to him that it would be best to leave Merry and Pippin with the Ents. They would be safer that way, and they might help assure that some sort of action against Isengard would be initiated. It would be a smaller Fellowship, no doubt, but one that might accomplish great tasks in the battles that would soon break upon the West. He knew that he would awaken ready and eager to undertake anew those tasks.

Soon he rolled onto his side and curled up to sleep. At once, though, his nose caught the earthy smell of the decaying leaves of the past year around the tree under which he was lying. A sudden, vivid flash of memory returned him to an afternoon little more than three months earlier, when he and Erestor had been overtaken by passion during a walk through the woods on the eastern slopes of Imladris.

It had been the middle of the afternoon, and although the autumn air was crisp, their desires could not be delayed. They had made love on the ground, heedless of the cool air on their exposed skin. The cold night breezes of Fangorn made the memory even more vivid. He recalled with a gasp of longing Erestor's black hair fanned out over the fallen autumn leaves and the grimace of need and surrender on the Elf's lovely face as he felt the Istar's fingers delve inside him, preparing him to be entered and caressing his most sensitive spot. Their coupling then had been swift and hard, their bodies writhing as they moaned and soared toward climax.

Remembering how they had finally stiffened and shuddered in ecstasy, slowly relaxing and melting into an exhausted embrace, Gandalf found himself growing hard. He had not felt that marvelous sensation since well before his death and resurrection. The Wizard's body shifted within the blanket. He longed to be back in the warm bed in Imladris with the Elf's beautiful, strong body pressed against his. He tried his best to imagine his nose nuzzling into the dark, silky hair and Erestor's arms around him as he slid a hand up to his own chest and scratched the index finger's tip gently over the cloth covering one of his nipples. At once a searing jolt of pleasure puckered the flesh around the nub, and his erection twitched and strained against his trouser-laces. The Wizard pictured his lover's hands moving over his eager, quivering body.

"My sweet Elf," the Istar whispered, pinching the stiffened bead through his shirt, "touch me." His other hand went to the bulge at the front of his trousers, cupping and kneading it as gently as he could manage. His member was rigid, lying upright along his lower belly, and as his palm rubbed its underside, the tips of his fingers found and massaged his heavy, full testicles. He lay drifting in pleasure for a time, tickling his nipple and stroking his erection without bringing himself closer to release. At last he undid the knot of the laces and tugged them loose.

Gandalf's mind conjured up images from that earlier lovemaking as he slipped his hand inside his trousers and encountered the hot, swollen member. His fingertips circled around and around the velvety tip until he could not bear to hold back any longer. He pushed the blanket aside and pulled his erection up into the open air. With a deep gasp of need, he stroked it, grunting with pleasure and moving his hand up and down it faster, thinking of how it had felt to have Erestor's narrow passage clutching at him as he thrust deeply into it. His body jerked, and he forced himself to slow down again, concentrating on rubbing his fingers over the rough veins and feeling the moist, loose skin slide over the rigid flesh beneath it. For many minutes he deliberately hovered on the brink of ecstasy, rolling and pinching his nipple to enhance the sensations running through his loins. At last his breath began to hiss rhythmically between his clenched teeth, and his grip on his shaft tightened involuntarily. With a soft groan of fulfillment he tipped over the edge into bliss, and as exquisite waves of pleasure washed over his cock and out into his body, he whimpered and heard the soft splattering of his come on the rich soil of the forest's floor.

Pulling the blanket over himself again, he lay quietly for a time enjoying the contentment in his body. The renewal of such pleasure seemed to complete his return to life in Middle-earth. Yet shortly after that thought, he came to feel profoundly lonely. When, if ever, would he be with Erestor again and able to share even greater pleasure with him? Yet in his current mood he was soon able to console himself. What he was setting out to do now would lead to the decisive war and the end of his tasks, for good or ill. If for good, then he could finally meet with Erestor and be with the Elf, utterly freed from the heavy duties that had so often kept them apart. With that happy notion, he let drowsiness gradually overtake him as he thought of what would happen the next day.

It would probably not take him very long to locate the three friends whom he sought. The anticipation of such a meeting filled him with enormous joy. He smiled. Perhaps he could tease them a bit and at the same time test his simple disguise: a great grey cloak hiding the fact that he had become the White Istar. His smile faded. Not the only White Istar, not for now. Eventually, he reflected sadly, he would have to strip Saruman of his right to that title. Even in the unlikely event that he could finally persuade the other Wizard to give up his mad ambitions, the Valar could not trust Saruman to retain the power that had initially been gifted to him. Striving to thrust that idea aside for the moment, he concentrated on the lingering satisfaction in his body and the memory of his lover in Imladris, and he soon fell asleep.