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: Based primarily on the Chronology in Appendix B and the visit to Isengard in the "Many Partings" chapter.

Many thanks for Sarah for her patient betaing and unwavering support.

Chapter Fifteen

March 19, 3019 Isengard

Saruman reached the top of the stairway leading down to the caverns below Orthanc and dropped his load of firewood on the floor. He leaned against the large wooden work-table in the center of the room, littered with utensils and the scraps left over from the preparation of that morning's meal. How many times had he made the exhausting trek down that stairway and back up? he wondered. Many dozens, by now. Not long after Gandalf had ordered Treebeard to keep him prisoner in the tower, the supply of wood in Orthanc had run low. Although the first signs of spring had arrived, it was still cold at night, and apart from the fireplaces needing to be supplied, there was the stove as well.

The Ents had been busy, clearing away the rubbish deposited by the sinking floodwaters, including the bits of branches and planks. There was consequently no way for Gríma to forage for fuel during his trips out to the ruined storerooms. Saruman could hardly ask the old Ent for more wood-not after his long harvesting of the living trees of Fangorn. For some reason he could not quite explain to himself, he didn't want to start burning the oddments of furniture in the various upper rooms of the tower, not yet. His only other option was to salvage what wood remained in the underground caverns from the fragments of ruined equipment and the storage areas where split logs for the furnaces had been kept.

That wood was sodden from the floods, of course, and the area beneath the tower was now dangerous to navigate. The lowest parts contained standing pools, and the Istar had had to wait nearly a week until enough of the filthy water had drained away through small cracks in the stone floors for him to be able to enter them at all. The Ents had also filled in the pits in the Circle of Isengard by the simple expedient of dropping the blocks from the surrounding wall into them. As they had intended, no means of escape remained there. Still, enough open portions and tunnels below the rubble remained that he and Gríma could carefully make their way about. Since then, they had spent at least an hour each day carrying armloads of wood. It was exhausting work, and once they had their loads up on ground level, they had to spread the pieces out to dry in the kitchen and the large main hallway. They also laboriously turned them over to hasten the process.

Saruman had moved entirely into his study, sleeping there so that he would not have to heat his large bedroom as well. He had not permitted Gríma to join him in the study but told him to remain in the guest bedroom he had chosen, giving him small rations of wood for its fireplace. He certainly did not want the unpleasant fellow around any more than necessary, and the feeling was clearly mutual. Besides, the wretch might make another attempt on the Istar's life while he slept. Saruman searched the rack of keys in the kitchen, finding the one to his study. For the first time he took to locking it at night.

The situation in Orthanc was barely tolerable, though the pair were not entirely neglected. Despite Treebeard's gruff attitude, he diligently supplied food for them. At first this had been gathered by Gríma from the remnants of what had been in the storerooms in the outer wall: cured meat, aging fruit and vegetables, and sacks of flour and meal that were still dry in the center. The pump in the kitchen functioned, and Saruman's racks of wine in the cellar would last for quite some time. It had been two weeks since the visit from Gandalf and the others. About a week after that visit, fresh supplies had started to arrive, mostly from Dunland. These were welcome but not plentiful, and the two prisoners used them sparingly, not knowing when they would be replenished.

The Istar and his reluctant servant spent much of their time in tasks relating to the bare necessities of life. At first Saruman had had little leisure to ruminate over his sudden fall from power, his final realization of his loss of Gandalf's love, and his possible strategies for the future. By now, however, he and Gríma had created a modicum of comfort for themselves and had fallen into a routine that allowed him some time to think.

For all he knew, Gandalf would simply leave him here. The other Istar would succeed or fail in whatever plans he had concocted to deal with Sauron. It was clear from the visit that Gandalf had not taken the Ring for himself. His new abilities were not of the sort that the Ring would bestow. Only the Valar could have enhanced his power so. Saruman had concluded that the White Wizard's hope was to hide the Ring for good, perhaps secreted somewhere in Minas Tirith, and to try and defeat the Dark Lord militarily. Without using the Ring, could Gandalf possibly do that? It seemed unlikely. And even if he succeeded, could he maintain his resistance to the Ring's lure? Could he leave Middle-earth and return to Valinor, trusting that Aragorn or his heirs would not someday seize the Enemy's great weapon?

The Istar tried to stop thinking about Gandalf. That only led to long and bitter ruminations on various moments in the past when he might have done something differently, something that could have allowed them to remain lovers-under whatever conditions the other Wizard wished. Saruman turned to what Gandalf had said during their last exchange. He had probably been right. Saruman should be worried about Sauron. The Dark Lord must know that he had tried to obtain the Ring for himself. Most likely he had summoned Saruman to look into the palantir at some point in the past two weeks and now assumed that the Istar was refusing to do so. Saruman had failed to defeat the Rohirrim, and hence his usefulness to the Enemy had disappeared.

Sauron's attention was probably riveted on the coming battle with Gondor. Still, Saruman couldn't count on that. The Dark Lord might decide that it was worthwhile to spare one Nazgûl to send to Orthanc and fetch the errant Istar to Mordor. It was not safe to stay in the tower any longer than he had to. The wise course would be to escape, stealthily making his way to parts of Middle-earth distant from the Enemy's territories. A slight smile came to his face for the first time in many days. Luckily, he had already set in motion events to permit him to return to power in just such a place. A return to power-and the means of revenging himself upon his ex-lover. The question was, how to leave Orthanc.

Saruman did not want to linger in the hope that the other Wizard would visit him again and possibily decide to free him. If that unlikely event ever happened, it would be too far in the future to be of much use. No, the obvious course was to talk Treebeard into allowing him to leave. Saruman had gradually adjusted to being a prisoner, and he had also lost some of his fear of the Ent. Gandalf had clearly told Treebeard to treat the pair in the tower humanely. Perhaps he could convince the Ent that it would be safe to let him go. Saruman decided that he would try and engage Treebeard in conversation. No doubt the process would be lengthy and involve many talks, so he might as well start immediately.

The Istar spread the latest load of wood out to dry and turned some of the other pieces over before leaving the kitchen and going up to his study. Treebeard might be under orders not to harm him, but Saruman wasn't going to chance opening the door. A group of Ents was still working outside, removing the last remains of the outer walls. They had also prized up most of the flagstones he had installed, leaving only some pathways and the original road to the area where the gate had stood. Having laid bare the soil beneath, they were apparently preparing to plant something within the circle. Some of them might not be as reluctant to attack him as Treebeard presumably was.

Saruman unlatched the doors opening onto the little balcony where he had been so ignominiously stripped of his power two weeks earlier. Peeking out through the crack between them, he decided that the balcony was probably high enough off the ground that the Ents could not reach him. Or if one attempted to, he could duck quickly back inside. Spreading the doors wide, he stepped cautiously through them and surveyed the scene. Although a few of the Ents cast unfriendly glances up at him, most of them ignored him. Yes, clearly they were attempting to restore Isengard's gardens and groves. Seedlings now lay in portions of the grounds, ready to be planted. The Istar noted that the standing pool around the base of Orthanc had not diminished when the rest of the water drained away. Apparently the Ents intended to maintain it in order to make it more difficult for him to escape. During Gríma's trips outside the tower, he had had to walk through water up nearly to his chin and to float supplies across it on an improvised raft.

At first Saruman could not see Treebeard, but the old Ent soon strode into view, apparently to survey the progress the others were making. Quickly the Wizard assumed a weary, dejected expression. For a moment he was at a loss as to how to attract Treebeard's attention. Calling him by name seemed too presumptuous, but the Ent had no title. Addressing him as "sire" or "my lord" would sound absurd, and at any rate, Saruman could not contemplate humbling himself in that fashion.

Finally he decided to try and elicit the Ent's sympathy at once, simply calling out "Please ..." in a pleasant but slightly feeble voice.

Several of the Ents closest to the tower again turned their eyes upward to him and then glanced at their leader, clearly curious as to how he would handle the situation. Treebeard stared at the Wizard for what seemed like minutes, and Saruman recalled that the Ents habitually took a great deal of time to do things-ordinarily. They had certainly been quick enough when attacking his stronghold, and they were not dawdling now either as they went about transforming the area around the tower. Still, who knows how long they had pondered before deciding to do taking those actions? he thought.

At last Treebeard waded into the standing pool and came to a stop under the window. His head did not reach it, but seeing the Ent's large face from that relatively short distance was disconcerting. The deep eyes seemed to stare right into the Istar's heart and mind. At least, Saruman reassured himself, the fellow did not look angry.

The silence went on, and Saruman suspected that the Ent would not speak before he did. He said, "I thank you, Treebeard, for keeping my companion and me supplied with food."

The Ent made a small gesture of dismissal. "It is the Men of Dunland who do the work of bringing the food, and I believe that the coffers of the King of Rohan pay for it. Gandalf said not to let you escape. He did not say to allow you to starve."

Saruman replied humbly, "Do you know what Gandalf intends for me, once the War is won or lost?"

"Hoom, no, he did not confide in me to that extent. And if he had, I am sure he would have counseled me not to tell you. Things here must go on as they are. At least we are improving the view from the tower, though you may not appreciate our doing so." He turned stiffly and watched the activities of the gardeners before looking back up at the Istar.

Saruman surveyed the scene slowly and responded, "Believe me or not, as you will, but I do appreciate it. It reminds me of a time long ago, a time when I was content to live here quietly, enjoying the beauties around me. A time before I made many mistakes that I now deeply regret."

"The question is, do you regret them because your plans failed or because you are truly sorry?"

Saruman strove to make his voice as sincere and pleasant as possible. "At first, I will admit, it was because I had failed. But I have had time to think and to watch the healing work being done here by your comrades. I see now that I have betrayed much that I held dear, and I can only hope that Gandalf accomplishes what I could not."

It galled the Istar to say such things, but there was no choice. For the present, his fate lay entirely with Treebeard. His main fear was that he would push too fast, failing to convince the Ent of his supposed change of heart.

Treebeard was again silent, as if weighing the Wizard's claims in his mind. Abruptly he responded, "If he does, it will be because he has the help of many friends among the peoples of Middle-earth. Did you not notice the group that he brought with him?"

Including two of those wretched little Hobbits and one of his Elvish lovers. How could I miss them? Saruman thought, but he simply nodded.

Treebeard continued, "Men, naturally, but also a Dwarf, an Elf, and two Hobbits. And although no Ents approached the tower, he of course has our loyalty-and we have few true friends these days. Speaking of which, pleasant little fellows, the Hobbits. I think if it were not for them, we would still be debating whether to march against Isengard." He chuckled.

Saruman gritted his teeth but simply responded, "Hobbits, yes. A charming folk. I have visited the Shire several times."

"Ah, have you? I regret that I have not, for until recently I must confess that I never knew that Hobbits existed. Not that I ever travel far from Fangorn, for there is much to do there. Hm, but what I was saying is, Gandalf has not shut himself away from the world. Quite the contrary, he seems to go everywhere. He is one of the few who visits Fangorn regularly, and he has been for a long time. He cares about trees, you see." He looked up rather pointedly at Saruman.

"Yes. And as to traveling everywhere, do you know where Gandalf was headed? Was it, as I presume, to Minas Tirith?"

There was another long pause, and finally Treebeard smiled slightly and replied, "Possibly. It would seem logical, but you never know with Wizards, do you? That is to say, you do, since you are one ... or were. I'm not really sure about that, but at any rate, I mean that in general the behavior of Wizards is sometimes mysterious ... to some people."

The Ent obviously was beginning to relish the conversation and would have gone on at some length on the subject of Wizards. Saruman could see that Treebeard was not going to give him any more information on Gandalf and his doings. Not for now anyway. "Gandalf said not to let you escape." That was merely stating the obvious, and he did not particularly wish to hear what more the Ent might have to say on the mysterious aspects of Wizards.

"True, I'm sure we are. Even to each other at times. Well, this has been quite a pleasant conversation. Far more so than I can have with Gríma, for as you can imagine, he is not the most intelligent or knowledgeable of companions. I hope that you and I can talk regularly, if you would be so kind as to visit me again. I would be grateful to hear any news from the world outside."

"That does not surprise me. I believe that you previously depended much upon bird messengers. They do not seem to visit you lately. Hoom, yes, I shall drop by again, bearing any news that you would need to know."

With a respectful nod of farewell, almost but not quite a bow, Saruman withdrew from the balcony and closed the doors. In many ways it had been a maddening exchange, but he thought that he had done rather well in starting to convince the old Ent of his contrition. And he might get some news out of Treebeard. Clearly, Gandalf or the Ent would decide what he "needed to know," but any news was better than none.

Six days later something happened. Something that shook the very air, enormous and yet elusive and ineffable. The world seemed suddenly changed, and yet Saruman could not fathom why or how. He spent two days in suspense and aching curiosity until Treebeard returned and told him that Gandalf's little Hobbit Ring-bearer had destroyed the Enemy's great weapon. Mordor was defeated, the Dark Lord was no more, and Aragorn was to be crowned King of Gondor. How the Ent had learned all this mystified Saruman, but he did not doubt any of what he was told. For once Treebeard had been brief, departing immediately, saying only that he would leave Saruman to ponder this news.

The treacherous Istar, however, was stunned to the point where he could hardly think. A great burden of fear was lifted from him, since he no longer had to wonder whether a Nazgûl might sweep down upon Orthanc and spirit him away. Yet that relief gave him all the more opportunity to reflect upon Gandalf's perfidy. The other Wizard had kept secret the elaborate plans that had led up to these momentous results. He had escaped the tower's roof and left Saruman to deal with the delegation from Mordor-as he reminded himself daily to fan the flames of his hatred for the new White Istar. Gandalf had tried to trick Saruman into leaving Orthanc, probably with the intention of having him killed. Now the other Istar had accomplished their great task, and in a way that Saruman could never have predicted. Perhaps he would return to Isengard to glory over his fallen colleague and then leave, allowing his ex-lover to rot in the tower forever.

That couldn't happen. It simply couldn't. It would drive Saruman mad. No, he would have to escape, as planned, and as soon as might be. Then his plans for revenge could be pursued wholeheartedly.

March 26 Ithilien

The morning of the day after the Enemy's defeat dawned late, as the sun struggled to pierce the fumes and clouds of airborne ash still lingering above the mountain range just to the east of the Last Alliance's camp. Gandalf rose early, however, hurrying to the bedsides of Frodo and Sam, where he found Aragorn tending to the unconscious Hobbits. He looked up as Gandalf entered through the cloth screen that had been erected around the two cots.

"No great change," the Man said in answer to Gandalf's unspoken question. "They have not woken up, but perhaps they have gained a little more color in their cheeks. They appeared so grey and lifeless when you brought them out of Mordor, but I think part of that was the dusting of ash on their skin. After a washing, they are looking healthier. Still, I do not believe that they will wake up any time soon."

Thus reassured, Gandalf went to have breakfast. Afterward he felt at something of a loss. There was little he could do to help in the army's continuing sweeps through the woods in their attempts to flush out fugitive soldiers from the Enemy's ranks. It was hardly a task that required an Istar's planning and advice. He wandered slowly among the tents, thinking to take a walk in the woods-to the west, for there surely were no skirmishes going on between the campgrounds and the Anduin.

At the edge of the camp he saw Legolas seated on the large roots of a tree, talking with Gimli. When the two spotted the Wizard moving toward them, they both stood and greeted him. Legolas exchanged a look with the Dwarf, and Gandalf realized that the pair now understood each other better than he could ever have hoped. When Gimli excused himself and left them alone, the Wizard began to suspect what Legolas was about to tell him. Indeed, he had sensed the growing bond between the two warriors in the back of his mind, even while he was forced to think of battle strategies and the treachery of Saruman and so many other things beyond the romantic life of one Elf and one Dwarf. He suppressed a wistful smile as Legolas took the Istar's arm and guided him into the woods, where they walked for a while before finding a clearing where they could talk privately.

The pair halted. Legolas embraced the Wizard, but there was nothing beyond friendship in his gesture. "All this time I have had no chance to exchange a word with you alone. You can imagine how overjoyed I was at your return in Fangorn. It had been such a period of despair and worry and disappointment for us three, and then suddenly everything seemed well again, and we were racing into action, full of hope!"

Gandalf pulled away, and they sat side by side on the grass. "Yes," the Wizard replied, "it was great good fortune that I was allowed to return, for now my long tasks have been accomplished. But you did not draw me away just to welcome me back and praise me. I think you have something very different to tell me."

He was amused to see the Elf actually blushing. Legolas shook his head and replied, "So, it is that obvious. Of the many strange results of the Quest, the least predictable one was that I would fall in love with a Dwarf, and yet it has happened. Before we set out from Minas Tirith to the battle that we thought would bring an end to us all, Gimli and I pledged that, if we should somehow both survive, we would devote ourselves to each other. I must say, I had been sad when you and I ended our long affair and became once again simply friends. Very dear friends," he added, briefly resting his hand on the Wizard's. "Yet that change left me open to the possibility of a new relationship that I have come to treasure above any other."

Gandalf smiled and nodded, moved and delighted to the point where he felt tears beginning to prick at his eyes. He said teasingly, "I once told you that Dwarves and Elves would have to fight side by side against our common enemy, but I think you have taken my advice a bit far."

Legolas gave Gandalf's arm a gentle punch. "Well, it's partly your fault, always telling us to be friends!"

Gandalf chuckled. "I am happy to take part of the blame." He sobered. "Though I fear that the two of you face considerable obstacles: the lingering mutual suspicion and even occasional hatred between your races."

Legolas stared up at the blue sky of spring to the south and west, now clear of the dark clouds belched forth by Mt. Doom, and nodded sadly.

Gandalf sat up straighter and crossed his arms atop his knees. "Still, the Shadow has been defeated through the concerted efforts of all free peoples, and perhaps that suspicion will die out. You and he may even help make that happen. As you well know, people can learn to be friends with those quite different from themselves."

Legolas fondly looked back at him and nodded again. "They certainly can. But much though I love Gimli, I shall always treasure what you and I were to each other for so long."

Gandalf rested one hand on Legolas' knee. "I, too, of course. Very long ago you were a great help to a discouraged and lonely 'young' Wizard. I really don't know how I could have done what I did without you and a few other precious friends like you." He paused and added happily, "Fortunately my situation is vastly different now. I suppose I am free to settle down, at least compared to my old traveling days. I shall not do that in Orthanc, though, despite Saruman's bizarre claim that I wanted to seize it for myself. No, Imladris seems the most appealing place. At last I can do what I too have longed to do-be with a single lover and give all my time to him." He paused again, and his face grew bleak. "It is a pity that never occurred to Saruman-that the best way to win me for his own would just have been to help me defeat our Enemy. I tried to urge him to a more active participation in our tasks, but he always managed to make excuses, and later on he hid from me his plots to gain greater power for himself. He wanted to change me, but he ended up being the one who changed."

Legolas listened sympathetically, and as the Istar fell silent, they leaned together and hugged each other closely. For a while they barely moved, and finally they drew apart.

Gandalf smiled. "Well, let us not cast a gloom over your wonderful news by thoughts of past treachery. Tell me, if you don't mind, how you and Gimli came to this unpredictable pass."

The Elf's eyes lit up. "Of course, I'd love to tell you. I think it began in Moria. You had just scolded us by the West Door about our enmity, and I was feeling more than a little ashamed of our rancorous exchange at such a crucial moment. Later, I saw Gimli's sorrow at the downfall of the Dwarves' colony and the death of Balin. Then immediately he had the added shock of your fall. Grieved though I was myself, I could see that he was even more bereft than the rest of us. I tried to console him as best I could, and in Lórien we walked long together. I realized then how little I had known about Dwarves all this time-and how misguided most of my views had been as a result. It was not then that we came to love each other, though. That happened, I think, at Helm's Deep, or perhaps shortly after that. His heroism during the battle and the encouragement we gave each other by means of our friendly contest kept my spirits up, and I believe that it did the same for him.

"I think during our travels thereafter, we each thought with wonder about how much we had been drawn together. But if we had not already loved each other then, we would have done so after our passage through the Paths of the Dead. The Dead did not frighten me, of course, but Gimli's resolution despite his terror added to my respect for him, and I think I helped him again to cope with the fear. There was no occasion for us to talk quietly together for a long time, but from the looks we exchanged during the journey up the River on the corsair ships, an open declaration of love was hardly necessary by the time that the battle was over-though of course we did tell each other later, when peace had finally descended over the City." He paused thoughtfully. "I had never dreamed that Dwarves could be capable of such tenderness as Gimli has shown with me. His courage and determination were obvious from the start, but I have seen so much more in him since the Fellowship set out."

Gandalf listened, deeply moved, to the Elf's account. "I wish you all possible joy with Gimli," he said softly. "I do not really have much of a gift of prophecy. What I predicted centuries ago about the Elves and Dwarves coming together was said more out of hope than certainty. I knew they would have no choice if they wanted to defeat Sauron-and indeed they began to face that reality in the Battle of Five Armies. Still, I shall risk another prediction: I sense that you will both be very happy. You two have overcome so many difficulties already, and you will know how to struggle to build your life together."

"Thank you, Mithrandir. Of course, it will be only a temporary happiness. I shall certainly stay with him all his life, for I could not leave Middle-earth for Eldamar while either he or Estel still lives."

"I understand and agree with you," the Wizard said. "The various Elves will choose their own times for crossing the Sea. Yet I suspect that you are already beginning to long for that journey. Galadriel's message that I gave to you in Fangorn was probably accurate."

Legolas nodded. "Yes, it was not long after I heard her words from you that the Sea-longing awoke strongly in me-ironically, at almost the same time that Gimli and I realized our love."

Gandalf chuckled sadly. "Yes, well, sometimes I think Elves are never truly happy unless they are longing for something."

Legolas smiled ruefully. "You may be right. We are too burdened with memory, perhaps. But with Gimli I feel young again, and for now I shall try to put aside longing. Love is more precious, and Eldamar will still be there many decades from now."

"True, my sweet Elf. My own desire to return to my home has been somewhat eased for me by love as well. A wonderful end to our many labors. It only lacks my being reunited with my dear Erestor. That cannot happen soon enough! Still, I have a suspicion that he and I will see each other in the not too distant future. In the meantime, I shall strive to contain my impatience and take joy in the aftermath of our victory."

June 6 Isengard

Saruman had not spoken to Treebeard for a week now. Indeed, he had not even spotted the old Ent in the distance. For the first couple of months after the attack on Isengard, the treeherd had been present much of the time, supervising the transformation of the great circle into a semblance of its former state. Saplings lined the paths, and smaller trees were clustered to create orchards. Gangly bushes had produced a few flowers, hinting at the splendors that would someday again fill the grounds. All that was left of the flood was the pool surrounding Orthanc. The Ents had dug ditches to create a stream that flowed from the River Isen into the pool from the north and out to the south. That had been a relief, for the standing water no longer stank.

Now that the main work was done, however, the Istar estimated that well over half of the Ents had departed for their home in Fangorn. Treebeard came and went, presumably tending to business elsewhere. During each visit to the Wizard's Vale, the Ent approached the tower for a conversation with Saruman. One day in May Treebeard had pointedly told the Wizard at great length about his and the other Ents' labors to replant the dreary areas of the forest where Saruman's Orcs had plundered the trees for fuel to maintain the furnaces, fireplaces, and stoves of Isengard.

The account had seemed interminable, yet Saruman pretended to listen sympathetically, and at intervals he spoke in a sorrowful tone about his regret over such actions. He mentioned his conversations with Treebeard in Fangorn centuries ago, strongly implying that he should have gone on behaving as he had then. He struggled to hint at his remorse at having turned away from the tasks that he and Gandalf had once shared. Secretly he raged at having to speak with such sentimentality and to humble himself to his enemy-yet there seemed no option. As he spoke, invariably Treebeard's uncanny eyes stared unwaveringly at him, as if seeking to judge, moment by moment, the extent of the Istar's sincerity.

At the end of such conversations, Saruman had typically retreated into his study, trembling with fatigue and a fear that the Ent had finally seen through his feigned repentance. He had poured himself a glass of wine and sat for an hour or so before he could recover his strength. Despite his worries, however, Treebeard always returned and resumed their conversations as if he had noticed nothing false in the Wizard's words and looks. Indeed, Saruman had come gradually to feel that he was making progress, that the Ent seemed more sympathetic to his gentle complaints about imprisonment in the tower. Yet if Treebeard ceased his visits to Isengard, there would be no opportunity for the Istar to press his advantage.

At mid-morning he went up to the "lookout" room, as he had come to call it. He moved from south to north, examining the ground through the three large windows, but there was no sign of Treebeard. Sighing, he descended again to sit and read in his study. At least the summer sun had warmed the room as the spring progressed, and it was quite comfortable to relax there without a fire. A few hours later, Gríma delivered his lunch. The Man had perforce learned to cook a little, though the limited nature of the supplies made for a repetitious diet. Saruman stood and acknowledged Gríma's presence with a brief nod as he moved to the table, and the Man retreated quickly, leaving him alone.

After lunch the Istar returned to his book. Morosely he read over descriptions of how one might build huge, powerful weapons. Some of them he had built himself centuries ago when the White Council led the attack upon Sauron in Dol Guldur. Once they proved victorious, it had been decided to leave the weapons on the border of the Golden Wood, in case the attack someday had to be repeated. They had never been brought back to Isengard. The blasting powder that had proven effective in breaching the wall at Helm's Deep would be useful against the Ents, but Saruman lacked the raw material needed to make it. Eventually he put the book aside. What point was there in reading about weapons and tactics if there was no way to implement them?

The Wizard became aware of a faint creaking and sighing noise in the distance. Rising, he stepped out onto the balcony and saw that Treebeard had returned. The Ents who had stayed at Isengard were clustered around him, listening intently as he told them something. The Ent's recounting of whatever it was took hours. "Don't be hasty," the Istar muttered angrily as he paced and waited impatiently for his turn to draw Treebeard's attention. Finally, hoping to calm down, he allowed himself to take a little pipeweed out of a jar on the desk and have a smoke.

Saruman had to be sparing with the weed if he wanted it to last until he might possibly leave the tower and get access to more. To his disgust, the little that had remained in the storerooms near the gate had apparently been carried off by Gandalf's group. He had searched everyplace in the tower where he had been accustomed to smoke. The jar that he had put in Gandalf's study had yielded a small treasure. It had been half full, and the weed was still dry after all the years since the other Istar had been there. Despite Saruman's careful hoarding, however, his supply was getting disturbingly low.

Finally, after savoring every puff, he put down the pipe. He started as he heard a loud "Hoom" from outside the window. Finally! he thought, walking quickly to step out on the balcony once more.

"Welcome back to Isengard, Treebeard," Saruman said in a tired, mild voice, made all the more plausible by the slight roughness in his throat caused by the weed. "I am glad to see you."

"Hm, are you? Yes, I suppose it is quite dreary in the tower with no one but your strange little friend to talk with."

Saruman shrugged slightly, as if to agree without seeming to complain. "Have you brought any news from the wider world?"

"Hoom, well, yes. The seedlings in the areas of the forest that your minions chopped down are growing apace." The Ent shook briefly with laughter. "But that is not what you meant to inquire about, is it?"

The Istar inclined his head meekly, hinting that he would listen to anything that Treebeard cared to tell him.

"No, you want to hear about the world beyond Fangorn. Hm, during the time I was away, I traveled far, to the eastern reaches of the woods. There I met with some old friends of yours-though perhaps friends no longer. The Lady Galadriel and her husband, with many of their fine folk, are riding to Edoras with the Lord Elrond and his daughter Arwen, accompanied by some of the Elves of Rivendell as her escort. They will go from there to Minas Tirith, and she is to marry the new King of Gondor in a few weeks. But that is not all. I will try not to be too long in the telling, but many battles have been fought to the north and east of here."

Saruman's mind was briefly distracted during this speech by the news that Elves from Rivendell were traveling to Minas Tirith. Erestor would almost certainly be among them, and he and Gandalf would be reunited there. What does it matter? he thought, but he found that it still did matter to him.

The Ent proceeded to describe the battles and the triumphs by the Men and Dwarves of Erebor, by the Elves of Mirkwood, and by those of Lothlórien. Even a summary took hours when told in the slow speech of Treebeard. Saruman had to struggle more than usual to conceal his true emotions, which were primarily anger at the successes of those he had betrayed and impatience at the length of the tale. He stood on the balcony with apparent calm until the sun was setting and Treebeard's account drew to an end.

Despite himself, Saruman asked, "And what of Gandalf? Do you know where he currently is?" To his annoyance, the Istar realized that a tiny longing to see his ex-lover had struggled its way up from the hidden places whence he had banished it. Nonsense, I feel nothing but hatred for him now! Saruman silently admonished himself. Better if he keeps away.

"Hoom, Gandalf? I believe that, like the King, he is in Minas Tirith awaiting the joyous day when the future Queen arrives there. Yes, Gandalf has triumphed, I am happy to say. His strategies have proved sound, his tasks have been accomplished, and now, I deem, he has little to do but take part in the general rejoicing."

And you have little to do but mock me in my failure, Saruman wanted to shout, but he simply lowered his head sorrowfully, to hide the clenching of his teeth as he struggled to contain himself. Finally he was able to reply, "Yes, and I admire him for it. He alone of us Istari proved true to our tasks. I can only wish that I had done so as well and that now we could enjoy that triumph together. I would give anything to change events and make that happen."

Treebeard looked up at him with a hint of wry humor and said, "You have but little to give, even were that possible. That, too, is your own doing."

Saruman nodded, but he saw that the opportunity had arisen to plant an idea in the Ent's mind, one that he would endeavor to slowly work upon until it might influence Treebeard's treatment of him.

"Yes, I have little indeed. The tower now holds few possessions of any use or value. My allies are gone. I have no power. Although you did not come with him to the door of Orthanc when Gandalf and the others visited me, surely you know that he broke my staff and cast me from the Order of Wizards."

Treebeard made a low rumbling noise that apparently was a confirmation that he did indeed know.

Saruman continued, "I wonder that Gandalf bothers to keep me here, shut up in a home that has become more like a cage to me. What, after all, could I possibly do even if given my freedom?" He spoke the question in a quiet, abstracted fashion, as if thinking out loud to himself.

Drawing himself up and seeming to notice Treebeard again, he said, "I thank you for taking the trouble to convey all this news to me. Confined as I am, each scrap of information from the wider world becomes especially precious."

"Hm, you are quite welcome. But it is not really any trouble to come here. I enjoy seeing what has become of this area." He turned and gestured toward the newly planted garden. "In fact, I shall take a walk around it. Good evening to you." With that the Ent took a few large steps and vanished around the tower to the west.

Saruman stood for a few minutes watching darkness slowly settling over the new gardens in front of the tower. Had he detected a somewhat sympathetic tone in Treebeard's last words to him? He did not recall the Ent having wished him a good evening before. The Istar stepped back into his study and closed the doors. He suspected that there was no need for him to repeat Treebeard's news to Gríma. The Man had no doubt been eavesdropping from one of the windows above. Saruman lit some candles and sat down to ponder Treebeard's news. Within a few minutes, he heard soft footsteps pass his door, moving downward. Yes, Gríma had been listening, and now he was going to the kitchen to prepare dinner.

June 30 Minas Tirith

In the great hall of the palace of the King at Minas Tirith, a welcoming dinner was in progress. It was later in the evening than dinner was usually scheduled, but the escort of the Lady Arwen had not arrived until the sun was setting on a glorious summer evening. The passage of the large group of Elves through the city to the highest level took some time, and by now it lacked little more than an hour of midnight.

The meal was a relatively subdued affair. The newly arrived guests were tired from their travel, and the real celebration would take place the following night, following the wedding of Aragorn and his Queen. After greeting many of his friends, Gandalf had sat beside Erestor near the head of the main table. The two had barely had time to greet each other and embrace briefly at the city gate before moving toward the palace with the group. Now they talked softly, occasionally brushing their knees together or clasping hands under the table. They tried to be polite and pay attention to the other people seated around them, but that became increasingly difficult as the end of the meal approached.

At last the pair were able to excuse themselves as the guests slowly began to leave the table. Once outside the door, Gandalf drew the Elf onto a little side path in the dark garden and in the shade of a tree hugged him tightly. Erestor returned the embrace, and they clung to each other, barely moving and trying to ignore the mutual arousal that was becoming very apparent to them both. They wanted simply to savor their reunion for a short time.

Eventually they stepped from under the tree and back onto the main path that led to the guest wing of the palace. Holding hands, they strolled toward the entrance. As they walked, the Istar smiled teasingly at Erestor.

"So, have you remained faithful to your aged lover, or did you begin to regret your choice as the days apart dragged on?"

Erestor glanced at him gravely and shook his head. "You know I could never again look in that way at anyone but you."

Gandalf sighed happily. "Good! Nor I, of course. I hope you noticed that the only other lover whom I could have reasonably turned back to is now spoken for."

"I presume you mean Legolas. Yes, I gather that he and Gimli are in love. I can't say that I entirely understand such a match, but I am happy for him. And for me! I no longer have to feel guilty for having snatched you away from him."

"Yes, naturally I meant Legolas. If you heard rumors that I have been paying calls on Saruman at Orthanc, well, I must tell you that sad tale at some point. Suffice it for now to say that the exchange was anything but loving. He seemed in an even worse state than when he locked me up on his roof. No, you definitely still have me to yourself, and always will have."

By now they had reached a door halfway down the dimly lit hallway. As Erestor opened it and they entered, Gandalf noted with relief that it was not one of the rooms that he had ever shared with Saruman. Though if it had been, he thought, the way the Elf's dark hair shone in the candlelight and the grace and allure of his every movement would probably have banished any such memories.

Gandalf closed the door and turned back to face Erestor, but he found himself gently but firmly pinned against the wall. The Elf's open mouth fastened over his, and immediately their tongues began to slide and circle, each demanding entry and thwarting the other. The Wizard's arms encircled Erestor's neck and drew him closer, and the Elf's hands cupped his buttocks, pulling their hips together. Urgently they pressed their swelling erections together.

Gandalf uttered a brief whimper of need and fumbled at Erestor's clothing, managing to undo two buttons of his shirt and slide one hand inside to tickle a puckered nipple. His other hand cupped the Elf's engorged member briefly before pulling the laces covering it loose.

Erestor's body twisted abruptly in arousal, and he struggled to undo the Wizard's trouser-laces. The knot resisted his deft fingers, however, and he moaned in frustration. "These new clothes of yours are maddening!" he gasped. "Are they designed to keep the White Istar chaste?"

Gandalf tried to thrust against the Elf's hands. "Maddening indeed," he replied, his voice hoarse with arousal. "They were made in Lórien and thus are obviously very durable. I doubt that they were intended to frustrate you, though, my sweet Erestor."

The Istar reluctantly withdrew his hands from Erestor's body and determinedly plucked at the laces of his own trousers, finally undoing the knot. At once the Elf jerked the gathered cloth down and grasped Gandalf's rigid purple cock, stroking its silky skin and rubbing the balls with his fingertips.

In response, the Wizard grasped the waist of Erestor's trousers and yanked them down below the Elf's hips. He fingered the erection, which was pressed up against Erestor's lower belly, and nuzzled inside the half-open shirt to tongue his lover's nipples hungrily. Awkwardly the pair sidled toward the bed, clutching and sucking at each other until the backs of Erestor's legs encountered the mattress.

With a moan Gandalf pushed his lover backward onto the bed and climbed hastily up beside him, grabbing his bobbing shaft and lowering his open mouth to take in its tip. The Wizard's eyes slid shut in bliss as he drew half the cock inside his lips and slithered his tongue along the ridge on its underside. He felt Erestor's hands pulling and nudging him, and he shifted his body until his erection was near the Elf's mouth. Warm, moist lips engulfed him, and his hips twitched on the mattress as Erestor began to suck firmly on his length.

As they settled into a steady rhythm of moving up and down on each other's members, their gazes gradually met and focused. Gandalf slowed slightly as he savored the love he saw in Erestor's gaze, and he could tell that the Elf saw the same in his own. Despite their long parting and desperate need, they prolonged their mutual pleasure, withdrawing their mouths to lick and kiss the throbbing flesh for minutes before returning to sucking deeply.

Finally Gandalf gave an eager growl and took Erestor deep into his throat, bobbing swiftly up and down his shaft and fingering his balls. The Elf let Gandalf's erection slip from his mouth and pumped it slowly as his head lolled back and he trembled, emitting a series of moans as he reached his climax and sent hot spurts into his lover's mouth. As he relaxed and settled down into the pillow, he managed to slide his tongue along the Istar's member.

After recovering a little, Erestor raised his head and impaled himself on the thick column, tightening his lips and drawing it in until he felt it erupt into him, the hot cream filling his mouth and coating the shaft as he continued to suck on it. As Gandalf's orgasm faded, the Elf swallowed and savored the taste that he had missed for so long.

The Istar's member slipped from Erestor's lips, and he stretched and grinned, twisting to bring his body up alongside his lover's. They softly kissed and touched each other, gradually pushing off their loosened clothes until they were naked and pressed together.

Gandalf whispered, "That's much, much better. I wish we could make love again soon, but I must admit, I think I'm too tired to do so. It's late, and tomorrow will be very busy."

Erestor stroked his lover's hair. "True. Holding you in my arms will be joy enough, now that we have satisfied our most intense desire. After all, we shall have a great deal of time to share in the future."

The Wizard gazed at him with a drowsy smile and nodded. Within minutes he was asleep, and Erestor carefully leaned over to blow out the candle by the bed.

Well after the sun rose the next morning, Erestor withdrew from his dreaming and turned to look at Gandalf. The Wizard was still fast asleep, on his side. The Elf studied his face with quiet delight. He could detect a change there. Before the destruction of the Ring, Gandalf had often slept lightly. When camping during his travels, he had to be ever alert. His many worries and tasks caused sleeplessness at times, even in the safety of Rivendell. Now his expression was serene and his sleep profound.

It was nearly half an hour before he stirred, but Erestor was content to enjoy their peaceful reunion. At first Gandalf simply nuzzled more deeply into the pillow, and the Elf assumed he would sleep on. Soon, though, Gandalf stretched and opened his eyes. A smile spread over his face at seeing his lover so close beside him.

"Perfect," he murmured. "I should like to lie here much longer with you, but soon we must arise and prepare ourselves for the wedding."

"'Soon,' yes, but not immediately, I hope."

"No, not immediately." Gandalf rolled onto his back, holding the Elf's hand and looking around the room. "Do you wish to remain here during your time in Minas Tirith, or would you like to move into the house I mentioned? The one I share with some of the Fellowship members."

Erestor thought for a moment. "I know little about the house as yet. Which would you prefer?"

"Frankly, I think it would be more pleasant in the house. My bedroom there is not as large as this one, but it would comfortably accommodate us both. It is very convenient to take meals there, and I must say, the whole situation bears a certain informality that I enjoy. Besides," he added with a smile, "right now there are four Hobbits and only three of the rest of us 'non-Hobbits.' With you there, we would no longer be outnumbered."

Erestor glanced at him in amused surprise. "Why, are the Hobbits so imperious that they rule the household?"

"No, I am just joking, of course-though perhaps the younger ones would be a trifle less boisterous if someone from outside the Fellowship were living there," he replied thoughtfully. "And I must say, it would be very pleasant to have a room to share that didn't really belong to either of us. We would have a place to call 'our' room for the first time."

The Elf's face held its usual gravity as he countered, "I seem to recall that we referred to 'our' room when we were staying at Lothlórien."

Gandalf sighed. "Here I am, trying to be romantic, and you must be so literal. Let us say that we could more rightly call it 'our' room in this case. At any rate, of course you need not decide until you have visited me there. Besides, I would have to make sure that the other members of the household do not object to having another join us."

"Surely they would not go against your wishes."

"I doubt it very much, but still, I would not like simply to declare those wishes without asking first."

"Fine, we will postpone the decision. In the meantime, I fear we cannot delay our rising any further. You are to conduct the marriage ceremony, are you not? It would not do to be late!"

The royal wedding took place that afternoon, and a more lavish and formal banquet followed. The bride and groom departed at an early hour, and Gandalf looked after them happily, knowing how long and devotedly both of them had waited for this day. He turned and found Erestor watching him with the ghost of a smile on his face.

"Would you care to visit me this evening?" the Wizard asked softly. His lover nodded, and they retired for a single quiet bout of lovemaking before falling sleep in each other's arms in the room that Gandalf hoped they could soon calls theirs.

Eartly the next day Erestor enjoyed breakfast with the entire group living in the house. They all talked long over the meal, and then the Elf departed, as if he were but a casual guest there. Gandalf found himself gazing after Erestor with a distinctly infatuated expression and collected his thoughts. After a moment's reflection, he went to pay a call on Elrond, with whom he spent the morning discussing their plans for the eventual return to Rivendell.

The Istar went back to the house for lunch, which was a lively affair. As usual, Legolas and Gimli could not refrain from conversing in low tones between themselves. The Hobbits were cheerful and talkative, delighted that the quiet months that they had spent in the White City after the destruction of the Ring had now been interrupted by such excitement and celebration.

As the meal drew to an end, Gandalf cleared his throat loudly. When the babble had died down and the others had turned inquiringly to him, he said, "About a month ago, Frodo, you asked me when we would be leaving Minas Tirith, for you wished to see Bilbo again and return to your home. At the time, I would not tell you what we awaited, though it was not because I had become more 'close' than before. Now that you know what the great event was--and I trust you thought it worth the wait-I can tell you that we will probably be departing in a month, with a stop in Edoras for the funeral of Théoden King."

He paused and waited again for the murmured responses among the Hobbits to die down. "My thought is that during that month, Erestor would move into this house and stay with us. Would that be agreeable to all of you?"

Legolas and Gimli smiled and nodded, but Pippin stared at the Istar, seemingly puzzled. Gandalf suppressed a sigh. Was the young Hobbit really unaware of his relationship with Erestor, or was the presumptuous little fellow trying to tease him?

Pippin looked innocently around the group. "Erestor? Why would he want to move in here? We don't have an extra bedroom, and he must have a nice one in the palace."

Merry gave him an exasperated look and, Gandalf suspected, a kick under the table. Pippin shrugged. "What's wrong?"

Frodo was trying to suppress a grin, watching Pippin as if also wondering whether his cousin was as naive as he seemed. Sam glanced among the Hobbits, clearly baffled.

Gandalf explained dryly, "That shouldn't present a problem, Pippin. Erestor would be sharing my room."

Pippin's eyes opened wide as he stared at Gandalf in surprise. He turned to Merry and whispered, "That beautiful Elf sharing Gandalf's room! Are they ...?" He shut his mouth with a snap, seeming thoroughly embarrassed.

Gandalf noted that Frodo was losing his struggle to suppress a giggle. The Istar let out an exasperated sigh. "Yes, Pippin, as I suspect you are well aware, Erestor and I are, shall we say, very fond of each other. I may be an old Man, but I think you have as good reason as any to know that I am hardly decrepit!"

Pippin strove not to laugh, but finally he lost control and chortled gleefully. "I certainly do!" He turned to the other Hobbits. "I told you how Gandalf lifted Faramir off the bier where his father was planning to burn him. Just picked him up and jumped down and carried him away! I suspect that he's not such a bad match for even someone so beautiful as Erestor."

He looked fondly at Gandalf, who reluctantly returned the look. After the episode with the palantir, he and the young Hobbit had become surprisingly close during the ride to Minas Tirith and the nights spent sharing a room before the great battle. Pippin blushed slightly and surveyed the others at the table. "It's all right with me if Erestor moves into the house. How about the rest of you?"

All chimed in that it was agreeable to them. Gandalf relaxed, reflecting that the discussion had gone much as he had expected. He even found that he rather enjoyed being teased about having such a beautiful lover. As the group rose and began to leave the room, Legolas gave the Istar a very knowing wink. Gandalf grinned and went to fetch Erestor and help him move in.

July 12 Minas Tirith

"You have been very pensive lately," Erestor said with a smile. He and Gandalf were seated under a tree in one of the palace's formal gardens, protected from the late-morning summer sun. Conversation had lagged several minutes earlier.

The Istar stirred and looked at him. "True, and while I pondered a rather important matter, I did not feel that I could share it, even with you. But now I have made a decision. A couple of days ago Arwen came to me with a surprising proposal. I'm sure that you, like most of us, have seen that Frodo's recovery from all his hurts and privations and terrifying experiences has slowed. It looks unlikely that either his mind or his body will ever be fully whole and free from the effects of the Quest. Arwen suggested that he might join the Three Bearers and other High Elves like yourself when we set sail. In Eldamar he might find healing of a sort that no longer exists here in Middle-earth. After much thought, I believe that this boon would be what the Valar wish. I have told Arwen that she may inform Frodo of what is to come, for it may help him bear his trials more hopefully."

Erestor sat silent for a moment before saying, "True, I cannot imagine that the Valar would grudge him aid of that sort. And I know that you have long felt distress at having to send him into such danger and hardship. Arwen's plan will ease your mind as well, I deem."

"True enough. Moreover, as I considered Frodo's destiny, it occurred to me that I should extend the same boon to Bilbo. He, after all, held the Ring even longer, though he did not suffer such hardships or have to try and destroy it. Besides, I doubt that Frodo would be happy without the companionship of another Hobbit. To be sure, they will both die eventually, and Bilbo first, most likely. At least by then, though, Frodo will be more accustomed to his new home."

"I'm sure the Elves will welcome and honor them both."

Gandalf's gaze had become somewhat abstracted again. "Yes ... and that leads me to think of other members of the Fellowship. I should like to have a talk with Legolas. Do you happen to know where he is?"

"Well, I saw Gimli going off this morning to examine one of the buildings he hopes to restore and perhaps to make some sketches and notes. Legolas was not with him, so he may be sitting on the city wall, staring toward the Sea, as he so often does. I must say, I can sympathize with him. The Sea urge is growing in me and in many of the Elves of Elrond's household. Most of us have not seen the Sea in hundreds of years, but Legolas has, and no doubt that has heightened his feelings."

"No doubt. In a sense, that is what I wish to discuss with him." The Wizard stood, bending to kiss Erestor's lips lingeringly before rising again. "I shall see you later this afternoon, my sweet Elf-in our bed, I hope!"

"Why not?" Erestor replied delightedly. "These days there are no duties pulling us apart."

Slowly the Wizard left the palace area, enjoying as he went the brightly colored flowers that surrounded him. At once he spotted Legolas in the distance, seated on the wall, his golden hair gleaming. Gandalf approached the wall and mounted the stone stairway leading to its top. Legolas greeted him with a smile, and the Istar sat beside him. For a moment they both looked silently to the south, where beyond the horizon the Anduin split into a broad delta and entered the Sea.

At last Gandalf glanced at his companion with a smile. "How could we have imagined even a mere year ago that now we would be sharing a house and yet not sleeping with each other?"

Legolas laughed. "Yes, a year ago we were still trying to track Gollum down and recapture him. If I had known how things would turn out, I would not have felt nearly so distressed about his escape. Thanks to him, the Quest succeeded! And I certainly had no notion that you and I would never share a bed again. Much though I enjoyed our many times together, I cannot say that I regret that situation-and I doubt that you do."

Gandalf shook his head and examined Legolas' face more closely. "You are looking very smug and content."

Legolas' smile broadened, and he shrugged. "Well, so are you."

Gandalf grinned. "Yes, and why not? I am lucky enough to have for my own one of the two most beautiful Elves in Middle-earth. And Gimli is lucky enough to have the other," he added gallantly.

"Thank you," Legolas replied softly. "And I have the handsomest Dwarf, and Erestor has the handsomest Istar."

It was said lightly, but Gandalf glanced at him with a thoughtful expression. "There was a time when I would have protested that Saruman was far handsomer than I. Now, though, the spite and anger and malice that show in his face have robbed it of its beauty. Perhaps he is more serene when I am not present, but I strongly doubt it. I suppose I am at least as good-looking as Radagast, but as to Alatar and Pallando, I have no way of comparing. I don't suppose I ever shall."

Legolas sighed. "Perhaps they are dead."

"Perhaps. Given what Saruman told me about them, it would probably be for the best." After a short pause, Gandalf resumed more cheerfully, "I once teased you about having an attraction to Istari with big beards. I guess that attraction extends to Dwarves as well!"

"Just a coincidence, I think. Though undoubtedly after your beautiful white beard and his lovely auburn one, I know better than most Elves how to appreciate the finer points of abundant facial hair."

They both laughed and sat staring southward for a few minutes.

Finally Gandalf spoke again. "I know why you sit here, my dear Elf. You are torn between your new love and your yearning to return to the ancient homeland of your kind. And you are all too well aware that although Gimli will have you for all his life, you will someday lose him."

Legolas swallowed hard and nodded.

Gandalf went on. "I cannot change Gimli's mortality, but I think I can at least give you hope that your time with him will not be ever shadowed by your desire to take ship for Eldamar." Then he told the Elf briefly about Arwen's plan for Frodo's healing and about his decision to allow the Hobbit to depart over the Sea with the Bearers.

"In thinking about all this, I realized that as members of the Fellowship, your actions and Gimli's have warranted a great reward. Say nothing to any of the others, not even Gimli yet, but ... if he still lives at the end of Estel's reign, then ... if he can be persuaded to leave Middle-earth, I believe he could journey to the ancient home of the Eldar with you and live out the rest of his years there."

Legolas stared at him in astonishment great enough even to delay the dawning of joy. "Take a Dwarf to live in Elvenhome! That would be something new in the history of Arda."

"True, but the world enters a new age, and the friendship of Dwarves and those Elves who remain here will be only one sign of it. And I think Aulë might like to see firsthand what his rash invention of long ago has come to. Perhaps if Ilúvatar objects," he added with a gentle smile, "he can make another plea to him, this time on the behalf of just one of his creations."

Legolas thought briefly and objected, "But from what I have learned of Dwarves, it would be difficult indeed to persuade one to leave Middle-earth, whatever the reason-even for love."

Gandalf nodded and pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Well, if he objects, assure Gimli that the Uttermost West contains stone and jewels finer than any he has ever seen in his life-and many who appreciate skill in crafts."

He saw tears of joy in Legolas' eyes and looked discreetly out to the south. The two sat for some time, gazing toward the Sea.

August 15 Isengard

When Saruman woke up, he immediately remembered that it was his last day in Orthanc. His patient talks with Treebeard had finally had their effect. Apparently convinced that the Wizard was now powerless, the Ent had granted his request to be set free. The only conditions were that Saruman turn over the keys to the tower as he left and that he and Gríma take no baggage but whatever food they could carry. Treebeard was presumably worried that Saruman might smuggle out some secret weapon or magical device.

If only I had such a thing! Saruman thought. He turned over onto his back and lay still for a short while. It was the hottest time of summer, and once the necessity of keeping the fireplaces fed had ended, he had returned to his bedroom. Much though he longed to leave Isengard, he had regrets as well. He would never sleep in his bed again-the sturdy wooden bed that had been brought with such effort from Minas Tirith. He recalled the happiness he and Gandalf had shared in that bed, long ago.

The misery that such memories engendered drove him to rise, and he washed and dressed quickly. By now his and Gríma's clothes were worn and stained. They had done so much heavy work, carrying firewood up from the depths, hauling water to allow them to bathe, and performing all the other chores necessary to keeping their bleak existence in the tower possible.

When the Istar entered his study, his breakfast was already laid on the table, and Gríma was standing by the open window, staring moodily out. He turned as his master appeared and was about to leave the room when Saruman bade him stay. The Wizard ate a few bites of the simple fare before turning his eyes toward the waiting Man.

"Gríma, we are leaving Orthanc today. You must gather what food we could eat on the way without more than a campfire to prepare it. Take nothing else with you-not that I imagine you have anything to take," he added with a sardonic smirk. "Nor have I, for that matter. We will leave as soon as may be. Within the hour, I hope."

Gríma stared at him, surprised and apprehensive. Much though he hated being confined in the tower with his bitter, imperious master, the prospect of being homeless suddenly seemed even worse.

"But ... but where would we go? How would we live? At least here we have a roof over our heads. I don't want to just set out wandering in the countryside," he asked tremulously, emboldened to speak by his fear of the unknown.

To his surprise, Saruman smiled. "I may seem to be completely bereft of power," he said with a trace of condescending amusement, "but secretly I have been preparing a place where I will be welcome and respected as a leader. At first," he went on, now more to himself than to the Man, "I thought of the ... changes I was making there as mere revenge upon a troublesome little race of people. I had not planned to go there myself. But circumstances have changed, to say the least, and it seems like a convenient place to seize for my own. You will like it there, Worm," he said, turning to the Man again. "There is lots of food, and the Hobbits are so small that even you will tower over them. Once more you will be able to command others." He chuckled contemptuously.

Gríma tried to ignore the insulting Rohirrim nickname that Saruman had taken up. He was bewildered. "You mean, Hobbits like the two who came here that day? Where are they from? What have you prepared?"

Saruman lifted his knife and fork to resume his meal. "Yes, like those two. They are from a place called the Shire, but you are not to mention that name to anyone, do you hear? We shall travel west through the Gap of Rohan, and then a great distance to the northwest. Don't worry, I know the way. I have been there, more than once.

"It has been nearly a year since my agents there began a quiet takeover of power. Indeed, I set the plan in motion shortly after Gandalf escaped last September. The Men and Hobbits who have long been in my employ have their orders and have been paid lavishly to carry them out. The messages I received before the Ents attacked Isengard suggested that all was going well. By now the Shire will be very different from the quiet, rural place that the Ring-bearer left. Yes, that is where we will go." By this point the Istar was breathing more heavily, staring as if seeing visions of the things he described. The familiar mad glint had returned to his eyes.

The Man wished he could creep away and hide for a while in one of the rooms above, as he often did when his master fell into this mood. If they were leaving, though, he dared not. Instead he asked in as calm a voice as he could muster, "Why? Why there?"

Saruman clenched his teeth and responded intensely, still not looking at the Man. "Why? To show Gandalf that he didn't get everything his way. Hiding his plans from me. Hiding the Ring in that wretched little land of stupid, fat peasants for so long without telling me! The place he loved to go instead of staying with me here." By this point he was muttering to himself.

The Istar had never told Gríma about his long intimacy with the Grey Wizard. But a few things that his master had said and some clues around the tower-especially the room that Saruman referred to only as "the other study"-had led the Man to suspect something of the sort.

Gríma sighed softly and gazed at his master as if he wanted to ask more questions but dared not risk provoking the Istar's ire. He wondered if Saruman could really conquer the Shire or was now delusional. He started slightly as his master suddenly raised his head again and stared him in the eye. "Do not think that once we are away from Orthanc you can somehow contrive to leave me, Worm. Don't dare to think about it! I would track you down and catch you and ... well, let us simply say that I definitely want to keep an eye on you, Worm. I cannot have you wandering around on your own. Who knows what mischief you might get up to?"

The Man clenched his teeth, finally certain that Saruman knew at whom he had really been aiming when he dropped the palantir. Well, if the Istar hadn't taken revenge at the time, he wasn't likely to do so now. "I would never dream of leaving you, master," he said in a voice that was little more than a whisper.

"Besides, I shall need your help. Get things ready. Don't forget some flasks of water," Saruman added, suddenly seeming calm and dignified. As if he had not just threatened his servant's life, he resumed his meal. Gríma retreated quickly

In less than an hour the Man stuck his head in at the study door and announced that the simple preparations had been made.

"Await me in the main hallway," Saruman replied. He paused until Gríma was gone again before crossing to the bookshelf where he kept the keys of his study and of the front entrance. Such secretiveness was only a product of habit, since there was no longer any necessity to hide things like those from the Man. He pulled down a large book and slid the keys out from behind it.

As he turned, he surveyed the study. It was the thing that he would miss the most. He had lived here for so long. The books and equipment that he had taken such pains to gather had been central to his ambitions. Now, however, he lacked the power to use the spells they contained, to make the experiments that he once dreamed would bring him power and love. As the familiar waves of regret made his throat begin to tighten, he roused himself and walked through the door and down the stairs. There was no point in dwelling on what could never be. He turned his mind back to his new goal. Hobbits had done all this to him. Those two who had accompanied the Ents and the Bearer who had destroyed the Ring. Gandalf had put more trust in them than he had in his own lover, his colleague and leader.

Anger energized him, and he hurried down the last steps to join Gríma by the door. As he fitted the key into the lock, he said quietly to the Man, "Try and behave as if you are weaker than you actually are. I shall do the same. Treebeard is letting us go only because after considerable effort I have convinced him that I am completely harmless. Do nothing to take away that impression!"

After he opened the door, both stepped tentatively outside and squinted in the bright sunlight. Saruman saw that Treebeard was standing patiently near the foot of the steps, making a low, rumbling noise. The Istar decided that the Ent must be humming to himself. Followed by Gríma, Saruman walked slowly and wearily down the stairs. He had fashioned a simple wooden staff to replace his broken one, and now he leaned heavily upon it. It felt strange to be outside after months of confinement, but he concentrated on playing the part of a beaten, weakened Man.

Stopping before the Ent, Saruman held up the two large, black keys, fastened on a ring. Treebeard reached down and accepted them, saying, "You are free now, Saruman, though not to come back here. You have surrendered Orthanc for good. I imagine that Gandalf will return eventually, and I shall turn these over to him-or perhaps to the new King, if Gandalf deems that fit. Hm, yes, I was forgetting. I would not advise you to visit Fangorn again. You may no longer be able to do any harm, but the Huorns and Ents who dwell there will not have forgotten you!"

Saruman shook his head as if in sorrowful regret. "No, surely they have not. But I have no intention of going in that direction." After a pause, the Istar drew himself up. "I thank you for my freedom, Treebeard. It is a great gift, and we are both intensely grateful. You will not regret it, I assure you."

Treebeard did not reply but continued to stare so closely at Saruman that the Istar decided to leave before the Ent might begin having second thoughts.

"Farewell, and may Isengard flourish forever as a testament to your labors," Saruman said, and he strode toward the valley to the south, gesturing curtly to Gríma to follow him. Soon they were outside the area that had formerly been enclosed by the thick wall. The Istar tried to refrain from looking back, but he could not resist and stopped to turn and gaze one last time at the tower. Its shiny black stone glistened in the sunlight, and with the gardens once more around it and the setting of the Misty Mountains behind it, it looked very much as it had when first he beheld it. He struggled to resist the memories that crowded upon him at the sight.

Suddenly he wondered if Gandalf and some of the Elves and Hobbits and others might even now be on the way to the Wizard's Vale. The thought of meeting them riding north along the Isen as he trudged south was unbearable. Once he and Gríma were out of the valley and headed west, there would be far less chance of such an encounter. Shouldering their bags of food, he and his servant set out on the long journey to the Shire.