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 on the "Many Partings" and "The Scouring of the Shire" chapters, plus the chronology in Appendix B, as well as Karen Wynn Fonstad's The Atlas of Middle-earth.

Many thanks to Sarah for her splendid beta work and excellent suggestions!

Chapter Sixteen

August 24, Dunland

After a week of traveling on foot toward the Shire, Saruman was beginning to wonder whether he should have left Orthanc. Yet to stay in the tower would have meant either perpetual imprisonment or some other fate decreed by Gandalf. At least this way he had some hope of power and a comfortable life, if only for a while. He didn't expect that the other Wizard would let him rule the Hobbits forever, but he was determined that Gandalf should see his beloved little creatures cowed and helpless, enduring the destruction of their bucolic land.

Yes, it would all be worth the misery of travel, he had to keep reminding himself. Camping was worse when one had no equipment and little to cook even if he managed to start a fire. It was also cold at night, even in the height of summer. Then there was Gríma to worry about. The fellow grew increasingly sullen as their journey went on. He frequently muttered under his breath and occasionally whined a complaint, half addressing his master and half talking to himself.

In the daytime Saruman could keep an eye on Gríma, but he had to sleep in the open near the fellow. He doubted that the Man would make another attempt on his life. Gríma had no weapon, and if he tried to strangle his master, Saruman would wake up immediately and be able to fight off the smaller, weaker Man. And despite their mutual hatred, they still needed each other. As Saruman remarked at one point to Gríma in an ironic tone, "You have never been in these parts, have you, Worm? Without me to kindly guide you, you would surely get lost." The Man had shot him a surly but clearly frightened look. He knew Saruman was right.

Their stock of food had run out after a few days. Saruman and his companion were forced to beg at some of the houses that they passed. These lay in isolated farms and villages, places from which the Istar had recruited some of the army that marched upon Helm's Deep. Many of those Men had never returned, and the Dunlanders would not hold friendly feelings toward the one who had launched that fateful battle. The Wizard did not reveal his identity but simply said that the pair were refugees from the wars to the south and east. He told some news of events in those remote regions, information he had gained from Treebeard. On a couple of occasions his tales were enough to earn him and his servant a bed or a place to sleep in a barn.

Now, at last, the two came to the rolling plains west of Methedras, the southernmost peak of the Misty Mountains. It had been visible from the top of Orthanc, almost due north, looming with its snowy top above the foothills between it and Isengard. Saruman paused and looked up at it, but soon he turned to survey the areas to the north and west. There was little enough to see in the nearly featureless landscape, but the Istar was thinking.

He was in doubt. Up to this point there had been no real choice about their route. He and Gríma had simply hiked south and around the long ridge of foothills that formed the western side of the Wizard's Vale. Now they had the option of continuing to the north or striking west to the Old South Road, which eventually, after several days' travel crossed the Greyflood at Tharbad and became the Greenway, leading to Bree. The South Road was the shortest way, and yet it might have disadvantages.

Saruman had grown more and more worried about the possibility of being overtaken by Gandalf and the others, returning from their triumph to their homes. He had calculated and recalculated how long it would take the group, depending on which route they were using. Where would Gandalf go? And would the Hobbits take the South Road to the Shire? It seemed the most logical possibility. If the Elves were with the group, they would split off and continue north toward Rivendell. If so, Gandalf might go with either group-but he was more likely to accompany his precious Elf. Saurman shook his head briefly, as if to clear it of the jealous rage that threatened to surface and drive all rational thought away. Striving to concentrate, he weighed the advantages of each route.

If he took the South Road and was overtaken, it would be quite clear where he was going. The Hobbits-and Gandalf if he was with them-would probably try to prevent his going to the Shire. On the other hand, if he continued northward and was overtaken, it would appear that he was simply fleeing his old home. Further north he could strike off across country for the Shire. Eventually he concluded that it was worth a little extra time and trouble if he could conceal his ultimate destination. He and Gríma continued north.

August 28, Dunland

Saruman and Gríma had spent the better part of the day passing through a forest that began up in the foothills of the mountains and stretched out into the plains to the west. There was no path through it, and it had taken a long time to thread their way among the trees. Emerging on the northern side of the woods, the pair saw that the sun was sinking toward the horizon.

"We shall have to look for a sheltered spot for the night," the Wizard said wearily. They had not seen a farm since the day before, and their stock of food had dwindled to a half loaf of dry bread. As they walked, Saruman thought he caught the sound of horse's hooves behind them. His heart beat faster as he looked back and saw a group riding toward them. Gandalf on a huge silver horse, along with several Elves. Galadriel he recognized immediately, and Elrond. No doubt Erestor was somewhere in the group. And Hobbits on ponies as well.

So he had guessed wrongly. The Hobbits had not gone directly home. For some reason they seemed to be headed for Rivendell as well. If Saruman had known that, he and Gríma might have taken the Old South Road instead and avoided meeting any of those who now would gloat over him. He had to confront them all, much though he loathed the thought.

Saruman kept walking. Gríma was speaking in a low but shrill voice, blaming him for having brought them by a path that would allow them to be found by the others. "Hush!" Saruman snapped. "Keep quiet and let me deal with them."

At last the group drew even with the two. Gandalf's horse slowed to match Saruman's gait. "Well Saruman!" said Gandalf. "Where are you going?"

The fallen Istar halted and surveyed the group with a scowl. Yes, there was Erestor, as beautiful as ever. Even more so, perhaps. There was a different look in his eyes, a joy that even his grave countenance could not conceal. Saruman suddenly realized that he had gained Gandalf all to himself. The Elf gazed at him with sad pity, and this increased the Istar's fury.

Saruman turned back to Gandalf and replied, "What is that to you? Will you still order my goings, and are you not content with my ruin?"

Gandalf sighed and glanced at the ground before raising his head to say softly, "You know the answers: no and no. But in any case the time of my labours now draws to an end. The King has taken on the burden. If you had waited at Orthanc, you would have seen him, and he would have shown you wisdom and mercy."

Saruman's entire body was rigid with anger. If only he had continued to share those labours, everything might be very different now. He gritted his teeth, for he was determined not to let any of his bitter regret tinge his voice. He summoned as much venom as he could put into his tone and replied, "Then all the more reason to have left sooner, for I desire neither of him. Indeed if you wish for an answer to your first question, I am seeking a way out of his realm."

Gandalf shook his head slightly, also with a pity that Saruman saw reflected in all their eyes-pity and a horror of what he had become, a ragged beggar followed by an even more ragged servant. Gandalf resumed, "Then once more you are going the wrong way, and I see no hope in your journey. But will you scorn our help? For we offer it to you."

Saruman glanced briefly at Erestor before snorting contemptuously. And Galadriel, sitting there with a sad face, even though she was one of those who had thwarted him many years ago and driven him to seek power in other ways. "To me? Nay, pray do not smile at me! I prefer your frowns. And as for the Lady here, I do not trust her: she always hated me, and schemed for your part. I do not doubt that she has brought you this way to have the pleasure of gloating over my poverty. Had I been warned of your pursuit, I would have denied you the pleasure."

"Saruman," said Galadriel, "we have other errands and other cares that seem to us more urgent than hunting for you. Say rather that you are overtaken by good fortune; for now you have a last chance."

Too late, far too late, thought Saruman. And a chance at what? Aloud he replied, "If it be truly the last, I am glad, for I shall be spared the trouble of refusing it again. All my hopes are ruined, but I would not share yours. If you have any."

For a moment his eyes kindled. This was probably the last time he would see any of them, and he could not leave without gloating over his enemies. Here were the bearers of the Three, all before him, but the power of their Rings had faded. "Go!" he said. "I did not spend long study on these matters for naught. You have doomed yourselves, and you know it. And it will afford me some comfort as I wander to think that you have pulled down your own house when you destroyed mine. And now, what ship will bear you back across so wide a sea?" he mocked. "It will be a grey ship, and full of ghosts." He forced a laugh, but he could hear that his voice was cracked and hideous. He could not keep this up. He had had his say, and he knew he must get away without letting them respond.

Saruman turned and saw that Gríma had sat down and laid his small pack aside. "Get up, you idiot!" the Istar shouted, and to hurry the fellow he struck him with his staff. It was far from the first time he had done so, though perhaps now in his urgency he hit harder than usual. "Turn about!" Saruman went on. "If these fine folk are going our way, then we will take another. Get on, or I'll give you no crust for your supper!"

Gríma scrambled quickly to his feet and shouldered the pack, slouching after his master. He whimpered aloud, obviously not caring that Saruman and the others could hear, "Poor old Gríma! Poor old Gríma! Always beaten and cursed. How I hate him! How I wish I could leave him!"

Gandalf looked down at him with a puzzled frown and said simply, with a shrug, "Then leave him!"

As if it were that simple! Gríma thought, glancing up at the White Wizard, glowing on his beautiful horse. Shadowfax, that was the name. The King's favorite that the Istar had taken from Théoden, only a little over a year ago now-and yet it seemed forever since the days when he had held the King's high opinion and nearly ruled Rohan himself. For an instant it occurred to him that he could appeal for Gandalf's help, but Saruman shot him such a vicious, threatening look that he forgot the possibility and scuttled as quickly as he could to follow his master.

He almost ran into Saruman, for the latter stopped abruptly, staring at the four Hobbits on their ponies. Two of them wore military gear with the emblems of Rohan and Gondor. The other two wore ordinary clothes. One of them must be the Ring-bearer, it occurred to Saruman. The group gazed at the pair with the same maddening pity that the Elves and Gandalf had displayed. The Istar's hatred of these little creatures resurfaced, and he secretly gloated over what he would finally do to them. He said contemptuously, "So you have come to gloat too, have you, my urchins? You don't care what a beggar lacks, do you? For you have all you want, food and fine clothes, and the best weed for your pipes. Oh yes, I know! I know where it comes from. You would not give a pipeful to a beggar, would you?"

"I would if I had any," one of them said.

You, Saruman thought. You were the one who helped Gandalf destroy it. There was something different about this little fellow, the Istar realized. He looked almost more like a small Elf than a Hobbit.

His thoughts were interrupted when the one in Rohirrim garb said, "You can have what I have got left, if you will wait a moment." He hopped off his pony and searched in the saddlebag, bringing out a leather pouch and handing it to the Istar, saying, "Take what there is. You are welcome to it; it came from the flotsam of Isengard."

Saruman clutched the pouch as if someone were about to snatch it from him. "Mine, mine, yes, and dearly bought! This is only a repayment in token; for you took more, I'll be bound. Still, a beggar must be grateful, if a thief returns him even a morsel of his own. Well, it will serve you right when you come home, if you find things less good in the Southfarthing than you would like. Long may your land be short of leaf!"

At once he regretted having taunted the Hobbit, for he had dropped a clue about his own activities in the Shire. Would Gandalf have noticed? he wondered. He could only hope that the other Istar had taken his remark about the Southfarthing as an idle threat. The Hobbits clearly were not disturbed by it. Indeed, the little soldier of Rohan replied cheekily, "Thank you! In that case I will have my pouch back, which is not yours and has journeyed far with me. Wrap the weed in a rag of your own."

"One thief deserves another," said Saruman, slipping the pouch into his pocket. He turned and kicked Wormtongue. The Istar headed south, back toward the nearby woods. At least he could use the maddening encounter to deceive Gandalf about which direction he was headed. Once the group was out of sight, he and Gríma could turn west and strike the Old South Road. Then things would be easier, with farms and eventually even villages where they could find food and shelter. This encounter with Gandalf and the others had made Saruman more determined than ever that he would push forward with his plans for giving the Hobbits a most unpleasant welcome back to their homeland.

September 21, 3019 Rivendell

After parting from Galadriel and her group, Gandalf, Elrond, the other Elves, and the Hobbits traveled faster on the last leg of their journey back to Imladris, for they wished to be there to celebrate Bilbo's 129th birthday. Upon their arrival at the Last Homely House, the four Hobbits did not even bother to remove their cloaks but went rushing off to Bilbo's room. Elsewhere, however, the Elves who had stayed at home were greeting the others. Extra lamps were lit throughout the building, and a simple but bounteous meal was quickly assembled. After the makeshift banquet, the Istar and Elves retired to the Hall of Fire for songs of welcome and celebration.

Finally, late into the night, the party ended, and Erestor went with Gandalf to the Wizard's room. Once, inside, the Elf began to undress, but he soon stopped and watched with puzzlement as Gandalf crossed to a corner of the room and rummaged in boxes and under a large sheet draped over something.

After a couple of minutes the Istar straightened up and turned to Erestor. "Yes, I think I can put together a little display for Bilbo's birthday tomorrow. I had some leisure here before the Fellowship set out, and fortunately I indulged in this hobby to some extent-little knowing whether I would ever have a chance to use any of the fireworks."

The pair went to bed, too exhausted from the long day to seek physical pleasure. Erestor cradled his sleeping lover's body against himself all night and dreamt of the Sea and their journey across it together.

The next day the celebrations of Bilbo and Frodo's shared birthday were joyous but started relatively late. The old Hobbit was apt to fall asleep at intervals during the day, and once the party started, Elrond deliberately kept the music lively and the food and drink flowing to try and keep him awake.

As soon as dusk had fallen, Gandalf lit a fire beside the rows of fireworks he had set up that morning. When a few stars were twinkling, Gandalf started sending up the beautiful bursts of fiery color for which he was noted. Glancing out across the lawn and hearing the music that was playing to accompany the show, the Wizard was irresistibly reminded of the occasion so long ago when he had put on a similar display to welcome Saruman to Lórien. Shrugging off the idea, he strove to keep his attention simply on the planned order of the fuses he needed to light. There was much applause at the end of the program, and the small fire that Gandalf had been using to ignite the fuses was built up into a tall blaze. Torches were lit along the paths that crossed the lawn and near the benches where guests sat. Although the evening was cool, all wished to stay outdoors under the stars for as long as was comfortable. A group of Elves began to play music and to sing, and Gandalf could see the Hobbits clustered around Bilbo and Frodo, seated on a bench a short distance away. Just as he was about to walk over and join them, an Elf carrying a tray of full wineglasses held it out to him.

"Excellent!" the Istar said. "Now that my complicated and slightly risky part in the evening's festivities has finished, I can allow myself this indulgence." He took a glass and turned to join the Hobbits. Pausing, he faced the servant again, gesturing toward the little group and adding, "I shall be over there-just so that you don't miss me on your next circuit of the area."

The Elf nodded with a smile and moved on. Gandalf sipped his wine happily as he walked over to Bilbo's bench. He noted that the Hobbit was awake and looking more alert than he had earlier in the day.

"I'm glad to see that you did not doze off during my performance," he remarked. As the old Hobbit chuckled, Gandalf went on, "It reminds me of a night eighteen years ago. A momentous occasion. As you left Bag End then, I could not help but worry about you. But as before, the Road guided you well, and you settled in the one place you loved better than the Shire. To your health, Bilbo!" he concluded, raising his glass. The others did the same, and they drank to salute the Hobbit.

Gandalf turned to Frodo. "It was a momentous night for you as well-in more ways than you could then have imagined." Even before the group had reached the Last Homely House, the Istar had agreed with the Hobbits that none would mention the Quest or the Ring, as that might upset Bilbo. Frodo solemnly gazed into Gandalf's eyes and nodded. Again the Wizard raised his glass. "And now you are fifty-one. To many more birthdays to come!" The group toasted that sentiment.

"And to the retirement of Gandalf," a voice added from behind the Wizard, and he found Erestor standing beside him and holding up his glass of wine. Startled, the Hobbits all raised theirs and drank this toast as well.

"Retirement?" asked Bilbo, after sipping his wine with a puzzled expression. "I hadn't heard of any retirement, Gandalf. What is this all about?"

Gandalf paused to take a second glass from a passing servant before facing the Hobbit again. "When I first visited Bag End to hire you on behalf of a certain band of Dwarves, you were startled to find me 'still in business,' if you recall. Well, I have plied the trade of a wandering Wizard long enough. I am, as Erestor says, retired-finally!"

The Hobbits all chimed in with expressions of congratulations-except for Frodo, whose little smile indicated that he knew perfectly well why Gandalf was now "retired." The Wizard winked at him and took Erestor's hand.

The pair strolled across the lawn until they found a bench in one of the dimmer areas. They sat down and remained silent for a time, as the Istar continued to watch the excited Hobbits with fond amusement.

Finally Erestor asked, "Now that you are 'retired,' what will you do next?"

"I think I shall travel with Frodo and the others westward toward the Shire. Not that they need protection, given all that they have been through. But, well, I once promised to escort Frodo and Sam to Imladris, and I was unable to keep that promise. Indeed, it was exactly a year ago today that I broke it-though that was none of my doing. I suppose I want to make up for it a bit. And there are some people off in that direction that I want to talk with. Speaking of which, long ago I told Tom Bombadil that if ever I finished my tasks and was still in any condition to tell the tale, I would come and visit him. His knowledge of the past of Middle-earth, or at least of its northern portions, is so profound that I should like to learn from him-and of course the Old Forest and its surroundings are fascinating places with which he is intimately familiar. Now I have an urge to see the old fellow and relax and think of something entirely unrelated to the Quest and the War. And I must admit, I would like to be somewhere near the Shire, just in case my intervention does become necessary-little though I think that likely. Why not come with me? I'm sure he would welcome you as well."

Erestor frowned. "When would you be leaving?"

"Oh, a couple of weeks from now, I expect. Frodo was anxious to see Bilbo, and I know they plan to spend a bit of time together, looking over that great stack of notes that Frodo wrote in Minas Tirith and so on. But he also wants to go home, and no wonder, after all he has been through."

"A couple of weeks! This afternoon Elrond asked me to head a small group going to Thranduil's realm to discuss with him the measures that will be necessary to rid the North of the last remnants of the Enemy's forces. I would not be able to travel west with you. I suppose if I asked Elrond to excuse me from that mission, he would, but I hardly-"

"No, no. Of course you must not stray from your duties when important work remains to be done. But perhaps you could come to join me once your eastward journey is over."

"Would that be possible? Are you planning to spend so much time with Bombadil?"

"I thought to do so. Months, perhaps. He has brought up the possibility a number of times, but of course I could never commit to such a thing. Believe me, Tom really could tell tales for months and never repeat himself! Besides, I think you would enjoy him and Goldberry and their forest. Do come! It would also be a lovely, peaceful, isolated spot where you and I could be together for a while. No duties, no dangers. We would just have good company, good food, and a cozy room. After all, Imladris is full of ceremony and of people bustling about-in their own quiet Elvish way, of course-and--"

"You do make it sound tempting-especially being together in such peace. But how would I find the house? Frodo's account at the Council made it sound as if it is in a very isolated and hidden spot."

"Well, it is in a way, though he and the others approached it from the west, through the forest. Coming along the Road, you would only need to strike south past the Barrowdowns, where you would eventually encounter the Withywindle. Follow it upstream, and where it falls down from the higher ground of the forest, you will find the house. But really, once you find the river, just let your horse guide you. Animals tend to find their way to Tom." Gandalf chuckled.

A short time later one of the Elves who had been playing in the musical group came over to ask if Erestor wanted to join them in a song. Gandalf nodded with a smile when his lover glanced inquiringly at him, and Erestor went to join the musicians. As they began the chant-like song, Gandalf watched Bilbo, who had shushed the other Hobbits and was listening, entranced, to the Elves' voices, wafting with the clarity of a bell's tones across the lawn.

Looking at the Hobbits, the Istar reflected on how well he had chosen, those many years ago. First Bilbo and then Frodo. It pleased him immensely to see how the Elves honored them and Frodo's three companions. Rather like the Field of Cormallen, it occurred to him. There Men had saluted Frodo and Sam with great ceremony. Here, more quietly and under the pretext of a slightly elaborate birthday party, the Elves were doing so. Soon his own particular Elf, having finished singing, returned to the bench and sat down beside Gandalf. He slipped his arms around the Wizard, who quickly stopped thinking about anything but Erestor.

September 22, The Great East Road on the border of the Shire

Saruman had decided to go north along the Greenway and visit Bree. He had wanted to gather some news about how his plans were progressing in the Shire. If there had been some unexpected obstacle, it would not do for him to try and go to the Shire as a triumphant leader and new master of the little land. Upon their arrival in Bree, the Istar and his companion went to the back door of the local inn, the Prancing Pony. They could hardly enter it from the front and sit with the paying guests, not the way they were dressed. They had had no money to purchase food, but the innkeeper had instructed the staff to given them some bread and cheese, which they ate in the kitchen. Saruman assumed a friendly tone, talking with the waiters and cooks when they had brief stretches of free time in the midst of their labors.

After much rambling chitchat that was of no interest to him whatsoever, Saruman had finally learned that there had been many changes lately in the Shire. No one seemed to know exactly what those changes were, but they had something to do with Men taking over and imposing lists of new rules upon the Hobbits. There was much building going on and gates on the Road. Worst of all, the staff said, was the dearth of pipeweed. Barliman Butterbur had always ordered numerous barrels of the stuff, for it was popular with his guests, Man and Hobbit alike. Now there was virtually none to be had. Being smokers themselves, the kitchen staff complained at some length about the lack.

Having used up the small pouchful that Merry had given him, Saruman could sympathize with their plight. Never mind, he thought. I shall have all I want soon, and of the best.

"What of Bill Ferny? I ..." he asked. He trailed off as the entire group turned abruptly to stare at him before he could tell some lie about how he knew the Man.

The head cook had shaken his head. "That wastrel! He's one of the Men who took over the Shire. High up amongst 'em, some say. If so, I pity the Hobbits who have to obey orders from the likes o' him!" He was about to go on, but a large order arrived from the common room, and the staff bustled to fill it.

Saruman had been glad that no one had the opportunity to question him about his connection to such an unpopular fellow. Soon after the conversation, he and Gríma took themselves off to the stables, where Butterbur had granted them permission to sleep. Early the next morning they had been on their way.

Now, after a long day of tramping along the Road, the sun was nearly setting as the pair approached the gate on the eastern end of the Brandywine Bridge. Saruman paused, straightening his ragged clothing and shaking the dust from it as best he could. He smoothed his hair and beard. Glancing at Gríma, he realized with a sneer that nothing could possibly be done to improve his appearance.

Drawing himself up, the Istar approached the gate. It was lined along the top with spikes. They didn't look as if they would much deter anyone determined to climb over. Still, there were some new buildings across the river by the gate at the other end. Guardhouses, he presumed. Apparently his Men had done their job, though how well remained to be seen. He heard movements on the other side of the gate, scraping sounds as if a large bolt was being put into place. Saruman noticed a small sign just legible in the dim light: "No admittance between sunset and sunrise." He had best hurry to attract their attention. He rapped on the unpainted wood panel with his staff.

The sounds stopped abruptly, and after some whispering the gate opened slightly. A few nervous-looking Hobbits peeped through the crack. "Yes?" one of them said.

"Good evening," Saruman said in a silky voice. "I am delighted that I arrived before you locked the gate for the evening. I am the Chief of the Shire, of whom you have no doubt heard, and this is my servant. Pray, let us in."

The Hobbit guards opened the gate a little further and dubiously surveyed the pair outside. Finally one who was bolder than the others said, "Truth to tell, you don't look much like the Chief of anything. How do we know you're who you claim to be, eh?"

Saruman sighed audibly but again spoke in a smooth, slightly condescending manner. "Of course I don't look like a Chief. We are traveling in disguise. In these dark times one has to beware of thieves everywhere. A wealthy Man like me can hardly make his station obvious as he travels. Nevertheless, you are right not to take me simply at my word. Do you know Bill Ferny? He could vouch for me."

The Hobbits' expressions changed, and they glanced at each other. The same guard spoke again. "Yes, sir. He's in charge here. He's right inside." He turned to one of the others and said in a low but audible voice, "Go fetch him, and be quick about it!"

Saruman stood where he was, glancing around in an unconcerned fashion as he waited. Within a few minutes, the door of the largest building, just on the other side of the bridge, opened. The evening was darkening quickly, and a large, heavyset Man appeared, silhouetted against the yellow lantern-light within. He was pulling on a jacket hastily, and he hurried across the bridge. The Man took a torch from one of the Hobbits and came just outside the gate to peer at the Istar.

Ferny had long been receiving money and orders from Orthanc, but he had only met Saruman once. A few years earlier he had made the long journey south with a shipment of pipeweed and conferred with the Wizard about his plans for the Shire. Now, upon recognizing his employer, he smiled in what he presumably thought was an ingratiating manner. "Well, we have been awaiting you, Chief! Come on in. I think you'll find everything here much to your liking." He stepped aside and gestured with a flourish toward the bridge, holding the torch high to illuminate the rough pavement as the Istar and his servant walked through the gate. The Hobbits pressed back against the short walls at either side of the bridge and watched as the newcomers made their way toward the house. Then they went about their interrupted business of bolting both gates for the night. Saruman noticed a second, smaller building off to one side that was presumably the Hobbits' barracks.

Inside the main guardhouse, the Wizard drew in a deep breath and let it out in a happy sigh as the Men sprang up at Ferny's command to make the guests comfortable. Soon Saruman was sitting in the best chair in the room next to the blazing fireplace. He was in such a cheerful mood that he allowed Gríma to share the warmth, crouched on a stool on the other side of the hearth. The Men had just been about to sit down to their dinners, but a small table was placed beside Saruman's chair so that he could dine separately. The food, though simply cooked, was surprisingly fresh and palatable. Gríma moved to the main table to take a plate and a mug of ale, quickly retreating to his stool to eat and revel in being truly warm.

Ferny hovered over the Istar, "Good food, isn't it, Chief? The best to be had from the farms in these parts. A bit of ale, Chief?" he inquired.

Saruman glanced at the Men seated at the larger table, all of whom had mugs of ale before them. "Is there no wine?" he inquired with a faint look of distaste. During his visits to the Shire long ago, he had had enough of the local ale to last him a lifetime.

Ferny grinned and dropped his voice to nearly a whisper. "Aye, that there is. We've found many good things in the locals' storerooms. But I squirrel the best away for special occasions. No need lettin' the likes of these fellows have such pleasant things, is there? And your bein' here is a special occasion for sure. I'll fetch you a bottle, sir. It won't take me but a moment."

Ferny disappeared into a side room, and few minutes later he returned triumphantly with a dusty bottle. The Istar watched the fellow uncork it, wondering whether Shire wine could possibly be tolerable. He had sampled some local wine long ago in the rural pubs and had found it unpalatable. Now he might have to settle for ale after all. The Man poured him a glass, and Saruman sipped it. He was pleasantly surprised to discover that the vintage was nearly as good as the ones from Gondor and Rohan with which he had stocked his cellar at Orthanc. He nodded with a gracious smile, and Ferny grinned again, setting the bottle down at the Istar's elbow.

"Will there be anything else you'd be wanting for now?" the Man asked. "Otherwise I'll go and have a bite to eat myself."

Saruman waved him away and sat eating slowly, savoring the relative comfort-such comfort as he had not experienced after leaving Orthanc. And he was able to command a group of Men for the first time since ... he paused to think back, and his smile faded. Since the night when his ill-fated army had marched off to Helm's Deep. He forced himself to concentrate on the current improvements in his situation and to forget the past. Once he reached Hobbiton, he could settle in and arrange the place to suit himself.

After the meal was over, Saruman sat staring into the fire and sipping his wine. Bill Ferny appeared at his side, holding out a small jar that emitted the unmistakable scent of pipeweed. The Man was clearly eager to demonstrate to "the Chief" how well he had carried out his orders. "You told me to gather as much of this as I could find into our storerooms, sir, and I've done so. Longbottom leaf-the finest!"

With an appreciative chuckle the Wizard pulled out his pipe and filled it. Ferny set the jar beside the wine bottle. He stood waiting and glanced in a meaning manner at Gríma, who had eaten his food quickly and was now gazing drowsily into the fire.

"Worm!" Saruman said sharply. The Man started and stared at him. The Istar jerked his head toward the group of Men sitting around the table. Gríma nodded and hastily vacated the stool, moving over to sit with the others. Losing the warmth of the fireside turned out to be worth it, since he was rewarded with a second mug of ale. As he sipped it he surveyed the Men around him. Less than a year ago he had been in a position to sit at the King's side at banquets and to join in the conversation. It had been long since those days, and these uncouth fellows were hardly the sort of people he had socialized with at the court of Rohan. Still, he felt nearly happy to be away from Saruman's watchful eye and in the society of others. Soon his social skills, though a bit rusty, resurfaced, and he found himself able to join in the talk and even joke with the soldiers.

As soon as Gríma left the fireside, Ferny pulled the stool closer to Saruman's chair and sat on it. The Istar leaned forward to hear what he had to say.

"Beggin' your pardon, Chief, but what might you be wantin' to do now that you're here?"

Saruman smiled and replied, "I want to take over the rule of the Shire myself. And I shall have my headquarters at Hobbiton-specifically, at the burrow or house or whatever it is called 'Bag End.'"

Ferny nodded enthusiastically. "You couldn't do better than Hobbiton, Chief! Centrally located an' all. And we done what you ordered-tore down the old mill there and built a brand new one, all up to date."

"You've been chopping down the trees to use as fuel in all your endeavors, I hope."

The Man laughed. "Just as you said, Chief. I doubt there's one taller'n me standin' in those parts."

Saruman nodded and thought for a moment. "Good! Now, I shall want to set out for Hobbiton tomorrow. By the way, there is somewhere suitable here for me to sleep tonight, I hope."

Ferny's smile faded, but he forced some enthusiasm into his voice as he replied, "Of course, of course! My bedroom is the only private one in the place, but I can move into the barracks with the others and let you have that."

Saruman nodded and resumed, "That group of Hobbits guarding the gate. They can be my escort to Hobbiton. You can pull some guards from elsewhere to replace them for now." It had occurred to him that Frodo and the others would eventually be traveling along the same route he had. He did not want the Hobbit guards who admitted them to the Shire to have seen him. If the guards at the gate hadn't seen him, they wouldn't able to describe him to the arriving Hobbits.

No, the Istar would save the surprise of the "Chief's" identity until Frodo reached his own home and found it occupied by the former master of Isengard. During all the momentous events of the Quest and the War, Saruman had only exchanged those few words with Frodo on the road, but he hated the Hobbit and longed to humiliate him and his wretched friends. They thought their homes so safe and unspoiled, but they would learn differently!

Dismissing Ferny, the Istar sat for a while longer, finishing the bottle and refilling his pipe from the jar. Eventually he grew sleepy and rose to have the Man escort him to his room. He paused by the table, where he saw Gríma laughing and drinking with the others. By now Saruman was in a pleasant mood, and even the Man's unaccustomed cheerfulness did not greatly annoy him. "Worm!" he said loudly enough to cut through the raucous talk, but not unkindly, "We shall leave tomorrow morning for our new home. You are to sleep in the barracks with these fellows tonight-or if there is not room enough there," he added magnanimously, "why not bed down here by the coals?" He gestured at the dying fire. "It will certainly be more comfortable than most of our sleeping-places lately."

"Thank you, master," the Man replied, eyeing the hearth happily. It certainly did look inviting, and there was even a small stock of wood that he could stoke the fire with. He watched the Wizard retreat, following Ferny to a private room at the rear of the house. Gríma wondered briefly what their new home would be like, and whether Saruman would treat him better and give him a little freedom now that the Istar had more people to order around. Maybe he would find a young Man that he fancied and not have as much time to devote to making Gríma's life miserable. Already he had caught the Istar eyeing one or two of the more attractive fellows among the Men in the guardhouse. With others to serve him, maybe he would even decide that he did not need his old servant anymore and would give poor old Worm his freedom.

And if not ... Gríma had noticed a rack of weapons in a shadowy corner beyond the building's front door. When the time came for the Men to retire, he told them he would take the Chief's offer and sleep by the fireplace. Tossing him a rough blanket, they left him by himself. He spread the blanket and found other bits of cloth and a bag to make a pillow for himself. But he did not go to bed yet, waiting instead for all the soldiers to settle down in their barracks just down the hall.

When Gríma was completely alone, he fed the fire so that it lit the room sufficiently for his purposes. He crept over to the rack in the corner. It contained some sets of small bows and arrows, presumably for the Hobbits, and some clubs and knives. The Man shook with gleeful but silent laughter. Saruman had been so happy to be in charge and in a comfortable situation that he had entirely overlooked these weapons. Otherwise he would never have left his servant alone in the same room with them. He seldom made even little mistakes like this, and Gríma was determined not to let this chance pass him by. He carefully inspected the weapons and chose a small but viciously sharp knife in a thin leather sheath. It would fit quite nicely under his clothes. Perhaps, he thought, moving to roll up in his blanket, just perhaps someday I shall gain the courage to use it.

November 7, near the eastern eaves of the Old Forest

Gandalf was sitting in one of the chairs near the hearth in the living room of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry's house. At this time of year the afternoon sun did not reach the guestroom where he was staying, for that was in an addition on the north side of the building. The sun was warming this room, however, and there was no need yet for a fire. The Istar was reading an ancient book. Though Tom did not read much himself, in the distant past he had managed to rescue a few precious volumes and documents during the grievous wars that had ravaged the North. They were fascinating, and Gandalf hoped to get through them all before he left.

The Istar had been staying with the couple for a week now, enjoying long talks in the evening, sometimes with them both, sometimes with only Tom present. It had been only a little over a year since the momentous and unexpected visit that Frodo and the others had paid to the house, and the pair had many anecdotes to tell about the group's short stay with them. After hearing about the Hobbits' misadventures in greater detail, Gandalf was more amazed than ever that they had all made it even as far as Bree. The whole of Middle-earth had reason to be grateful to this strange fellow, he thought.

The Wizard had volunteered to do some of the work around the house, though at this time of year there was relatively little necessary. He had long finished his minor tasks for that day. Apart from Tom, Goldberry, and their animals, the place was empty. Goldberry usually left the house after breakfast and did not return until it was time to start preparing dinner in the late afternoon. Gandalf presumed that she went into the forest and spent her time along the Withywindle, perhaps visiting her mother.

Tom was ordinarily about the place, since the season for gathering nuts and other supplies for the winter was recently over. On this particular day, however, Tom had disappeared early in the morning, saying that he was bound for Farmer Maggot's-or "Muddy-feet," as he had nicknamed his old friend. He wanted to hear news of what had happened in the Shire once Frodo and the other Hobbits had reached it.

Gandalf had been anxious about that himself, and his mind turned to it often. He had to keep reminding himself that the four had become quite capable of dealing with the local problems of their homeland and didn't need him to look after them. The Wizard was more worried about Saruman. From what information and gossip he had gathered in Bree, the fallen Wizard had passed that way. Most likely he had headed for the Shire after that. Tom's news, if he brought any, might well involve Gandalf's ex-lover, and that news was almost sure to be evil. Just how evil was the question. The Istar had to keep rereading the same paragraphs as his mind became distracted by such ruminations.

When the sun was shining nearly horizontally through the window, Goldberry entered, bearing a basket of what looked like clumps of mud. She deposited it on the tiled floor just inside the door, where a dark little puddle began to form. Gandalf stared with distaste at the objects, hoping that they were not destined to be part of the evening meal.

Goldberry saw his expression and laughed merrily. "They're just bulbs for the flower garden," she explained. "I had to go deep into the forest to find them. Tom will plant them tomorrow, for soon the ground will be too hard to dig in."

As she moved toward the kitchen, Gandalf offered to help with supper, and Goldberry refused, adding, "If you'll just set the table, that will be a help, Gandalf." Such offers and refusals had become a daily ritual, since both knew that setting the table was the Wizard's only job for this part of the day. He rose and quickly accomplished the simple task, listening to Goldberry's soft, clear voice singing in the next room. It was a bit like the singing of the Elves, he thought, but it lacked the hint of melancholy that underlay almost all Elvish songs. It spoke rather of the youth of the forest, when the river had barely started to cut the deep groove through which the waterfall near the house cascaded.

Once the table was laid, Gandalf wandered into the kitchen to draw a mug of ale for himself, smiling at his hostess but not interrupting her song. He noted with pleasure that a large bowl of eggs stood ready for use. As he went out to the living room again, he reflected that the frequent presence of eggs in the meals compensated considerably for the lack of meat in the household.

As he was about to sit down and resume his reading, he heard a heavy tread approaching, and soon his host appeared in the doorway. His expression was slightly troubled as he motioned Gandalf into a chair. After fetching himself some ale, he sat opposite Gandalf and heaved a sigh before speaking.

"Well, the news is mostly good, I reckon. There was some real fighting four days ago, mostly out Bywater way. Nasty business, and some Hobbits were killed, but they won! The Ruffians have been chased out. Not but what they did a heap of damage while they were in charge. A year's worth of chopping and burning and bad building won't be easy to fix." He went on to give the Wizard a blow-by-blow account of how Merry, Pippin, and Sam had roused the Hobbits and led them to strike back against their oppressors.

When Tom paused to sip his ale, Gandalf asked softly, "And what of the Ruffians' leader? Did they find him?"

"Oh, yes, living up at Bag End, pretty as you please. I don't suppose it's any surprise to you to hear that it was Saruman. Sharkey, the Men had been calling him, but it was your old friend, all right."

Gandalf had never told Tom that the other Istar had been his lover. He rarely visited the Old Forest, and when he did visit Tom, their talk seldom turned to news of the world any further away than Bree. Upon arriving this time, the Istar had naturally informed Tom and Goldberry that he had taken the liberty of asking his Elvish lover to join him at their house, and they had agreed cheerfully. Gandalf still wanted to keep his relationship with Saruman secret from them, primarily to keep his grief to himself and not bring gloom into the pleasant household.

Gandalf braced himself for what he suspected was to come and asked, "What became of him once his side had lost?"

Tom shook his head with a grim smile. "Killed. They say he had his throat slit, right there in front of Bag End."

Though he could hardly fault Tom for feeling satisfaction at Saruman's death, Gandalf was unable to suppress a wince at the revelation. Tom saw this and went on, "Yes, nasty way to go, that. Nasty to see such a thing happen, too. A lot of the Hobbits who were there got quite shook up by it."

Gandalf managed to speak steadily. "I can imagine. Did one of the Hobbits kill him?"

"No, no. 'Twas his own servant, fellow with a strange name. Now what ...?"

Gandalf felt immensely relieved to hear that the killer was not a Hobbit. "Wormtongue, possibly?"

"That was it. Little good it did him, though. The Hobbits shot him when he tried to escape. They're quite skilled with their bows and arrows."

Gandalf simply responded, "Indeed they are." His mind flew briefly back to the hard winter long before, when he had come to the Shire to help the Hobbits. Then groups of hunters had used their bows to put food on the tables of the many Hobbits gathered into the towns. And then, too, he had sat of an evening in a room not unlike this one and longed to return to Saruman at Orthanc. He roused himself quickly from such thoughts and resumed, "Yes, and lucky for them that they are. Well, as you say, good news, on the whole. It sounds as if there will be much work to do before the Shire recovers-but Hobbits don't shirk hard tasks when it comes to their land."

Thoughts of past happiness with the other Istar persisted in Gandalf's mind and made him want to be alone. He rose, saying, "I think I shall go in and wash for dinner."

It was far too early to prepare to eat, but Tom did not question him, simply nodding.

When the Istar reached his room, he pulled off his boots and lay down on the bed. He had been prepared to hear of the other Istar's death, and he had to admit that he could think of nothing more that Saruman could have done in Middle-earth. That he could bully and brutalize such innocent creatures as Hobbits showed that any glimmer of hope for his redemption had been vain. By attacking the Shire in the wake of all his other treachery, he had earned death. Gandalf could not mourn the passing of such a monster.

No, the real tragedy and loss of Saruman had come years before. Gandalf struggled to think of the Istar as he had been before the signs of secretiveness and jealousy had become evident to him. He did not want to lose the memory of their joy and their times together nor let all his thoughts of his former lover be tainted by what had happened more recently. After all, Saruman had been a great help and solace to him. Gandalf thought of how discouraged he had been in the years leading up to their first meeting and what hope the other Istar had kindled in him. For centuries thereafter they had worked together and genuinely accomplished much of value. Tears came to his eyes. That was the Saruman for whom he grieved.

The Wizard lay still for a time, thinking of the happier days of their love. Eventually he rose and wiped his eyes on the towel that lay beside the pitcher and basin on a chest of drawers. He poured out some water and thoroughly washed his face to hide the signs of his grief. Drying himself, he put his boots back on and went out to rejoin his host.

When Gandalf returned to the living room, Tom was just getting up from lighting the fire. The logs were already catching well, and it promised to be a lively blaze. The pair sat down to enjoy the warmth as a chill fog drifted out of the forest and around the house. Ordinarily Tom was the liveliest of hosts, but what he had learned that day had made him thoughtful, and he sat staring into the flames. Gandalf was grateful for both the quiet and the company. He could not help wondering, however, what Saruman's death really meant. When he himself had been killed by the Balrog, his spirit had returned to Valinor, though only temporarily. Would Saruman be allowed to return there? It seemed unlikely. He wished that he had details about how the other Istar had died and what, if anything, happened afterward. Tom couldn't help there, since he was conveying only second- and third-hand accounts. Any further information would have to wait until another time.

The silence lasted for half an hour or so. Finally Goldberry called Tom to help her serve the meal, and Gandalf wandered over to the table. He watched the platters and bowls arrive, filled with bread, honey, slightly wrinkled apples, greens, and, as the main dish, a huge omelet stuffed with herbs and cheese and cut into three pieces. Determined to shake off his sadness, at least until he retired for the night, the Istar smiled and said as he sat down, "Eggs! What a treat to find someone who knows how to cook them in so many different and delicious ways!"

A week later Tom went again to visit Farmer Maggot. Ordinarily he did not make the trip to see his nearest neighbor at such short intervals, but he wanted to gather more news. As usual he carried a gift for the farmer and his family, in this case a bag of walnuts. He usually returned with something given in return, often mushrooms, sometimes a fat, round cheese encased in wax.

Tom had asked Gandalf whether he wished to come along. The Wizard had considered and declined. "I vowed to let the Hobbits settle their own problems. My showing up so soon after their victory would simply raise their hopes that I was planning to take a hand in things. Besides, I am basking in the luxury not having to hike or ride, as I have done for so very long now."

As before, Tom was gone for most of the day. It had turned cold recently, with frost wreathing the trees and the dead plants in the flower and kitchen gardens. Gandalf was entertaining Goldberry as she worked to prepare the supper, telling her about the discussion of Tom at the Council of Elrond and how he had become something of a legend to the Elves of Imladris.

As they were talking, Tom entered the house through the front door that led into the living room. He called a cheery greeting, and Gandalf and Goldberry came out of the kitchen to welcome him. Tom pulled off his muddy boots and put on some slippers before picking up the basket he had set down and taking a small envelope out of it. "A letter from the Shire for you, Gandalf," he announced. The Wizard smile faded abruptly. Mostly likely it was from Frodo. He suspected that it contained some sort of information about Saruman's death, possibly the details that he both wanted and feared to learn. Never mind, he told himself. The letter might reveal something about the Ring-bearer's state of mind, and that is what really matters.

Tom handed the letter to the Istar and held out the basket to Goldberry. "Here, my pretty lady. A gift from Mrs. Maggott. Fresh, tasty mushrooms." She took them into the kitchen as Tom watched Gandalf thoughtfully studying the writing on the envelope. "As you can see, he sent it to my friend Muddy-feet, assuming it would get to you eventually. I think it must have come shortly after I last visited his farm, since it's been sitting there for several days. And of course it took awhile to get to him, given all the confusion in those parts once the battle was over. Well, if you'll excuse me, I must put Fatty into his stall. He's too old to feel comfortable out in the night chill-and today's ride has made him extra hungry."

Gandalf realized that Tom had gone out in part to allow him to read the letter in private. The Wizard examined the wax seal on the envelope. Hobbits' seals are so small, he thought affectionately. Turning it over, he read the address:

Gandalf the White
Care of Tom Bombadil
Care of Farmer Maggott
Bamfurlong Farm
The Marish

What a lovely, mundane mail system the Shire had! he reflected. Here, even a short time after a rebellion, they were able to resume conveying messages to their destinations with relative efficiency. Just the sort of thing that he and all the others had fought to protect.

With a sigh he broke the seal and began to read the letter. What struck him immediately was how different the Hobbit's account was from others that he had heard. Witnesses who had told Tom about the events in Hobbiton had been delighted at Saruman's death, though shocked at its brutality. Only Frodo seemed melancholy about it. Although he tried to avoid being too specific concerning the actual killings of the fallen Istar and of Gríma, Frodo mentioned many other details in his lengthy description of the whole scene.

His account ended, "I don't know if anyone will have told you what happened immediately after their deaths. Everyone present looked terrified, and yet perhaps afterward they persuaded themselves that they had not really seen it, for it was uncanny. I have not heard anyone refer to it since. But after Wormtongue was dead, a grey mist seemed to gather above Saruman's body. It slowly rose to a great height like smoke from a fire, and as a pale figure it loomed over the Hill. For a moment it wavered, looking to the West; but out of the West came a cold wind, and it bent away, and with a sigh dissolved into nothing."

There was a space after those words. In the final section of the letter, Frodo added, "I am sorry that I was not able to prevent their deaths. I know that for much of your time here in Middle-earth, Saruman was a dear friend to you. I regret that I only met him when he was defeated and pitiable. I hope his fate does not grieve you overmuch."

Gandalf sat staring at those last sentences. Frodo has learned the lesson of pity well, he thought, not for the first time. Suddenly he realized that he could see little traces of his own young self in what Frodo had become after the destruction of the Ring. The Istar himself had had to learn pity, true pity, ages of the world ago. He found his eyes moistening at the recognition. It surprised him that teaching the Ring-bearer something should be to him among the most touching of his accomplishments in Middle-earth; and yet, he reflected, it made sense. Saruman had been right-for the first time in many years. Frodo had grown. He had dealt humanely with the Istar and deflected his small, mean triumph into a pathetic failure.

The Istar sat thinking sadly of Frodo's description of Saruman's spirit leaning beseechingly toward the West. Did anything exist of the other Istar now? Was he a lost spirit, unable to take form or communicate with others-perhaps banished beyond the Bounds of Arda? Or had he ceased to exist altogether? From what he knew of past instances where the traitorous had been punished by the Valar, he rather suspected the former. The thought of such desolation made him shudder. When Tom came in again, the Wizard was roused from such gloomy thoughts.

He passed the letter to Tom without comment. After reading it, he looked up with a grim expression and handed it back to Gandalf. "A sorry end for one who held great power and could have used it to do so much good," he remarked softly. "Who would have thought that instead he would do so much ill in the Shire?"

Gandalf shrugged. "He thought to have one last taste of power and revenge. He always did underestimate the Hobbits. Just about everyone did, at least until Elrond's great Council."

Tom smiled and nodded. "Everyone but you ... and, I would like to think, Goldberry and me."

"Yes, you two are among the few. But there were others. Treebeard admired them right away once he met Merry and Pippin. Galadriel sensed Frodo's strength, but then, she has very special insight. Even Faramir, young though he is, recognized something extraordinary about Frodo. There were some that thought he had an Elvish quality."

"Yes, my lady told me that she even called Frodo an Elf-friend when he first entered the house. But then, she's as wise as she is beautiful." He paused and sniffed the air. "Ah, and she's as good a cook as she is wise. Mushrooms for dinner tonight, surprise, surprise! While she's finishing up, I'll get us both a mug of ale, shall I? Yes, I thought you wouldn't say no to that!"

On a crisp afternoon near the end of November, Gandalf was again sitting reading in the living room. By now the season was cold enough that a fire was kept burning throughout the day. That morning the Wizard had helped Tom care for the animals and carry in wood for the fireplace and the stove, and he felt that he had earned a relaxing time. Indeed, the house was so quiet and the room so warm that he was beginning to nod over his book.

The Istar's head jerked upright as he heard the distinct sound of hooves outside. There was more than one horse moving about, and neither had the plodding tread of Fatty Lumpkin, Tom's aged and beloved pony. Sure enough, he immediately heard his host's voice calling from outside, "Company for you, Gandalf!"

Immediately the Wizard shut his book and put it on the cushion of his chair, going quickly out. Erestor was nearly to the top of the steep, winding path that ran up to the rise on which the house sat. Shadowfax had gone out to meet the Elf, since he knew Erestor and his horse well. Now he was trotting a few steps ahead of them, as if they needed a guide even though their destination was within sight. That horse always has to be in charge-or think he is, Gandalf thought with a grin.

Ordinarily Tom would have waited to greet his guest. In this case, after announcing the Elf's approach, Tom turned and busied himself with stacking some firewood he had just split, clearly wanting to give the pair a little privacy for their reunion. Gandalf walked partway toward the head of the path so that his conversation with Erestor would not be audible. The murmur of the Withywindle as it flowed swiftly over a stony part of its bed to the south of the hill also helped ensure that they would not be overheard.

As soon as Erestor reached the Istar, he slid off the horse and found himself immediately drawn into a tight embrace, which he returned with delight. "This was a lovely day already," Gandalf said softly, "but your arrival makes it glorious, my cherished Elf!"

Erestor loosened his grip on his lover just enough to pull back and look into his face. "How I have missed you! To think that we became accustomed to seeing each other after gaps of months and even years! Now being apart for a few weeks seems intolerably long."

The two indulged in a brief kiss, and then Erestor removed the bags connected with a strap and hanging on either side of his horse. They turned and walked, hand in hand, toward the house. Gandalf said, "I hope at least that your mission to Thranduil went well enough to make the parting worth it."

"Yes, well indeed. The plans for the scouring of the pockets of evil remaining in the north have been made, and I think they will be effective. But they are mundane matters that can wait-if indeed you want to hear about them at all."

Gandalf grinned. "If I have trouble falling asleep, perhaps you can tell me all about them, though I must say you have more pleasant ways of making me drowsy."

By now the pair were near the kitchen door, and Tom straightened up and turned to them. Gandalf introduced them, and their host gestured toward the door in welcome. At once he slapped his own forehead and said, "I'm forgetting your beautiful steed. There's plenty of room for him in the stable, if he likes."

Erestor nodded. "In the cold of the evening he will no doubt appreciate that, but for now he and Shadowfax may roam on their own."

The three entered the house, and Tom called out Goldberry's name. There was no answer, and he shrugged. "Still about in the woods somewhere, no doubt. She dislikes being indoors any more than need be. In the meantime, here we are, conveniently in the kitchen. May I get you something to drink? Ale or ..." he trailed off, looking doubtfully at Erestor.

Gandalf said, "I introduced Erestor to the pleasures of ale when we were together in Minas Tirith, and he likes it. I suspect, though, that he would prefer some wine, if you have any."

"Oh, my, yes!" Tom said cheerfully. "It is too rocky and shady in this area to grow grapes, so I don't make it myself. Fortunately the Hobbits do, and fine stuff it is-though not what you're used to in Imladris, I'll wager," he added with an apologetic shrug.

"Hobbit wine is quite different from Elvish, but it is very pleasant," Gandalf said. "To be sure, I mostly tasted it when visiting Bag End, and Bilbo kept only the finest in his cellar. But I suspect that Erestor will enjoy it."

Erestor nodded. "I'm sure I shall, and if not, I would be quite content with ale."

Tom rubbed his hands together to warm them. "It will take a while for me to fetch some bottles from our own cellar and open one and so on. But you two will not mind being left alone, I'll be bound."

Gandalf replied with a grin, "Not at all, take your time. I shall show Erestor the room we are to share."

The Istar led Erestor along the L-shaped corridor to the guest bedroom, where the Elf dropped the bags unceremoniously on a chair and turned to embrace Gandalf once more. This time their kiss was lengthy, but they did not give in to the temptation to deepen it. Finally they moved slightly apart, their hands still loosely curved around each other's waists.

"We really must not be impolite and absent ourselves for as long as we would require to do what we would like," Erestor said reluctantly.

"No. I'm sure Tom would understand and be most tolerant, but I wouldn't put it past him to tease us about it-in rather indirect terms, of course! Later on we shall have more time 'to do what we would like,'" he said teasingly. Then his smile faded. "I doubt you have heard much news of what happened in the Shire after the Hobbits reached it."

Erestor looked more grave than usual. "Quite a bit, actually. I inquired at the inn when I stopped for lunch in Bree. I'm not sure my informants really knew the truth of everything they said, but they certainly were willing to talk at any length about it."

"I don't doubt that! Having an attentive newcomer to listen to their gossip must have delighted them. Did they give you any indication of what happened to Saruman?"

"Not by that name, but I gather that the leader of the ruffians who had taken over the Shire was killed. Putting that together with what you had told me of his ambitions, I suspected that it was he." Gandalf nodded, and the Elf hugged his lover again.

After a brief silence the Istar drew back and said, "You should not feel too concerned for me. I have known about his death for roughly three weeks now. I have grieved for him and accepted that what happened was for the best. I shall always regret what he became, but you need not tiptoe around the subject. Later I shall show you a letter that Frodo wrote to tell me about the events at Bag End. In the meantime, shall we rejoin our host? Oh, and by the way, I have never told Tom or Goldberry about Saruman and me, so one of them may mention him in less than tactful terms. It seems unlikely, but just so you know."

In the living room they found two glasses of wine poured and the open bottle sitting beside them. On the dining table they noted that two mugs and a pitcher of beer had been left for them, in case the wine proved less than to their liking. Tom was nowhere to be seen, and Goldberry had shut the door to the kitchen and could be heard bustling about in it, singing as usual. The pair pulled two chairs close to the fire and sat holding hands.

After a brief silence during which they enjoyed simply being together again, Erestor remarked, "This wine is strange to me, and yet it has a simple, robust taste that speaks of the rich soil that the Hobbits till. I think I shall get used to it easily." He paused and asked, "Why did you not go with Frodo and the others to the Shire? You left them so close by it, and you could easily have returned here and still had nearly as long a stay with Tom.

Gandalf smiled slightly, staring into the fire. "Because I didn't need to accompany them, and therefore I knew I shouldn't. After all they have been through, they are quite capable of dealing with their own problems. As I told them upon our parting, they have grown during the Quest, and I don't have to worry about them any more. Though I must confess, I did a little ... at times. I was very glad to hear that they had led a successful uprising against the oppressors."

His smile disappeared. "Also, as soon as I heard about the problems in the Shire, I was almost certain that Saruman was trying to strike back at me, to revenge himself. A mean, petty revenge, but there you are. It was all he could manage. My presence at Bag End would have infuriated him more than anything else could. I hoped that if I was not with Frodo and the others, Saruman might possibly be disappointed and slink off to some other part of Middle-earth to hide himself away. And he might well have managed it, had he not been so cruel to Gríma. I'm not sure that would have been any better for him than the oblivion into which he dissolved, but at any rate, a confrontation between him and me might have made for an even uglier scene than what actually happened." He paused and looked into Erestor's eyes. "But let us not allow such sad thoughts to spoil our reunion. How I long to take you to bed!"

"Yes, I want to experience the romantic peace and solitude that you described so eloquently. First, though, I would like to sample some of the food that is being heralded by such marvelous odors. I had a long ride from Bree today."

Later that evening Gandalf and Erestor made love, quickly sucking the seed from each other's rigid members. Afterward they lay in the bed, gently caressing and whispering. Finally the Elf sat up and leaned against the headboard. He looked around the room, lit by the flickering candles in the sconces on the walls and by the flames in the fireplace.

Erestor remarked, "This room is certainly small compared to the others we have shared, but that just makes it delightfully cozy."

"I'm glad that you like it, my love. It is considerably more informal and rustic than you are used to, but I find that part of its charm."

The Wizard sat up as well, sliding between the Elf's bent legs and leaning back against his torso. He pulled the covers up over them both. Erestor put his strong arms around his lover. Gandalf sighed happily and turned his head to rest his cheek on the Elf's chest. "What a joy to have you hold me again! Occasionally I feel it a disadvantage to be so much shorter than you. Not at times like this, though. In this position, I feel almost enveloped by you."

The pair had been sitting silently for nearly twenty minutes when a shower started. They listened to the soft patter of the raindrops on the window and the branches just outside it. The Elf cringed inwardly to think how often his lover must have contrived to camp in such weather, and he hugged Gandalf more tightly. The Wizard made a little humming sound of contentment and nuzzled against his chest. Erestor felt overwhelmed with love, and he rubbed his cheek on the top of Gandalf's head.

Suddenly Gandalf smiled. "This sounds like the sort of rain that will last many hours. The same sort that kept Frodo and his companions here for an extra day after their misadventure in the Old Forest. I am glad that they had that little period of rest and freedom from fear. Indeed, if the rain had kept them here for two days, I might have caught up with them at Bree. Such are the ways of chance!"

Erestor replied, "As I recall from the Council, it was on their first night here, was it not, that Frodo had one of his strange dreams?"

"Yes, when he saw me imprisoned on top of Orthanc."

"With the moon shining in your hair, he said." Erestor gazed at the Wizard's thick mane and then brushed it aside, kissing the back of Gandalf's neck. "Your beautiful, snowy hair," he whispered.

Gandalf chuckled briefly. "I wonder why or how he had that dream-and others that he had, in the cottage at Crickhollow and later. All of them true, in one way or another. Things which had happened already or which came to pass later or which are likely to occur someday. He told me about them when we were staying together at Minas Tirith. Possibly having the Ring for so many years before the Quest, even without using it, he gained some special gift, or perhaps he was always just different, more insightful than other Hobbits. I shall probably never know why he was chosen as the Ring-bearer, but at least I was correct in realizing that he was fated to that role."

Again for several minutes they quietly listened to the steady, soothing sound of the rain as the Elf continued his soft kisses along Gandalf's neck. Eventually Erestor whispered, "Are you being lulled to sleep, my dearest Mithrandir?"

"Not really. I slept late this morning, conveniently enough. Perhaps without realizing it I had a premonition that you would arrive today." The Istar shifted slightly and twisted his neck to look up at the Elf. With a waggle of his eyebrows he asked, "Why, what did you have in mind?"

Erestor did not reply but asked, "Is it all right if I remove the covers? The room is warm enough now, I think."

Gandalf nodded and moved to sit beside Erestor. He watched as the Elf rolled the blankets and sheet into a loose bundle at the foot of the bed and then pivoted to sit facing him. He slowly looked Gandalf up and down as the Wizard gazed back at him.

Gandalf gave a wry little smile and said, "I'm sorry that I don't have a perfect young body to offer you in exchange for that which you have given me. You are extraordinarily beautiful-every inch of you."

A small smile fleetingly crossed the Elf's lips. "You do not need to apologize. You are perhaps not beautiful in the usual way, though the wisdom and love in your eyes are as spellbinding to me as any youthful appearance could be. Your body is not unattractive, you know. So slender and muscular. This year, visiting Minas Tirith, for the first time I had the opportunity to be among Men-Men other than the Rangers who frequent Imladris, that is. And so many of the elderly ones were fat. I was reminded of it again today in Bree, where the same was true. I thought about how wonderfully different you are from them. I don't think I would enjoy seeing them unclothed!"

The Istar laughed and held out one hand, beckoning for Erestor to move back up the bed to lie against him. Instead the Elf considered him with what Gandalf suspected was as mischievous a look as his solemn face could manage. Erestor shook his head. "Just lie down and be still for a little while," he said.

Gandalf slid into a recumbent position, and the Elf crawled above him, supporting himself on hands and knees placed on either side of his lover's torso and hips. Strands of his long, silky hair hung down above the Wizard's chest. Watching Gandalf's face, Erestor moved his head so as to brush the ends of the strands across the relaxed brown nipples. The Istar twitched and strove to lie still, looking up with a blend of amusement and arousal in his expression. Quickly hard nubs formed as the fleeting, feathery strokes slid over them. Gandalf's eyes closed and he licked his lips, all his attention fixed on the teasing caresses and the tiny jolts of pleasure that traveled straight to his reviving member. Erestor was beginning to pant gently as he watched the Wizard's desire blossom, his own cock swelling as it hung between his parted thighs.

Finally Gandalf gasped, "I want to touch you! May I move?"

"Yes, I think I have your attention now," Erestor whispered, lowering himself onto his side, his belly pressed against the Istar's torso and one leg bent across his thighs. The Elf laid his cheek on Gandalf's chest and put his tongue out, flicking and licking one of the taut nipples.

The Wizard whimpered in delight. He reached down and softly ran his fingers up and down Erestor's half-rigid shaft, feeling it slowly lengthen and grow firmer. His other hand slid up the Elf's back and cupped his head, stroking the dark hair.

Erestor reached for the Istar's erection, bumping his hand against Gandalf's. Both chuckled as the Elf's hand moved over it to fumble until he found the heated length, lying at an angle across the Wizard's lower belly. Erestor began to squeeze and pull it rhythmically, now growing eager for their bodies to join in greater passion. Gandalf moaned and moved his hand around the Elf's head, gently pulling it upward until their lips could press together. Gandalf's tongue invaded Erestor's mouth, going deeper as the Elf moaned in return and opened to it, swirling his own tongue around it.

Finally Erestor rose and straddled the Istar's stomach, facing away from him and rocking his hips to rub his swollen cock against Gandalf's. The Wizard slid his open palms over the Elf's buttocks and then licked a thumb and rubbed Erestor's tiny opening with it. The Elf glanced at the bedside table. "I assume you are provided with what is necessary, as usual," he said in a voice strained by arousal.

"Of course! Not knowing when you would arrive, I have long been prepared for this moment."

Erestor leaned over and opened the drawer, pulling from it a jar of ointment and a soft cloth. Resuming his position, he removed the stopper, scooped a dollop out with two fingers, and passed it back to Gandalf. Erestor smeared the ointment gently over the Wizard's entire cock, jerking slightly as he felt Gandalf's slicked finger enter him. Seconds later sudden pleasure coursed through his loins, and he threw his head back and sucked in a hissing breath through clenched teeth. The Elf spread his knees further and leaned forward, one hand resting on the mattress beside his lover, the other grasping Gandalf's shaft. It had begun to grow, but Erestor knew that he would have to make it fully rigid in order to sink himself onto it. He began to stroke it vigorously, keening as Gandalf inserted a second and eventually a third finger to rub at the small rise in the channel's wall.

By the time Gandalf withdrew his fingers, the Elf's erection had a thread of shining liquid dripping from the tiny slit in its tip. The Wizard's member had grown to its full thickness and length, and Erestor pivoted swiftly, straddling him again face-to-face. Gandalf reached to hold his cock up, and slowly his lover pressed downward until the crown entered him. He paused, panting, and the Wizard ran his fingers up his torso to roll and tickle one of the Elf's nipples.

Soon Erestor began to bob slightly, burying his lover's rod a tiny bit further with each downward movement. The Wizard bent his legs so that Erestor could support himself in an upright position, his thighs against Gandalf's and his hands on the Wizard's knees. Gandalf started to thrust gently, his hands caressing the outsides of the Elf's thighs. Abruptly Erestor stiffened and whispered, "Oh, yes!"

The Wizard's thrusting became more energetic, and he moaned as the hot, moist sheath pulled at him. "Perfect," he murmured, and Erestor nodded. They settled into that rhythm, content to hover at the same teasingly high point of arousal as long as possible. Having climaxed earlier in the evening, neither was in danger of losing control and ending their joy too quickly. Both closed their eyes, oblivious to any sensations beyond the bliss suffusing their loins. Many minutes passed with little more than the sound of their ragged panting and occasional faint moans to be heard in the room.

At last Erestor began to circle his hips, making the hard length within him press more forcefully against his pleasure center. He opened his eyes long enough to reach down and guide Gandalf's hand to his erection. "Are you close?" he whispered.

"Very!" the Wizard managed to reply, squeezing and rhythmically pulling Erestor's leaking member. Almost at once a stream of hot liquid erupted from it, spattering across Gandalf's chest and belly, which were soon covered with pearly droplets as the Elf thrashed in his ecstasy. His passage tightened, and the Wizard keened as his fulfillment teased at him and finally flooded through him. His thrusts continued, becoming shorter and shorter, as the last twinges of pleasure receded.

Erestor lowered himself to lie on his lover's torso, and they slowly kissed each other's lips and cheeks. At last, feeling the Wizard's flaccid member slip from him, Erestor cleaned them and pulled the bunched covers up as he reclined beside his lover.

They lay silently in each other's arms. Eventually Gandalf noticed that his lover's eyes had grown sad and vacant.

"What's wrong, my sweet Erestor?"

"I was just pondering how lucky I am to have you. Doubly lucky! I cannot help but think of Saruman and how he could have been your lover forever had he not pursued the wrong path. I assure you, though, he won't come into my mind after every time we make love! But recalling his fate reminds me of how extraordinary it is that you alone of the Istari remained true to your mission. If you had fallen as the others did, you would have been equally lost to me."

"True. And it's not just the other Istari. In fact, during the time I have been in Middle-earth, six Maiar have been lost to Valinor. Six! It's amazing. Alatar and Pallando, of course. That I got somewhat used to long ago. And Sauron I came here to help defeat. The Balrog was an unexpected enemy, and he is gone as well. Now Saruman is no more, and Radagast has chosen to stay in his forest home.

"I remember them all, of course, from long, long ago, even before the great Vala who was then called Melkor corrupted several Maiar and made them serve his will-including Sauron. Their loss should have warned the others of the danger, and yet since then some have ignored the lesson. How powerful the seduction of evil can be!" He shrugged. "Of course, Radagast's purpose remained laudable. Yet even his project of completely documenting the birds and animals comes to naught. He cannot donate his drawings to Elrond's library after all."

Erestor considered. "Perhaps he could give them to the archives at Minas Tirith."

Gandalf smiled. "A good idea! I don't know why it didn't occur to me-except for the fact that I'm used to thinking of that part of Middle-earth as under the guardianship of the Elves. But not for much longer, of course. Perhaps before we leave I shall have an opportunity to visit Radagast and suggest it. In fact, I shall make a point of it, for I have another reason for wanting to see him one more time. I never had a chance to thank him for sending his last bird messenger-the best one of all!"