The Road to Isengard

by Nefertiti

Pairing: Series, Mithrandir (Gandalf)/Saruman; this chapter, Mithrandir/Legolas (established relationship)

Rating: NC-17

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.

Author's note: Book-canon. The action takes place in 1637, shortly after a great plague has swept through the areas south and west of the Misty Mountains. Much of this series is based upon hints provided by appendices A and B, as well as parts of the Unfinished Tales.

Many thanks to Elanor for her advice and beta job and to Sarah for encouragement.

Chapter 2

Southern Mirkwood, 1638 TA

Mithrandir and Radagast were sitting at a simple but beautifully shaped and polished wooden table in a small house deep in the forest of southern Mirkwood. The Brown Wizard had frequently taken shelter and rest there during his various travels around Middle-earth. For centuries now, those travels had seldom taken him further than the areas around Mirkwood and Lothlórien, which lay on the west side of the Anduin not far south of this spot. The Grey Istar had noted upon arrival that the house seemed more homelike than during his previous visits. Then it had been rather rundown and minimally furnished. Now it had been repaired and contained all sorts of little decorations, as well as books. There was a large desk, covered with many writing and drawing implements. The kitchen, too, was well supplied with cooking equipment. Most of the utensils were clearly of Elvish make, though some pieces were simple wooden objects that Radagast might have made himself. The Brown Wizard had refused Mithrandir's assistance in concocting the delicious meal that they were now eating, obviously enjoying cooking it all himself. Talk had turned to the Grey Istar's latest meetings with leaders he had visited, and they recalled Saruman's return to the West less than a year earlier.

As they finished the main course Mithrandir said, "I take it that Saruman has not yet visited you here. I encountered him once about two months ago in Minas Anor and hope to see him again often. I must say, I had very high expectations, but I was not disappointed. I find Saruman as brilliant and wise as ever I could have hoped during that long time when I dreamed of finally meeting him. Already he has examined a surprising number of the documents in the Gondorian archive. We have enormous tasks ahead, but he seems exactly the leader we need to unite us. Despite all our problems, I certainly feel more confident than I did a year ago!"

Radagast nodded slowly during this. "I agree with you entirely. I do hope that he manages to stop by here once in a while during his travels. You're quite right that he has not done so yet. He seems to favor the southern lands. It makes sense, given the gravity of the problems in Gondor."

"Yes, but I suspect that also he tends to prefer the company of Men to that of Elves. Much though I love Elves, I can understand his attitude. Elves tend to be rather passive, content to stay in their safe enclaves, defending themselves and living to a considerable extent in the past. Men, on the other hand, are dynamic and active and oriented toward the future. Of course, those in Gondor are in the greatest danger, so naturally they take the most active role in the military part of our struggle." He paused and smiled. "I suppose I should prefer Men myself, given that I definitely favor action with an eye to the future. Still, a stretch of Elvish serenity after hard labors and travels is most welcome!"

They were silent for a moment, and then Radagast rose to serve the dessert. The Grey Wizard tasted the mixture of wild berries and a thick, sweet cream sauce and said, "Radagast, this is perfectly delicious, as was the entire meal! I had no idea that you possessed such culinary skills."

Radagast beamed. "I didn't at first, but early on I got thoroughly tired of living on preserved foods and waybread whenever I stayed here. I might as well have still been on the road as far as decent food was concerned, so I resolved to become a bit more ambitious about taking care of myself. Some of the cooks at Lothlórien were willing to teach me a little, and I have had plenty of time to experiment on my own using local ingredients. Naturally I don't hunt, and indeed, I have given up meat altogether."

His companion had definitely noticed the meal's lack of meat-to which he was very partial. Still, he could hardly fault the excellent mushroom casserole that had been their main dish. He replied, "Yes, such elegant fare certainly contrasts with my typical dull diet while on the road. As you say, preserved foods and waybread-cram or things like it and lembas if I am lucky. But then when I arrive at one of the cities or enclaves that I visit along the way, I usually dine splendidly. Now I can add your home to my list of such places."

For the first time Mithrandir had casually used the word "home" to describe this house, but it came naturally. He hardly needed to ask whether the Brown Wizard was spending even more of his time in this cozy house. The furnishings that had been added since his last visit were a vivid, mute testimony to the fact. He felt a little worried and annoyed by the change, but he refrained from reproaching Radagast. When they came to Middle-earth, the Valar had told them that each of the Istari had to find his own way to fulfill their mission. Mithrandir was convinced that one could only collect information and guide the various peoples by traveling around the entire continent. The place was so vast that the situation in any given spot might have changed considerably by the time one got a chance to revisit it. Still, he had no right to force his beliefs on the others. Many years ago he had discussed the matter with Radagast, and there was certainly no point in raising it again now. He changed the subject.

"So, I trust that you have made progress on the system for sending messages."

Radagast shrugged. "Well, yes, but it is far from ideal. I have gathered a number of birds who are willing to stay in this area and stop here frequently to see if messages need to be taken. These particular birds don't tend to range far, and most of them don't migrate. I typically leave food out for them, especially in the winter, and many have become my friends. I have started testing the system. I sent a message to Saruman shortly after I had managed to enlist a few carriers. The only information I was able to furnish was that he was somewhere in Gondor-and even that was a conjecture on my part, since he might well have left there since I had heard news of him. I received a reply about five weeks later. Not as quickly as I had hoped. I realize that neither of you can predict with any degree of certainty where you will be at any given time. Still, if you both can notify me in advance as much as you can about where you will be, I should think it would cut the reply time down."

"I presume so. Would it be possible to persuade some of these birds to stay for short stretches of time around Minas Tirith, Rivendell, and so on? Or to enlist additional messengers among the birds of those regions? Then each time when one of us arrived in that place, a message could be sent to inform you."

"It might work. Birds are strongly territorial, and asking them to leave their home areas even for a short time to deliver a message is an imposition. I can certainly look into it. Recruiting additional local birds seems more feasible, though it would take much longer to organize, I'm sure."

"Anything you can do along those lines would be most helpful. Now, you wanted to show me something after dinner. Shall we clear away here and take a look?"

Radagast had no objection to help with the dishes, so the two Istari spent an agreeable time in the kitchen washing up, with pauses for slow, tantalizing kisses that hinted at greater passion later in the evening. After finishing, they moved to the living area. Radagast carefully pulled a sheaf of paper from a large set of wide, shallow shelves-something like the cabinet where maps were kept in Rivendell's library, Mithrandir thought. The pair settled down on a small settee. As Radagast carefully slid the top sheet from his own lap to Mithrandir's, the Grey Istar realized that they were detailed, accurate drawings of different sorts of birds. He curiously examined the first few.

"These are wonderful! The colors are so vivid and the shading so realistic. And the positions are marvelous-nothing stiff or posed about them. They look alert and poised, as if they might fly right off the page at any instant. Any monarch or lord would be delighted to have such pictures on his walls."

"Thank you! I began the project as a sort of research, trying to draw each type of bird living in Mirkwood. I vaguely thought that such a collection might eventually be a welcome addition to Elrond's great library. It rapidly proved to be a great pleasure as well as a task, however, and each drawing appears in my eyes more a portrait of a friend than simply a scientific record. I have another set devoted to animals, though really you need not feel obliged to look at them."

"Not at all. I would like to, very much. Perhaps we should put it off until tomorrow, for I don't want to rush through these." To Radagast's delight, Mithrandir took his time over each drawing, asking questions and making occasional comments.

As he finished and handed the stack of drawings back to Radagast, the Brown Istar said tentatively, "Again, you need not feel obliged, but I would be happy to give you one if you like."

Mithrandir nodded enthusiastically. He had very few possessions, but a small gift like this one could easily be kept in his room in Rivendell. "Thank you! I should like it very much. I don't, however, want to break up your set. You said you wanted to record all the birds. Why don't you take your time and make a copy of one of these? I could pick it up when next I come by or you could bring it to wherever we need to meet with the others."

Radagast happily agreed to that arrangement. As he crossed the room to slip the drawings back onto their shelf, the Grey Wizard looked around. He had long wondered why Radagast would want to settle down, especially in such a lonely spot. Mithrandir himself found some aspects of traveling dreary and bothersome and occasionally dangerous, but he always looked forward to the conviviality he would experience for a time once he reached a populated area. As far as he could tell, Radagast's nearest neighbors were the villagers, farmers and woodsmen who lived at the east and west edges of the forest. The drawings, however, made it clear that the Brown Istar had found his own society in the creatures of the woods. The house's furnishings were not by any means luxurious, but it was a snug, charming place. He would probably feel a little reluctant to leave when the time came, and yet he definitely could not imagine settling down in such a fashion himself. Neither the isolation nor the turn from his duty-or at least what he firmly believed was his duty--would allow it.

Radagast lit a lamp, for the twilight had dimmed, and he returned and sat close beside the Grey Istar. Very soon their idle talk slowed, and their faces wore little smiles of anticipation. They leaned into each other's arms and kissed for a long time, and although the teasing movements of lips and tongues quickly aroused them, they lingered until desire could no longer be denied. They went to bed, and Radagast was as loving and passionate as ever. Once the Brown Wizard had finally fallen asleep, Mithrandir lay for a while, enjoying his satiation after a long, lonely journey. He tried to silence the faint voice of irritation in his mind concerning the Brown Istar's decision to make a permanent home for himself. At least it provided another comfortable place where he could stop during his own journeys. Perhaps it could also become a base of operations if the need to invade Dol Guldur ever arose.

Suddenly he recalled what Saruman had said of the Blue Wizards: that they were playing a role in a completely different drama now. He smiled softly. Radagast might now be playing a smaller role, but at least he was on the same stage as the Wise were, performing in the same play. He reached out and caressed his companion's cheek with a feathery touch, drawing the backs of his curled fingers down it. A small role, yes, but perhaps it would someday make a crucial difference in their endeavors.

Gondor, early 1811, TA

Gandalf rode slowly up the winding main street of Minas Anor, his head swiveling back and forth to take in the many improvements that had been made in the White City since his last visit a few decades before. Not only had the City come back thoroughly from the plague, but after a string of defeats by dark forces to the east and south, it was finally becoming strong again. True, Osgiliath still lay partially in ruin, and the entrances to Mordor were not guarded as closely as of old. Still, everywhere the Grey Istar looked, he saw signs of recovery. "Mithrandir! Welcome!" a few of the older people in the street called to him, and he waved and addressed each by name as he returned their greetings cheerfully.

Odd, he thought, that they should still call him by his Elvish name here in Gondor. Years before, Men in the North had taken to calling him "Gandalf." He aged so slowly that mortals would not discern it across their short life-spans. They had begun to realize this and apparently decided that he must be an Elf: the Elf with a Staff. The phrase had quickly spread, being taken up by Hobbits and Dwarves and even some of the Elves of the North. To his amusement, even the Ents now did the same. Despite his preference for most things Elvish, he liked "Gandalf." Easier to pronounce and rather less poetic and grand-and hence more suitable for everyday use. The Men of Gondor, however, prided themselves on their ancient heritage and traditions, and even though some had heard the new name, they clung to more formal, old-fashioned language.

He was riding a small chestnut gelding whose company he quite enjoyed during long journeys through sparsely populated lands. The horse was not his own but a loan from Elrond, who supplied most of what Gandalf needed in his travels. The steep pavement tired his mount, however, and he walked beside it up the last two levels. He was glad to arrive at the entrance to the palace grounds and turn the sweaty beast over to a stable boy for a well-earned rest.

As Gandalf walked along the path through the large grassy area before the palace, he paused to look at the White Tree in the fountain. A few years after the plague, King Tanondor had planted it as a seedling, and by now it was mature: beautiful and strong, just beginning to show the buds of its flowers. The Wizard hoped that he would be able to stay long enough to see it in full bloom. It was such a rare sight for him, given that he could not always time his occasional visits to Minas Anor to suit himself.

Once he had entered the palace, he was shown immediately into a small throne-room. There he was delighted to see Saruman already present, seated near the dais and talking earnestly with the current King, Telumehtar Umbardacil. Both looked around with welcoming smiles as he was announced. The Grey Istar crossed the short distance and gave a little bow to the King. He was quite pleased to see at last such a youthful, powerful leader upon the throne, and from the one time he had previously met Telumehtar, he found him very intelligent and easy to deal with. He did not have to force a smile onto his face, as he did so often with the rulers he encountered. Having received the King's welcome, he turned to Saruman, and they briefly clasped hands in greeting, both feeling that this was too formal a setting for a friendly embrace. The King gestured for them to sit.

As soon as he was settled Gandalf said, "I must begin by congratulating your Majesty. The defeat of the Corsairs and the retaking of Umbar were bold moves, and they should aid our cause greatly. You have definitely earned your new title."

"You are most kind," Telumehtar responded. "Yes, I hope it may be a sign of how our fortunes will go, but obviously we must not allow this victory to lull us into complacency."

Saruman shook his head and looked at Gandalf. "I have just been telling the King a little about some of the fierce peoples to the East that I encountered during my journeys there. I believe from reports that I have recently received that they may be banding together. That surprised me at first, since they are mostly large tribes that are more inclined to fight each other than to seek conquests far from home. Yet if they were to gather their strength behind a single cause, they would be implacable and powerful foes."

Gandalf nodded. "Those are the ones you once told me about, I presume. You called them 'Wainriders.'"

Saruman nodded and added for the King's benefit, "Yes, they earned that name because they travel in great wains. As I was explaining, their leaders are reckless and lead troops into battle in horse-drawn chariots. In a combat on relatively flat ground, that would give them a distinct advantage against soldiers on foot."

Gandalf said, "Yet you say now that uniting their strength runs counter to their traditions. Do you have an idea as to the reason behind this change?"

The White Istar's face was grave. "I do not doubt that Sauron's minions are the cause. They corrupt leaders with gifts and promises of greater wealth. There is still considerable resistance to the idea of moving against the mighty force of Gondor. The leaders of these tribes are far from foolish. That said, the more they can be brought to imagine their groups united into a formidable force themselves, the less they will fear launching such an attack. Some of those areas, especially to the south, are subject to occasional droughts, and a famine might well make them view the fertile fields of Gondor as worth such a risk. Who knows, the Dark Lord may now be powerful enough to cause such a drought and drive the tribal leaders to behave in a reckless fashion. An invasion would not happen immediately, I think, but I would not be surprised if within the current reign or the next, we begin to see signs of encroachment from the East."

The King nodded occasionally as Saruman spoke. Finally he said, "I see little that we can do except continue to build up our stocks of weapons and train new recruits. We can hardly attack such foes, fragmented and mobile as they apparently are. We would have to travel an enormous distance to do so and find ourselves without shelter and cut off from supplies. The Corsairs at least were centered in one area, and one that is close by. Also I deem that attacking these eastern and southern tribes would only hasten their unification and provoke their hostility. Defense would seem to be our best option."

Gandalf thought for a moment. "I'm afraid you are right. We three shall discuss the means of building up the strength of Gondor and analyze where weak points might be. I would like to hear more about these various populations," he added, turning to Saruman.

"Of course. I suggest that you and I retire to allow the King to return to other business. We can take counsel together and perhaps over the next few days do some work in the archives. I know these tribes to some extent by direct observation, but there may be much concerning their history among the vast records of Minas Anor's library. Knowledge of past behavior might hint at how such peoples would act in the future. We would soon be in a position, I hope, to bring new information and ideas to his Majesty."

Telumehtar stood, and the two Wizards immediately did as well. "That all sounds reasonable and wise, Lord Saruman. I thank the two of you for your help, past and future. Lord Mithrandir, I have arranged for a room in the guest wing to be prepared for you. I hope you will both stay long with us, using the archives as you will and giving me the benefit of your wisdom." The two Istari inclined their heads as he walked to a small side door and left them alone.

Now they embraced with delight. As they drew apart, Saruman said, "I trust that my message reached you and that your arrival here is by design rather than coincidence."

"Oh, yes. Radagast's birds once again prove their efficacy. I was just nearing Lothlórien when the one that you had sent found me. I made but a brief stay in the Golden Wood and hastened here as quickly as I could. To mixed news. The triumph in Umbar is most encouraging, but if what you fear comes to pass, Gondor's current progress will be short-lived. The business about the chariots worries me. Horses are rare here in the South, and they are not all that common in the North, either. I doubt that Gondor could field a troop of chariots any time soon."

"True enough, and there are no really hilly areas between here and the Anduin to serve as a battlefield that would hinder the enemies' chariots. If the fighting could be centered in the woods of Ithilien, things would be different, of course, but one can hardly dictate to one's enemies where to attack! Well, the time for dinner approaches. Shall we put political matters aside for tonight and go and eat in the guest dining-hall? I believe only the two of us are in residence there, so we would take up only an end of that great table."

Gandalf wrinkled his nose slightly. "Must we? In that great, echoing hall? Not that I do not value your company, of course, but I personally would prefer someplace a bit cozier and friendlier. How about just going to a pub? We could talk more privately in such a place. No one would be interested in our conversation, and even if someone were, the noise would drown it out. I always feel that we shouldn't say anything of import in front of the servants in the dining-hall-and they would probably not object to eating our dinner for us."

Saruman smiled indulgently, for he was used by now to Gandalf's eccentric fondness for casual dining of this sort. "Fine, I have no objection. I suppose the one where you took me the last time we met here would do."

"Oh, did you like it?"

"Well, as you know, I prefer finer fare. But having a more private meal together outweighs that consideration, and as a pub, that one is fine. At any rate, tonight will be your choice."

"Thank you. If you're sure you don't mind .... Let's go to that same one, then. Of course, under more convivial circumstances I have no objection at all to finer fare myself. I expect that the King will ask us to dine with him tomorrow night, and the cuisine will be as elegant as either one of us could wish."

The pub was two levels down in the City, and the Istari strolled toward it. Heads turned in curiosity, for the pair stood out in the crowded street, and a few greeted them. They soon reached their destination.

The instant that they were seated a waiter plunked two large vessels of ale before them and hurried away. Saruman was rather startled by his abruptness, but Gandalf grinned after the Man and slid his tankard toward himself, creating a wet trail of the ale that had sloshed out. He turned it to bring the handle into a convenient position and took a deep swig. He sighed appreciatively. "It would seem that the brewers of the city have had a particularly good year. Delicious!"

Saruman sipped his own ale and nodded. It was surprisingly good, for a common public house of this sort.

Gandalf continued, "Of course, it may just be that I have not had ale in many weeks. Lovely though the wines of Lothlórien are, I still regret that the Elves do not practice the art of brewing."

After a short wait, the proprietor, whose large apron bore considerable evidence of the variety of dishes on offer, bustled up to their booth. "Welcome, my Lords! What would you like? Tonight I have a special dish, a superb roast of beef, tender and juicy."

"Yes, I'll have that!" Gandalf said, chuckling as he held his fingers far apart to indicate the thickness of the piece he wanted.

The Man nodded with an answering chuckle and turned inquiringly to Saruman. The White Istar smiled and said, "Yes, I'll have the beef as well." After their host had left, he said with quiet amusement, "As always, you have a very hearty appetite. Rather surprising, given how thin you are. I don't know where you put it all."

"Yes, I rather wonder that myself sometimes. Well, good cooking is one of the few pleasures that a perpetual traveler can find in all the towns and villages and farms of Middle-earth-and in such variety! When I arrive at those places, I do like to make up for the rather tedious fare that I often have to put up with when I am on the road between them. I'm sure that on your many travels you have experienced the same problem."

Saruman nodded thoughtfully. "Undoubtedly, especially when traversing the great plains of Rhovanion on my way back from the eastern countries-though I did find occasional hospitality from the Men that are scattered across that region. I must admit that the eastern countries themselves afforded many quite exquisite dishes. Exotic, to be sure, and flavored with strange spices, but once one got used to them, most pleasurable. I think that is really the only part of my sojourn in the East that I truly miss."

Exotic, yes. That word-and the presence of the Grey Wizard--made him think briefly of the beautiful young Men of that part of the world, so impressed by his status and authority and so willing to join him in his bed for pleasures that were even more exquisite than the food. He had sometimes wondered if at least some of them had been ordered to do so by their overlords, but he could not bring himself to inquire and then feel obliged to forego their company. Them he missed as well. Of all that he would never speak to Gandalf, for fear that his fellow Istar would look down on him for indulging in such activities. True, the Grey Istar slept with Radagast, but presumably that was a long-running affair, based on love, and hence nothing that Gandalf would be particularly ashamed of. Most of the pleasures Saruman had experienced during his long travels had nothing to do with love. He thrust such thoughts aside.

The White Wizard sipped his ale slowly and watched as Gandalf smiled when a group of Men standing near the large fireplace broke out in a lively song. He had met the Grey Istar many times by now. Sometimes only months separated their encounters, and at other times they did not see each other for several years. He looked forward to these encounters very much and enjoyed them more than anything else he did in Middle-earth, and he sensed that Gandalf anticipated them keenly as well. Whenever they were in situations like this, where many people were about, cheerfully enjoying themselves, Gandalf could enter in easily. Saruman envied him the ability to make friends so readily. Not that he really wanted to make friends with Men like those who frequented the pubs along the road or the ones here that Gandalf insisted on eating in-but he wished that he did want to do so. It would make life here so much more pleasant.

Ever since that lovely morning in Lothlórien so long ago-173 years now, he thought with a shock-he had found the Grey Istar attractive and had envied Radagast for being his lover. Each time they met again Saruman's desire grew, and yet he resisted making any overtures to the other Wizard. For a start, Gandalf had never shown any interest of that sort in him. He was wonderfully friendly, slightly deferential to Saruman as the head of the order of Istari, and a delight to be with, but there was no sign whatsoever of reciprocated desire. Dread of rejection and reluctance to wrong Radagast combined to keep the White Istar silent. He found other means to satisfy his physical cravings, and he strove to think of Gandalf only as the Grey Wizard thought of him-as a friend and colleague in a great mission. Still, he often wondered how Gandalf could bear to be away from his lover for such long stretches of time. Was it possible that he slept with others as well, between those rare visits to Radagast?

They sat longer in the pub than they had intended, trading amusing stories of their minor doings since they had last met and, later in the evening, talking more seriously of their hopes for the future. At last both began to feel tired, and they settled their account and walked slowly back up to the highest level. The streets were quiet and the stars spread out above them. The nearly full moon was bright enough to cast distinct shadows, and the white stones of the city walls and streets glowed pale silver.

As they walked, Saruman broached the subject that had been bothering him despite his attempts to ignore it. "Have you visited Radagast lately? I would think you would be very eager to see him." He spoke with a friendly, teasing little smile.

Gandalf stared at him in surprise for a moment, but he soon smiled and replied, "I didn't realize that you knew about us. I am always happy to meet with members of the Wise, of course, but Radagast and I have become very close. As you can imagine, he was a great support to me. I was the last of the Istari to arrive, and he helped me to adjust and learn about the place. I quickly grew fond of him."

Saruman nodded during this confirmation of his suspicion that the two other Wizards' relationship had been so long and stable. There seemed little likelihood of its ending, given the affectionate way in which Gandalf spoke of his lover. He allowed none of his disappointment to show in his face as the Grey Istar went on. Saruman tried to ignore the irrepressible thought that Gandalf might not be entirely true to his lover. How deeply could he really love someone who was far below himself in wisdom and learning? Saruman wondered if the Grey Wizard might not accept a friendly proposition. He tried to concentrate on what Gandalf was saying.

"I was with him in Mirkwood several weeks ago. He assures me that Dol Guldur seems silent, and yet there is a miasma of evil surrounding it that cannot simply be residual. Something powerful and dreadful dwells there. As long as that is the case, I am resigned to Radagast's decision to make a permanent home for himself. It is reassuring to have someone in that vicinity, ready to send word of any change."

"True. Like you, I cannot really approve of his decision, but as you have pointed out all along, there are advantages to it." Although he managed to hide it, talking about Radagast made Saruman tense, and he was sorry that he had raised the subject. He resolved never to speak to the Grey Istar of Radagast again outside the context of plans and policies.

By now they had reached the guest quarters. They paused in the hallway between their rooms to say good-night. As Gandalf spoke of what time they should meet the next morning for breakfast and then to go to the archives, Saruman suddenly felt an almost overwhelming urge to embrace the other Wizard, to ask him into his room, to make love with him for hours in the great bed there. He drew in several breaths, willing himself at least to ask Gandalf to join him for a last drink, but each time he let them out without speaking.

He was about to try again when the Grey Istar yawned. "I'm sorry," Gandalf said. "It is not the company, I assure you! It is simply that I set out quite early this morning to make sure that I reached here before the light began to fail. Thank you for a most relaxing evening. That and a good night's repose will make our research and discussion and planning tomorrow much more pleasant. Sleep well!"

Saruman nodded with a little smile. "And you," he responded, and both turned and went to their respective rooms. Saruman leaned back against his door after closing it and contemplated the large, empty bed. It was just as well that he had said nothing to Gandalf, he reflected. Otherwise he might be alone here any way, embarrassed at being refused and wishing that he had not spoken. True, but as always, there was also a nagging regret. Suppressing his desire was not getting any easier. On the contrary. Someday, he realized, he would have to summon all his courage and speak, come what might.

Someday did not arrive, however, despite Saruman's promises to himself. The two Istari continued to meet at intervals. Whenever they did so, Saruman studiously avoided mentioning Radagast in any personal way, speaking of him only when plans and strategies were under discussion. Often the Grey and White Istari came together at Minas Anor, for that continued to be the place of greatest concern.

During one of their meetings, a casual remark from Gandalf revealed to the White Istar that Legolas, a prince in Thranduil's realm, was his lover. Initially Saruman assumed that the other Wizard's relationship with Radagast had ended, but carefully phrased inquiries had eventually revealed that that was not the case. Saruman had felt angry and torn. On the one hand, he could hardly expect to compete with an exceedingly beautiful Elf. On the other, he took some encouragement from the fact that Gandalf was not committed to a single lover. He still wanted the Grey Istar, but the thought that he might have still more lovers that Saruman did not know about nagged at him. Why should he want someone that promiscuous? But why not? If Gandalf would sleep with more than one, why should he not satisfy his lust for his fellow Istar? The internal debate went unresolved, with indecision and inaction lingering.

They had much to deal with and many reasons to meet, whether at one of the major enclaves where the Wise took counsel with each other or simply when the two of them came together somewhere. King Telumehtar Umbardacil's triumph at Umbar was the first of a series of victories for Gondor, and yet each defeat of the foes of the heirs of Numenor seemed somehow to leave the Northern and Southern kingdoms worse off. As Saruman had predicted, the tribes of Wainriders in the East finally united and began attacking Gondor in 1851. King Calimehtar finally defeated them in a great battle on the plain of Dagorlad before the deep valley leading into Mordor, but by then Gondor had lost most of its eastern territories.

Things had gone better for a time. Calimehtar built a great White Tower in Minas Anor, and the City grew in beauty and strength. Guided by the Istari, Gondor reforged its alliance with the Northern Kingdom of Arnor. Some forty years later, renewed encroachment by the Wainriders led to further victories by Gondor, and King Eärnil finally drove them into the Dead Marches, never to be seen again.

Yet as the fortunes of the Southern Kingdom waxed, fortune treated Arnor ill. In 1974, the Witch-king of Angmar overran Arthedain and took Fornost. Annuminas and Amon Sul were lost as well. Although the combined forces of Rivendell, the Grey Havens, and Gondor were able to defeat the Witch-king's forces at Fornost the following year, their great enemy escaped, and the north was left in ruins. The Numenoreans there became a wandering band of warriors, naming themselves the Dunedain. Elrond and others of the Wise sustained these Men as best they could, especially the line of heirs of Isildur, for there was at least a faint hope that one of their number might someday regain the crown. Gandalf met with the Dunedain at Rivendell and quickly grew to admire their determination and great skill as huntsmen. As generations went by, he maintained friendships with many of their number and often cooperated with them in reconnaissance missions in the regions north and west of Elrond's realm.

Saruman and Gandalf kept track of other peoples as well. They found some hope in the repopulation of part of the land between the northernmost reaches of the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood. There settled some hardy Men, akin to the Beornings of the Men of the west-eaves of the great forest. Yet their origins were loftier than that, for they had come from further east, a great realm in Rhovanion, having been displaced by the early invasions of the Wainriders. Gandalf took note of them and visited them and briefly dwelt as guests of their leaders, for he felt that they might someday become valuable allies in the fight against Sauron.

He also revisited the land of the Hobbits as frequently as he could. He seldom mentioned this when he was in Rivendell or Lothlórien, for the Elves were wont to smile a little condescendingly at his interest in these insignificant, rural creatures. He took delight, however, in discovering that the society of little people had become more sophisticated. A few years after the Battle of Fornost, Bucca of the Marish had become the leader--the Thain, as the Hobbits called him--of the Shire. This was the first time one person had claimed to govern the entire area, though in practice the peaceable Hobbits ran their own local affairs without much resort to authority from beyond their villages. Their land seemed so separate from the great troubles of the world that Gandalf found himself visiting it more often, glad that his occasional journeys to meet with Cirdan took him through the Shire.

Eventually, however, greater trouble returned. The Witch-king's departure from the former kingdom of Arnor proved only a feint, for he went to Mordor and gathered the other Nazgul about him. The huge underground Dwarvish kingdom of Moria, which had previously played little part in the policies of the Wise, was suddenly decimated by a terrible and mysterious foe, and its inhabitants had fled, abandoning their great works beneath the Mountains. Even Lothlórien had been affected by the evil forces pouring out of Moria, and many of the Silvan Elves had fled to the south, never to return. As always, the Istari found themselves confronted with defeats in various parts of Middle-earth and yet no clear enemy to attack.

Thranduil's Realm in Mirkwood, 2003 TA

In Thranduil's small throne-room, the King sat with his two sons and some of his other advisors, listening to Gandalf's account of disturbing developments in Gondor.

"I am sorry to have to bring the news that the Nazguls' siege of Minas Ithil has finally been successful. King Eärnil has withdrawn its troops to Osgiliath, so that unhappy city currently stands as the last defence of the River crossing. There are now essentially no guards upon the borders of Mordor. The Men of Gondor have taken to calling the beautiful old watch-city Minas Morgul, and so it will remain, I suspect, for many years."

There was a brief silence before Thranduil asked, "How strong an ally is Gondor now? Can we count upon its troops to protect at least the western bank?"

"Yes, I believe we can. The Dark Lord's forces were ultimately able to prevail at Minas Ithil because the garrison of Men there was so isolated, so distant from their supply base at Osgiliath. In contrast, the orcs surrounding them easily received food and drink from within Mordor. The defeat was inevitable. Over the years I have urged the Kings of Gondor to concentrate as much strength as they could upon maintaining Minas Ithil as a crucial guard-post against encroachments from within Morder and to create a protected route from Osgiliath to the fortress. That really wasn't possible, alas, since their ability to sustain a sufficient force waned. The great plague of 1636 was no doubt the beginning of the problem. When Tarondor moved the King's House from Minas Ithil to Minas Anor, he acted in the hope of consolidating his strength until the population could grow again. I'm sure he meant to fortify his guard upon Mordor soon, but the Enemy struck swiftly and sent forces enough to reoccupy the Dark Land. Osgiliath began to fall into ruins even then. Now it offers a somewhat weakened base from which to resist the Nazguls' forces. Even so, Eärnil is determined to hold the city, and I think that he can do so for the foreseeable future. At least, as long as Sauron's forces remain entirely on the east bank, supplies and soldiers can move freely from Minas Anor to Osgiliath. Still, I am far from happy about the situation there. Certainly no progress is being made."

Thranduil nodded thoughtfully. "I am surprised that you have come so far north yourself under the circumstances. We appreciate hearing your news, of course, but the situation there sounds tenuous."

"It is, but Saruman visits often. The last I heard of him, he was again in Minas Anor. I frequently meet there with him, and we give counsel to the King. Well, I should mention that I did not come primarily to bring you up to date on doings in Gondor. I am traveling upon a completely different matter. Your new 'neighbors.'"

Thranduil briefly looked puzzled and then replied, "Oh, yes, the Dwarves of Erebor." The entire group of Elves glanced at each other with slightly annoyed, dour expressions.

Gandalf surveyed their faces and sighed. "Yes, Thráin's realm under the Mountain. You have had a few years to get used to them. They will prove useful allies, you know. They and the Men of that area will keep safe the eastern regions that you Elvish folk cannot patrol."

Thranduil sighed in turn. "No doubt. They are doughty warriors and skilled craftsmen, and you will be pleased to know that we have regular contact with them. But they have no great love for Elves-or any other peoples. I am only glad that they are so little interested in forest-lands, or I fear they might hope to expand their realm in our direction. Even so, the fact that we, unlike most Elvish folk, live underground as they do might well someday draw their covetous eyes in this direction."

Gandalf frowned. "Dwarves may keep to themselves and act with suspicion toward others, but they would not seek to conquer the lands of their allies, even if they are Elves. Nay, they will be occupied for years to come in making their new home livable and safe and in establishing the trade contacts that will sustain it. I am just thankful that so many of them survived the disaster of Moria. At any rate, I have taken my first opportunity to come north and east to acquaint myself with their new realm. I shall be moving on toward Erebor in a few days. With the situation in Gondor worsening, it is vital to make sure that Thráin realizes he must be ever alert and take an active hand in defending Mirkwood and the lands to its east. He must not be lulled into complacency by the isolation of the Mountain and the security that its caverns afford."

Legolas said, "Up to now we have kept this part of the Greenwood safe. Still, surely with Mordor reoccupied, the power of Dol Guldur may wax once more."

Gandalf replied, "Yes, you are probably right, Legolas, though so far there are no signs of it. I visited with Radagast briefly on my way here, and he tells me that the Tower has been utterly silent for many years now. Not that that means there is no evil dwelling there. My suspicion is that for now the Dark Lord's forces are concentrated entirely upon Mordor, but some directives may come from Dol Guldur. Fortunately the Elves of Lothlórien remain ever vigilant, and the Lady's power has not diminished."

With Gandalf having delivered his most important news, the discussion became more informal, and the group talked for more than an hour of the growing signs of the Shadow over the great forest and of the information that they had gathered in the years since the Istar's last visit.

Eventually the meeting broke up, and Gandalf managed to time his departure so that he could catch up with Legolas in the hallway. They walked together toward the Elf's room. As they reached it the Wizard said, "I am always cautious in approaching your door, my sweet Legolas. Is there a friendly puppy waiting to spring out at me?"

"No, you have timed your return well. The current Maerfarad is a dignified dog of advancing age. You met him on your last visit, but I'm not sure that he will remember you."

Maerfarad did remember the Wizard and greeted him happily-and quietly. Legolas watched with amusement as Gandalf knelt and stroked the dog's smooth head as he conversed briefly with him. The animal did not require any little bargains but politely lay down near the cold fireplace and ignored the pair, and they walked out onto the open porch. The weather was cool, with a high layer of thin clouds, but the warmth of the morning sun lingered in the enclosed porch, radiating from its stone walls and floor. As always, Gandalf leaned on the railing to take in the view.

His gaze centered on the Lonely Mountain. "As beautiful as ever! One would hardly think to look at that serene scene that there are hundreds of Dwarves laboring away diligently within it. Given the situation further south, I suppose that I shall only be able to make a short stay with them."

Legolas leaned on the railing beside him and smiled wryly. "I would say 'all the better for you,' but I know that you are so eccentric as not to mind visiting Dwarves. In fact, you evidently enjoy it. So what I shall say instead is, 'better you than me!' At least their presence there gives you more occasion to visit me."

Gandalf looked at him with an exasperated little frown and then sighed. "I know I would be wasting my breath if I gave you a lecture on why Elves and Dwarves should try to become friends and not just trading partners. You certainly don't seem to mind the beautiful objects that their skill creates." He glanced at a new jeweled vase, clearly of Dwarvish make, decorating one of the small tables at the back of the porch. He had noticed other such precious objects in Thranduil's study.

Legolas moved sideways until their arms were pressed together. He stretched his neck to brush his lips provocatively against the Istar's ear, murmuring. "No, and you do not seem to mind visiting the horribly intolerant Elves of Mirkwood."

Aroused despite himself, Gandalf smiled and replied, "No, but then I believe... mmm ... that someday such intolerance will give way to cooperation, even perhaps friendship. Mutual necessity will cause it, if nothing else does." He gulped and tilted his head to offer his ear more directly to the Elf's tantalizing mouth. "In the meantime, I shall not mar our reunion with another lecture. You know my opinions."

Rivendell, 2060 TA

The Wise were converging upon Rivendell from all directions. Galdor had come from the Grey Havens and was already settled in. The Lady Galadriel, though she seldom traveled, had arrived with a small contingent of Elves from the Golden Wood. The Grey and White Istari, who had met by arrangement in a small country inn on a crossroads to the west of Elrond's domain, had much enjoyed each other's companionship as they hiked along the great east-west Road. They were now approaching the huge valley controlled by Elrond. A light rain that came down at intervals made them eager to arrive. They had fallen silent, having talked extensively during their journey and now being sunk into their own thoughts as they contemplated the gravity of the situation that necessitated this extraordinary gathering.

They searched long for the path down into the Valley, for the rain made it difficult to see far. It was overgrown from disuse, but Galdor's group had flattened the weeds, and that helped them locate it at last. They pressed on down the steep path as quickly as safety would allow until they reached the floor of the Valley and eventually the great House of Elrond. As they walked over the flatter land, the rain increased, and they were thankful to enter the warmth of the large hallway.

The two Istari doffed their wet cloaks, and as news of their arrival spread, members of the household soon appeared to greet them. Saruman was acknowledging the welcoming words of his host and speaking politely to Elrond's wife Celebrian when his attention was drawn to the other side of the broad hallway, where Gandalf was embracing various members of the household. One of Elrond's main advisors, Erestor, held the Grey Istar against himself a bit too long for mere friendship. Saruman coughed to provide an excuse to stop speaking for a moment and turn his head aside to observe the pair. He could see all too clearly the loving look the Elf and Gandalf exchanged. He noticed too the way that the other Elves drew subtly away from the two and refrained from looking at them, giving them just a semblance of privacy in the midst of the crowd. Suddenly the cold that he felt had little to do with his damp clothing, and only with difficulty could he turn back with a smile to continue the conversation with Elrond and Celebrian.

A short time later the White Istar saw Gandalf move to greet Galadriel, and he too excused himself to speak with her.

Gandalf looked around the group, which was beginning to break up and move toward the dining hall, and remarked, "I see that we have all arrived except for Radagast."

Galadriel shook her head. "He is not coming, I am afraid. Once he delivered the news of ominous activities at Dol Guldur, he returned to his home to send out messages summoning all the Wise to this meeting. We settled upon Rivendell as the place for it because we knew that both of you were west of the Mountains, and it seemed the easiest point of assembly. I was the only one who had to travel far, and I welcomed the rare chance to visit Imladris. Radagast says he will continue to monitor Dol Guldur and send word of any change."

Gandalf nodded. Inwardly he felt distinctly relieved. For hundreds of years his arrangements with his three lovers had been stable and relatively simple. He was able to be with any one of them seldom, and no two had ever been present in the same place when he visited. Having that happen now would have been awkward. They all knew about each other, of course, but the logistics .... He had never felt jealous himself, for he could not expect any of them to remain celibate for his sake when he was away. He was just grateful that they tolerated his long absences and remained so loving to him when he did visit. Jealousy might, however, finally taint those relationships if his lovers met. He fell in beside Erestor to go in to dinner.

All the members of the Wise naturally dined at the head table on either side of Elrond. There were no assigned seats, and yet all the Elves avoided the chairs next to Erestor so that Gandalf could choose one of them and sit beside him. Gandalf took his place and rested his hand on the Elf's briefly before glancing around to find Saruman. He caught the other Istar's eye, and Saruman moved quickly to join them, sitting on Erestor's other side.

Throughout the meal the conversation was lively. Saruman was particularly entertaining, and those around him listened to his tales of his doings in various places, seasoned with picturesque anecdotes of little incidents among peoples that the Elves seldom encountered. Gandalf was himself an entertaining storyteller-and a bit more inclined toward the sort of gossip that many of the Elves appreciated-but he refrained from speaking much. Saruman was at Rivendell far less often than he, and he enjoyed seeing his friend display his wit to the other guests.

Later, when the meal had reached the dessert course and the conversation had become quieter, Gandalf was speaking with Galdor, seated on his other side. He turned back to Erestor and discovered that he was telling the White Istar about the early years of his friendship with Gandalf. He did not mention their intimacy, of course, but he could not keep the fondness that the memories evoked in him from reflecting in his face. Saruman nodded and smiled as he listened and occasionally interjected a question. The Grey Istar avoided staring, but out of the corner of his eye he watched happily as two of the people he loved best became better acquainted with each other.

Eventually the group left the dining hall, many moving toward the Hall of Fire for the evening's entertainment and relaxation. Erestor put a hand softly on the Grey Istar's sleeve. "I shall await you in my room," he whispered. Gandalf nodded happily, and the Elf slipped away.

Gandalf turned and found Saruman watching them. He moved across the hall to say good-night to his fellow Istar. "That was a very agreeable meal. You were most entertaining tonight."

"Oh? I am afraid that you have heard many of those anecdotes a time or two already."

"Some, yes, but you recount them so vividly that even now I do not find them at all dull. Are you going to the Hall of Fire tonight?"

"Yes, but just for a little while. I am somewhat tired from the difficult journey today. And you?"

Gandalf smiled with quiet pleasure. "No, not tonight. Much though I love the entertainment there, I have a better offer."

Saruman chuckled and glanced in the direction where Erestor had disappeared. "Better indeed, with such a delightful companion. I wish you a most joyous evening, then. Good night."

"Thank you, and I hope that you enjoy the tranquility of the Hall."

With that Gandalf strolled back along the maze of corridors toward his bedroom. He had not had time to drop off his staff and small bag upon arriving, since they had gone directly in to dinner. The room looked marvelously familiar after a long stretch away from it. For a moment he thought of Radagast's home, so spacious and cozy, reflecting the Brown Istar's personality in all its furnishings. His own room here was large enough for his needs and decorated mainly with Elvish artworks made with consummate skill. It was the closest thing he had to a home, and yet there were years when he spent only a few days here-and sometimes none at all. He was only a guest, albeit an honored one, and one of the few signs that marked the room as his was a neat stack of fireworks-making supplies tucked away in a corner. Another, the drawing that Radagast had given him, hung above the mantle. No matter if I am merely a guest, he thought, reminding himself that he had one treasure always awaiting him in that great House. He went out and walked quickly to Erestor's bedroom.

Erestor was kneeling by the hearth, stoking the small fire. He rose and turned toward his guest. The Elf was particularly tall, with an unusual, beautifully sculpted face. His cheekbones, starkly set off by the strong firelight from the side, were high and prominent, sloping down into slightly hollow cheeks and a strong chin. His eyes were deep and solemn, and his face held a gravity and calm that inspired confidence. Gandalf took joy in being able to bring a rare smile to that face or to elicit an occasional soft laugh. And he well knew that the Elf's quiet demeanor concealed a capacity for passion that matched his own. Erestor had become his second lover about a hundred years after he arrived in Middle-earth. Ever since then Gandalf had felt extremely grateful that Rivendell was so central and from early on had become his base of operations as he moved about the continent.

He joined Erestor by the fireside, gazing down into the flames. His hand slid around the Elf's slender waist and down to the side of his hip, pulling Erestor's body firmly against his own. The Elf put his arm around Gandalf's shoulders and rested his head atop his white hair. They stood thus for a long minute, enjoying the heat of each other's bodies and the joy of simply being alone after the long meal.

Suddenly Gandalf asked, "Do you suppose that Saruman has a lover here at Imladris?"

Erestor raised his head and looked down solemnly at him, but the Wizard could detect the amusement in his voice when he replied, "A very romantic thing to say after a long separation! I have never seen or heard any indication that he does. Why do you ask?"

"I'm sorry. I know, I should be whispering sweet words of desire into your ear-and I shall soon do that and more. But it occurred to me just now to wonder. At dinner he was, as usual, a delightful and entertaining companion. I'm glad that those guests who know him little got a chance to see how charming he can be. I noticed, though, that he seemed never to divert his attention to any one that might be special to him in that way. It makes me feel a little sad. I am overjoyed to be back with you, and yet he apparently has no one."

"Maybe he does have someone elsewhere-someone he has pledged himself to."

"Quite possibly, I suppose, and yet he has never hinted at it. I would think that such a handsome and dynamic Man should have no trouble in finding lovers if he wanted them. Perhaps he is simply not interested in that sort of thing-which would be a pity."

Gandalf had never mentioned it to the Elf, but there had been times during the years after Saruman's return when the two Istari met in isolated places after long journeying and Gandalf considered trying to find out whether Saruman would respond favorably to the notion of their becoming lovers. He admired the other Wizard and found him attractive, but Saruman was, after all, the head of his Order. He didn't betray the slightest sign of being attracted to Gandalf in that way. The Grey Istar did not want to be presumptuous, and he knew perfectly well that he was older-looking and less beautiful than Saruman. Above all, he did not want to risk even a slight awkwardness creeping into their friendship, and he had long since abandoned any such ideas. He hoped that Erestor was right and that Saruman did have a lover elsewhere. Saruman was certainly reserved in his manner, and it might be that he simply preferred to keep his private life to himself.

Erestor replied, "Perhaps. And at any rate, there's nothing you can do about it-unless you want to start playing matchmaker for your fellow Istar."

"Hardly! Unless possibly Glorfindel ... no, no, my dear Elf, I am just teasing. You know how I love to see that charming smile of yours."

Erestor pulled his lover to face him and rested his forearms lightly on the Wizard's shoulders. "Indeed, no one else can make me smile half so often."

Gandalf moved forward until their torsos were pressed together. He stretched up to murmur into the Elf's ear, "I shall make you do more than smile, my darling Erestor. I promise you that." He raised his face and reached up to pull the Elf's head gently down until their mouths met. At first their tongues swirled slowly, but soon they invaded ravenously until the pair pulled suddenly back to pant and stare pleadingly into each other's eyes.

Erestor reached under the Wizard's vast beard, deftly undoing the shirt's buttons and spreading it wide. Licking his thumbs and fingertips, he pinched gently at the brown nipples, making them rise and harden almost instantly. The Elf lingeringly rolled and rubbed the small beads, watching as Gandalf's eyes dropped shut to concentrate entirely on the dizzying pleasure that raced to his cock and made it swell within his trousers. He uttered soft, humming moans at decreasing intervals, and his hands moved up and down Erestor's arms with a feathery touch. The Istar flinched before holding perfectly still as his lover's tongue suddenly tickled at his ear's opening and then explored its whorls. Now his moans were continuous and rising in pitch, and Erestor led him quickly to half-lean, half-sit on the edge of the bed. The Elf knelt and pushed his knees apart, unlacing the front of the trousers and pulling them partway open. He leaned in to inhale the moist, musky heat that was released and to lick and kiss the top of the Wizard's erection, which was lying at an angle against his lower belly.

Erestor uttered an almost inaudible whimper at the feel of the velvety, veined skin under his lips and tongue, and he slid one flat hand up along the firm, wiry muscles of the Wizard's belly until he found one of the hard nubs and plucked at it. With his other hand, he undid his own trousers and pushed them down around his knees, slowly stroking his hardening length. Once he was fully erect, he pulled Gandalf's trousers down, freeing the erection so that he could lower his mouth over it and suck teasingly, flicking his tongue across the sensitive underside just below the tip. The Wizard opened his eyes to watch, gently caressing his partner's hair, ears, and neck. As Erestor glanced up at him, Gandalf whispered, "I love you," and then gulped as the Elf sucked harder for a moment before pulling his mouth away.

Erestor rose and placed his hands on the mattress on either side of the Wizard's hips, leaning over him and kissing his mouth firmly but briefly before gazing into his eyes. "I love you, too. I want to give you so much pleasure! Would you like me to take you?"

Gandalf's breath caught, and he nodded, cooperating as his lover quickly stripped him of his clothing. The Wizard climbed onto the bed and knelt, facing the wall and gripping the headboard. Erestor hastily shed his own trousers and, wearing only a light, loosely laced shirt, he pulled a small jar out of his bedside drawer and moved to kneel between Gandalf's spread legs. Dipping his fingers into the cream, he reached down and rolled and tickled the back of the testicle sac, gradually working back to the tight opening behind them. "I suppose that it has been long since you did this," he said in a voice ragged with passion, "so I shall be cautious."

Gandalf licked his lips. "Too long, yes! I am not worried. You are always considerate, my dearest Elf."

As he circled and pushed gently at the puckered orifice, Erestor ran his tongue over the Wizard's spine, poking at sensitive places that made Gandalf start and gasp. Eventually he slid one finger slowly inside his lover, drawing short groans of nothing but pleasure. Soon he felt the telltale rise through the front of the slick channel, and the Wizard's whole body stiffened and jerked upright as he drew in a hissing breath. "Yes!" he gasped.

Erestor rubbed slowly, adding a second finger and, despite Gandalf's inarticulate pleading, concentrated on loosening the grip of the small ring of flesh. With his other hand he coated his iron-hard member liberally. Finally, deeming the Wizard to be ready, he straightened up and leaned forward, one hand braced on Gandalf's hip as he placed the large tip of his member at the opening and pressed down on its top, forcing it against the relaxed orifice. For a moment they held their breath until the tip popped through, and the Elf paused briefly before beginning to rock his hips, embedding himself further by tiny increments. When he was partway in, Gandalf stiffened again and gasped, his body quivering as Erestor thrust slightly harder, now pressing rhythmically into the pleasure spot rather than moving further inside.

He set a slow pace, refraining from touching Gandalf's erection at first, sensing that such fondling would send the Wizard over the edge almost immediately. Now the Elf could pay more attention to his own pleasure, and his face assumed a grimace of ecstasy as the tight, hot passage resisted each inward and outward stroke. As he settled into a regular rhythm, the room was nearly silent but for their deep, slow panting as they drifted in mutual bliss.

At last need overtook restrained enjoyment, and Gandalf shifted his knees on the sheets, his body twisting and pressing back slightly in an effort to increase the pace and pressure. Erestor leaned forward and grasped the Wizard's erection firmly, pumping it suddenly and driving harder and faster as Gandalf keened with growing pleasure until his body jerked repeatedly and his come sprayed over the carved wood of the headboard and then dribbled over Erestor's fingers as the Elf squeezed every last flicker of pleasure from his member. As Gandalf's groans lapsed from ecstasy to contentment, Erestor pushed himself further inside, nearly to his full length. He began to thrust even faster, clenching his teeth and sending short, quick gusts through them as his climax teased at him and ultimately surged through him. His balls tightened and emptied into the Wizard, and the Elf's thrusting slowed gradually until he let out a deep sigh and leaned forward, pressing his slick torso onto his partner's equally sweaty back. Gandalf rested his forehead briefly atop the headboard, waiting for his heart to stop racing.

They remained still for a minute before Erestor rubbed his cheek against the back of the Istar's shoulder. He leaned over and dragged a kerchief off the nightstand, straightening up and drying Gandalf's back before carefully withdrawing and wiping them both. They managed to maneuver the bedclothes down until they could slip beneath them and lie propped slightly up on the pillows. Erestor put his arm behind the Wizard's shoulders.

Gandalf looked lazily at him. "That was wonderful ... perfect, really. I can't imagine it being any better. Well worth missing the entertainment in the Hall of Fire for."

Erestor glanced over at the fireplace, where the logs were glowing, partially ash-covered, and burning with small, steady flames. "You shall have your own private Hall tonight," he whispered, putting his powerful arms around Gandalf and pulling the Wizard to himself. As Gandalf settled comfortably against his chest, the Elf began to sing softly in his enchanting, tuneful voice. Gandalf recognized the words as a variant of a song that he had heard in Lothlórien years before. It told of the movements of clouds, some high and wispy and still, some dark and heavy with rain, scudding across the sky. Its melody shifted in key and rhythm with the verses, appropriately to each type. To the Wizard, it spoke eloquently of the Elves' love for the beauties of the natural world. It reminded him of songs that he sang to entertain himself as he hiked along lonely paths and watched the movements of trees and clouds in the wind. He tried to listen carefully so that he could sing this one in the future, but he felt himself drifting off. He would have to ask Erestor to sing it to him again ... under similar circumstances, he hoped. He looked up with heavy eyelids and smiled at the Elf. At that the Wizard began to sink into a deep sleep, not seeing the little answering smile that remained long on Erestor's face as he rested beside his lover.

Saruman lay awake long after retiring to his bed. He was debating with himself for the thousandth time. Why should he be so upset at learning that Gandalf and Erestor were lovers? He had known about two others already-including one maddeningly beautiful Elf. This new revelation should hardly surprise him. His casually phrased questions to Erestor at dinner had enabled him to infer that the two had been lovers for many years and that the Grey Istar's relationship with Erestor had existed concurrently with those other two.

Perhaps, he reflected, he was upset because he had never seen Gandalf with these others before-apart from that quick glimpse in the hallway of Lothlórien, and that had been before he had felt any attraction to the Grey Istar. But now ... if he had those three, then it was quite possible that he had others. The other Wizard was so indiscriminate in his passions. Saruman never would have believed it of him. Yet as he became used to the idea, he wondered if he should stop worrying and simply proposition Gandalf? Maybe his friend would agree readily and all his worries were for nothing. True, two of these lovers were stunningly beautiful Elves, but Radagast could hardly be described in that way. Saruman felt that he was at least as attractive as Radagast. Most people would probably find him more handsome. But no, he didn't want simply to become another of the Grey Wizard's string of lovers. It would make the whole thing so trivial in comparison with their great friendship.

The White Istar tried again to fall asleep but in vain. Why, he wondered, did all this make him want Gandalf even more? In fact, these ruminations had led to an almost painful erection. Sighing in frustration, he realized that he would not be able to sleep unless his need was relieved. He slipped his hand down to stroke his rigid length, resolutely trying to push all thoughts of the Grey Istar from his mind. He pumped his erection quickly. Soon, as he neared climax, his other hand reached for a handkerchief from the bedside table, and he came, shuddering and moaning with the force of it as he caught the spurting seed in the cloth.

Afterward he finally became sleepy, and as he closed his eyes, he thought dimly that he should give up the idea of approaching Gandalf. The Grey Istar was far and away his best friend. Ever since they had met, they both found that they could speak more openly to each other than to any others, and they sometimes even mentioned their longings for their home in the Uttermost West. It was more than that, though. There was a bond between them that went deeper than words could express. He dreaded doing anything that would put even a small barrier between them. Much though he desired Gandalf, there were other ways of assuaging one's lust-and not only the one he had just used. Yes, easy enough to make such a decision, he reflected ruefully, lying here in the afterglow of the pleasure that he had given himself. How would he feel about it in a day or two? Still, he had made up his mind, and he would try to live with that decision.

The next morning after breakfast, the group of Elves and Istari gathered on the broad, open wooden platform that jutted out from one side of the House. It was elevated slightly, out of reach of the damp lawn below, and the forest above provided flickering shade as they talked. After Elrond welcomed them more formally, he asked Galadriel to explain more fully why they were meeting. She reported Radagast's fear that the power dwelling in Dol Guldur was at last growing great enough to be dangerous. The darkness creeping northward in Mirkwood was once more increasing. Fell beasts hunted under its branches, and cruel and evil creatures laid their snares more widely and boldly.

For an hour or more they discussed the problem, recalling all the incidents they had heard relating to the Dark Tower of southern Mirkwood. The consensus among the Elves was that their old fears were justified. One or more of the Nazgul had returned thence, guided from afar by the spirit of Sauron. They it was who poisoned the air of the forest and plotted against the fair folk of the West. At last all fell silent as they pondered the implications of this news and what they should do next.

Up to this point Gandalf had spoken little. Looking around the group with a slight frown, he said, "It seems to me that we may face a worse foe in southern Mirkwood than anyone has yet acknowledged. Might it not be Sauron himself dwelling in the Tower? He has had two thousand years in which to recover from the great defeat of the Last Alliance. I suggest that the obvious thing would be to try and find firm evidence as to whether Sauron indeed now dwells in Dol Guldur. If it turns out that I am right, we should seek to capture or kill him."

After a brief pause, Galdor asked, "If you are correct and we seek that, would he not flee to Mordor, making our plight all the more perilous?"

Gandalf shook his head. "Possibly, but that does not really make sense. If he were ready to inhabit Mordor again, he would be there now. Clearly he has not the power to declare himself yet. His forces have crept into that land, because it was largely deserted and inadequately guarded in recent centuries. Were Sauron to try and assert mastery over Middle-earth again, he knows we would attack with all our combined strength, sure of our target and of putting a final end to him and his realm. He has no doubt been taking physical form again, but it would be a terrible struggle for him, deprived as he is of the power of the One Ring. At least, I have always assumed that would be the case. You are more studied than I in the lore of the Rings of Power, Saruman. Would you agree with that assumption?"

As always in such meetings, the White Istar was impressed by his colleague's wisdom and determination, but also by the way in which Gandalf always subtly deferred to him as the leader of their Order. Saruman smiled warmly at him before replying, "That is quite right, I think. Sauron poured much of his power into the One Ring, but he would have been a fool to make it the sole repository of all his might. The very fact that the Nazgul and his other foul minions have been so successful in retaking Mordor testifies to his growing strength. The terror and loathing that one feels in the vicinity of Dol Guldur is an effect of that strength. If it has grown steadily greater, then we must believe that Gandalf is correct in suspecting that the being ensconced there is the Dark Lord himself rather than merely one of the Nazgul, as we have so long thought. No Nazgul could wax in strength in such a fashion. Yet, as Gandalf says, the process would be slow and difficult for Sauron, and quite possibly he does not yet feel himself ready to challenge the leaders of the West."

Gandalf surveyed the faces of the group as Saruman spoke, hoping that the joint opinion of the Istari would convince the Elvish leaders that action was necessary. Instead, however, they cast doubtful glances among themselves before weighing in on this new suggestion.

As the discussion went on and on, Gandalf felt disappointed as he recognized the familiar pattern of Elvish strategies: investigate, consult allies, gather strength ... in short, wait. He tried to keep the irritation out of his voice as he broke in at one point, "All this sounds very organized and sensible-but it would take time, in my opinion too much time. We have no idea how soon Sauron might gain sufficient strength to make his move. Perhaps many decades. Perhaps only a few years. Could we not at least get together a scouting party of sufficient strength to defend itself? We could approach the Tower, and if the presence of Sauron is confirmed, we could return. A larger force could then be mustered for an attack."

The Elves looked uncomfortably at each other. Elrond asked, "How do we know what sort of force he has defending the Tower or how long he could withstand a siege?"

"I don't think the force can be huge, or there would have to be regular traffic between it and its supply points, enough that their movements would have become evident to us by now. The Tower is supplied in stealth and therefore by small numbers of troops. Orcs travel by night anyway, so they would be capable of hiding such operations from us. As to how long those in the Tower could resist-I'm afraid there is only one way to find out."

The discussion resumed, and Gandalf soon realized that the Elvish tendency toward caution was all too evident in the opinions expressed. Only Galadriel seemed inclined to take his side, offering a substantial contingent of Lothlórien archers if a scouting party were decided upon. Saruman seemed to be weighing each statement, and although he did not declare support for the Grey Istar's ideas, neither did he encourage the inclinations of the Elves. In the end, the most that they would agree to is that the group should continue the discussion over the next few days. They would find the most reliable maps of southern Mirkwood that Elrond's library afforded and formulate possible strategies.

As the meeting ended and the Elves left the platform, Gandalf leaned over to whisper to Saruman, "Strategies are all very well, but they are of practical use only if implemented. Individually all the people here are courageous beyond measure, but I'm sure they hesitate to put any of their troops at risk. Do you think they will ultimately get up the nerve to carry through and attack the Tower?"

Saruman sighed and watched as the group slowly entered the house. "There is not much indication of it, is there? It has been so long since they have experienced any direct threat to their safe enclaves. Long-term defense has served them well."

"Yes, only Galadriel agreed with us, and she of course remembers well the dangers that came upon the Golden Wood in the wake of the Moria disaster. Her land also lies closest to Dol Guldur. I would not have predicted that the others of the Wise would have so much trouble imagining what disastrous consequences could result from their inaction. They are all so sensible in most of my dealings with them that I tend to forget how irresolute they can be when action outside their own borders is required."

Saruman gave a wry smile of exasperation and stood to follow the group, pausing to wait for Gandalf. As the other Wizard rose, he said, "I am surprised that Erestor did not support your position. Surely in private you urged him to do so."

Gandalf shook his head. "I had not spoken of the matter to him. I do not like to put any pressure on him, for, close though we are, he answers strictly to Elrond when it comes to policy. He should not have to be pulled in two directions by people who are both more powerful than he."

Saruman smiled more fondly and nodded. As always, he admired his friend's ability to discern the underlying implications of all the matters that the Wise debated.

Gandalf gave an annoyed little snort, shaking his head and muttering, "Something will simply have to be done." He paused and sighed, resuming more cheerfully, "Ah, well, perhaps you and I can come up with some new information that will convince them."

The White Istar patted him encouragingly on the shoulder. Gandalf returned his smile, shrugging resignedly, and they walked together into the House.