The Road to Isengard

by Nefertiti

Rating: NC-17

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

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 Four

Rivendell, early 2064 TA

Gandalf walked quickly through the long corridors of the Last Homely House, wanting to deposit his bag, hat, and staff in his room before going to look for Erestor. He had not seen the Elf in nearly two years now. After his triumph at Dol Guldur and his first blissful night with Saruman, he had spent weeks in the Golden Wood and then traveled south with his new lover to Minas Tirith. The two Istari had spent the entire winter there together, since the flight of Sauron had taken some of the pressure off them for the time being. Indeed, Saruman planned to stay at Minas Tirith indefinitely. Now that peace was established-however temporarily-he would spend as much time as possible examining the vast contents of the archive there. With the spring, however, Gandalf determined to go north again, to discuss the vastly changed situation with members of the Wise at Rivendell. Gandalf expected that thereafter he would need to visit virtually every area of Middle-earth, informing its leaders of the momentous development and consulting with them about new plans and strategies. Before departing he had considered asking Saruman to set out as well and to bear some of the burden of such lengthy travels and consultation. He had strongly suspected, however, that he would meet with resistance. Saruman clearly felt that his research would be of equal or even greater importance to their cause. Not wanting to cause an argument, Gandalf simply decided to do all the necessary journeying himself. And apart from such considerations, he found that sort of thing more tolerable than the White Istar did.

Nevertheless, the trip north had been long and lonely, apart from a brief and agreeable stay at Lothlórien. Now he was relieved and profoundly happy to be back in this beautiful place. Just as he reached his door, Erestor appeared around a corner and stopped only briefly in surprise before coming forward to embrace him. "I am so glad you have come!" he murmured in Gandalf's ear. Glancing around to make sure no one was in view, he kissed the Wizard.

"I am so glad to be here!" Gandalf replied with a tender smile which soon faded. "If you were not going on some important errand, come inside with me. I have something to tell you."

Frowning curiously, Erestor followed him, closing the door behind himself as the Istar put down his things. They sat in the chairs on either side of the cold fireplace.

Gandalf looked earnestly at the Elf. "I presume word of what happened at Dol Guldur last year has reached Imladris."

"Yes. We were all overjoyed, of course, but I especially felt proud. I have looked forward to being able to congratulate you. It was a supremely brave thing to do-but I guess you will go to any lengths to prove that you are right and we are wrong." He spoke with one of his rare smiles, and Gandalf chuckled.

"Well, you Elves are so stubborn that one must take extreme measures. Thank you, my dear Erestor, for your kind words. That was not, however, what I wanted to tell you. Something happened directly after my visit to Dol Guldur that you have the right to know about."

He spoke so seriously that Erestor stared at him, feeling his heart speed up as the Wizard continued.

"I spent the evening of my arrival back at the Golden Wood talking with Saruman in his room. To my considerable surprise, he kissed me." He paused, took a deep breath, and continued, "It turned out that he had been in love with me for some time. Frankly, I had long found him attractive as well, though I never thought it would come to anything. At that point, though, I realized that I loved him in return. I ... I hope that as in the past you can accept sharing me, my sweet Elf," he concluded with a faint, hesitant smile.

Erestor listened to him intently but without expression and then turned his head to gaze across the room toward the sunlight streaming in through the window. Although Gandalf had not taken a new lover in hundreds of years, Erestor had always remained aware that he might someday. But now that it had finally happened, the news disturbed him more than he would have expected. From early on his love for Gandalf had gradually deepened, but it had not greatly bothered him that the Istar should have two other friends with whom he was on intimate terms. Somehow he had sensed that Gandalf loved him more than either Legolas or Radagast, though the Istar had so far seemed unaware of it. Eventually Erestor had come to cherish a secret hope that someday, when Gandalf's great tasks were finished and he returned to Valinor, they could go there together and remain lovers forever. By this point the Elf's longing to be with Gandalf more regularly and to have no rivals for his affections had grown deep and intense, though he had hinted at none of this to the Istar. He knew fairly well what a burden Gandalf bore in working to protect Middle-earth. Love to him was a thing of the present, a precious respite from tasks that threatened to last for centuries more. To plead for his sole, committed love would not only be cruel, but it would also mean tempting the Wizard away from his duties-and the Elf could never do that. Not unless the West ultimately prevailed. Then ... At times such thoughts seemed foolish to Erestor, for he might be letting himself in for a horrible disappointment. Yet during the periods when he had been with the Istar, that hope had not seemed unattainable-until now.

Saruman was a different matter. He did not resemble the Grey Istar's other lovers. He was like in kind and power to Gandalf, and he would also be returning to Valinor. How could an Elf hope to compete with a Maia? True, he amended, Radagast was a Maia as well, but he was far from being as mighty and dynamic as these two. No, Saruman was the dangerous rival.

During these thoughts, Erestor's expression still did not change, and Gandalf frowned anxiously. He rose and moved to sit on the arm of the Elf's chair. "What is it, Erestor? You seem so melancholy. I certainly don't expect you to be pleased by this news, of course. Yet you did not react in this way when I told you about Legolas. You accepted that with a forbearance for which I have been grateful all this time, and I hope I have never presumed upon your patience. I assure you, my sweetest Elf, this development changes nothing in my feelings toward you. Love is not something that one's heart holds in a set quantity, to be doled out by the measure until it disappears. It is infinite. You know that. Well, that is, I don't mean to say that I intend to keep collecting lovers here, there, and everywhere! If I were that frivolous, I could have accumulated dozens-hundreds!--in the centuries that I have been here. But that would not be love in the sense that we are discussing it here. Having in those centuries found four wonderful people who have loved me despite my frequent long absences makes me a very fortunate fellow indeed, and I appreciate each of you more than I can express. I just mean that in loving someone new, I do not need to withdraw some of my love from you and thus spread it more thinly."

Slowly Erestor turned his eyes to gaze into the Wizard's. "You are right, of course. It's just that with Saruman ..."


"I feel ... that is, I wonder why he waited so very long to reveal his feelings for you."

Gandalf examined Erestor's face closely for a moment before answering, "I don't really know. He said it was because he was nervous and feared that I had such beautiful partners already that I would not want him." He stroked the side of Erestor's head gently. "Looking at you, I can imagine why he found that plausible! But I suspect there is more to it than that. He is rather restrained in expressing his feelings, though, and I have found it impossible to infer what else might have held him back."

The Wizard leaned toward Erestor to kiss him but stopped and again examined his face, staring deeply into his eyes. The Elf tried to let Gandalf see only his great love and not his secret doubts. Fearing that the Istar might discern too much of his thought, Erestor stretched forward and pressed his mouth softly against his lover's, licking his lips delicately. Their eyes slid shut, and there was virtually no other movement between them. At last Gandalf opened his slightly parted lips further and began to suck on the pointed tip of the Elf's tongue as it slid inside. Finally Erestor pulled away and tilted his head as Gandalf kissed his cheek and neck. "Take me to bed," the Elf whispered.

After Gandalf's unexpected triumph at Dol Guldur, talk of peace spread through the Western lands. There was no sign of any activity on Sauron's part. No doubt he was once again using the Eastern countries as a haven to gather strength, both within his body and in his influence and control over the leaders and troops of those lands. Clearly the Nazgul remained in Minas Morgul, but they never ventured forth from that fell city. As the years passed, the peoples of Gondor, Eriador and Rhovanion all rejoiced as the evils that had plagued them seemed to recede.

To Gandalf and Saruman, the peace offered a wonderful interlude when they could investigate and conduct research and spend a little less of their time in anxious travels. As Gandalf pointed out, however, the peace was deceptive, for they knew that Sauron would return, and they could not predict when. "For a time, complacency will be our worst enemy," Gandalf had said, and he took to calling these years "the Watchful Peace," to stress the need for perpetual vigilance. He was determined to keep visiting the leaders of the West as he always had, urging them to maintain their military strength in readiness and to stay ever alert. The most difficult thing was to get these leaders to stay in contact with each other and to remain active allies, not merely neighbors who went about their own business in a false sense of security. As far as Gandalf could see, the Istari provided the main means of spreading news and explaining the need for cooperation. Even the Wise among the Elves tended to ignore what went on among other races, perhaps deeming the generations of mortal leaders too brief to be of great use in their own struggle against the Shadow. Such insularity was Gandalf's greatest worry, and he did all that he could to combat it.

Nevertheless, Gandalf felt that he occasionally had the option to stay longer in one place or another than he had habitually done. It was a joy to do so, since he was thus able to reduce his long, lonely days on the road. He and Saruman usually met in Minas Tirith, for the White Istar still preferred the society of the powerful Men that dwelt there, the luxury of life as a guest in the City, and the vast and fascinating resources of its archives. Saruman also enjoyed traveling further south, to the Mouths of Anduin, and on a few occasions the Grey Wizard went there with him, treasuring these rare chances to gaze out over the beautiful grandeur of the open Sea. Gandalf also spent much time in the various Elvish enclaves, for there he experienced a serenity that could be found nowhere else in Middle-earth.

The one sad note in the years of the Watchful Peace was that he and Radagast were slowly drifting apart. The Brown Istar continued to maintain the system of bird messengers, even though they were used far less frequently than before. But Radagast seemed more withdrawn each time the Grey Wizard visited, more wrapped up in the forest and its inhabitants. He listened to all that Gandalf told him of doings in Middle-earth, but anything that did not immediately concern their strategies against Sauron apparently did not much interest him. Part of his withdrawal was physical. He had no other lovers, and during the long stretches between Gandalf's visits he seemed gradually to have lost his need for the delights of sex. Eventually they were making love only once per visit, when Gandalf first arrived. There came a time when the Grey Istar decided to test whether Radagast still desired physical love. He held back, not initiating intimacy, and Radagast did not either. From that point on, they were once more simply friends and colleagues. The change weighed upon Gandalf at first, for it seemed just one more indication of the Brown Istar's shift away from their order and into a world of his own devising. It particularly disturbed him that Radagast seemed uninterested in talk of Valinor, when earlier they had occasionally mentioned wistfully their wishes to return there. Throughout the rest of that stay, Gandalf was very glad for the solace that the prospect of seeing his other lovers offered him.

Minas Tirith, 2261 TA

Saruman sat in the innermost room of the labyrinthine archives of Gondor. He had been reading and taking notes all morning, and now he found that his limbs had become stiff through sitting. He stood and stretched, walking slowly about and glancing out one of the tall, thin windows at the beautiful sunny weather. Turning back toward the large table that had been turned over to him for his exclusive use as a desk, he smiled at its neat appearance. Rows of carefully stacked pages of notes reflected how much he had accomplished since he arrived two months earlier.

One document that struck his eye made the smile disappear. He had discovered it a few days before and found within it a reference to the Three Rings of the Elves. It was not a particularly important or revealing reference. The Men of Gondor knew relatively little about such things, and this author had, centuries before, mentioned them only in passing, as if the Rings were part of some legend of bygone times.

The Rings were not the stuff of legend, though. Saruman had always known that those Rings were very real, and that their power was even now being used, secretly, in the defense against the Shadow. Almost from his arrival in Middle-earth, he had suspected who held them. Galadriel and Círdan had been two of the original three recipients of the Rings, and they presumably still had theirs. Certainly Galadriel's strength and ability to maintain and defend Lothlórien strongly suggested that she was drawing upon the power of Vilya. Círdan maintained one of the other main Elven enclaves and presumably held Narya. The other Bearer, Gil-galad had been killed in the Battle of the Last Alliance, but quite clearly his Ring, Nenya, had passed to the leader of Rivendell. The Istar had briefly considered whether Thranduil might be the new Bearer of Nenya, but he decided that the king's ability to keep safe his realm lay elsewhere-in the fortified underground city, in the extensive military might that guarded the forest. No, Thranduil did not have a Ring.

Saruman stared abstractedly at the document, recalling the day when he had learned that he was wrong about one of the Three. It had come about in a simple way. He had begun to note how carefully Gandalf handled his grey cloak. True, it was a beautiful garment, made for him in Lothlórien, yet that very fact meant that it did not need to be handled particularly delicately. It resisted wrinkles and soil, the perfect wrap for a Wizard who had to travel in all sorts of weather. And it wasn't just that Gandalf folded it or hung it up neatly. Saruman noticed that he occasionally squeezed an area at the base of one sleeve. The Grey Istar only did this in private, but that often meant that Saruman was with him, and the White Wizard tended to watch Gandalf closely without seeming to. He concluded that Gandalf must have something hidden in his cloak and determined to discover what it was.

One evening shortly after he had decided to investigate the cloak, he and the Grey Istar made love long into the night. Saruman deliberately prolonged and renewed their arousal, hoping to exhaust his partner. They were both drowsy by the end, but Saruman fought sleep, occupying himself by gently kissing the other Wizard's damp cheek and hair until Gandalf had drifted off. After a short wait to make sure that his lover was fully asleep, the White Istar rose silently and moved to where their cloaks hung on a row of hooks near the door.

Saruman paused. Gandalf certainly seemed deep in slumber, but he might possibly wake up for some reason. If that happened, how could Saruman explain why he was standing there and holding the cloak in the middle of the night? After a moment's thought he lifted the garment and dropped it onto the floor. He could say that he had not been able to sleep and had gone to fetch his own cloak to keep him warm while he sat and read for a while. In doing so, he had brushed the grey one next to it off its hook. Now he knelt by it, as if about to return it to its place. But instead he turned it over and felt in the same spot he had seen Gandalf touch. There was a thick place just at the point where the underside of the sleeve joined the body of the garment. It seemed to contain something small and hard.

There was no opening on the surface of the cloak. He glanced up to make sure that Gandalf was still sleeping and then turned the garment inside out, feeling along the seam around the sleeve until he found a small flap fastened with three tiny hooks. Undoing them, he reached in and pulled out a large ring with a stone that glowed deep, rich red even in the dim light. There was a hint of flame flickering in its depths. Saruman did not need to read the Elvish writing that he could feel engraved on the Ring to tell him that he held Narya. He could see the gem's unearthly beauty-a beauty that briefly stirred vague recollections of moments long ago in Valinor. A sense of power emanated from it. He struggled to think rationally. Why did Gandalf have this Ring?

In a way, the answer was clear. The Havens did not really need much defense, being further from danger than any other Elvish enclave. The work done there was manual labor, if of a particularly complex and skilled kind. The Three Rings' strengths lay in preservation and healing. Círdan would be able to make little use of Narya, and he had passed it on to someone who could. No, the real question was, why had Círdan chosen Gandalf as its recipient? Why not Saruman?

These thoughts had passed through his mind in seconds, and during them he instinctively closed his hand over the Ring to conceal its faint glow should the other Istar awaken. Even so, he could not risk continuing to hold it, and he rapidly replaced it in its pocket, fastened the flap, and hung the cloak back on its hook. Slipping into bed, he lay long awake, growing angrier as he considered why Círdan had decided upon Gandalf rather than the head of the order of Istari to become the new Bearer of the Ring of Fire. The first thing that had occurred to him was that Círdan and Gandalf had been lovers, but upon reflection he doubted it. Saruman remembered immediately that the Grey Istar had told him that Radagast had been his first lover, after he had been in Middle-earth for a few years. Thus Círdan had not taken Gandalf to bed upon his first arrival. That was hardly surprising, for upon his own arrival at the Havens, Saruman had learned that Círdan had a wife to whom he was utterly devoted, as well as grown sons. Saruman scolded himself, realizing that jealousy would not help him think clearly. As he calmed down, he gradually realized that Círdan probably had just recognized Gandalf's great wisdom and might and had chosen him as Narya's recipient for those reasons.

After that sobering realization, Saruman had thought for nearly an hour, wondering how he could counter the power that Narya gave Gandalf. He did not want the Grey Istar to lose that power, for that would hurt their cause. Besides, he had to acknowledge that Gandalf deserved the Ring. Perhaps it also made him happy, and anything that made him happy-apart from his having other lovers-pleased Saruman as well. He could understand why Gandalf had kept Narya a secret even from him. The ownership of the Rings was not something to take at all lightly. He, Saruman, had been obliged simply to infer who the Three Bearers were. Gandalf probably would not feel at liberty to tell the White Istar, much though he might have wanted to. Probably Círdan had sworn him to secrecy.

Saruman's envy of his lover for having Narya and his anger at Círdan for his decision had not faded as he lay there. He would have to try and gain more power himself. He could not reckon on being given some potent tool like a Ring. Other power that he might plausibly obtain, such as wealth or dominion over others, would upset Gandalf. Therefore it would have to be something admirable and useful that he could find on his own: most obviously knowledge, learning, inventions, obscure crafts. The discovery of forgotten lore that might aid their mission as much as Narya could. Saruman had resolved to spend as much time doing research as he possibly could. Gandalf was enormously learned, of course, but much of his knowledge came by direct observation during his many travels. The Grey Istar had read deeply in the vast library and archives of Rivendell, as well as in the smaller ones in other Elvish enclaves but less so in Minas Tirith. There were areas in which Saruman was already better informed than his colleague, and he could focus on those. His expertise on Eastern tribes had helped Gondor during its long struggle with the Wainriders, with a happy outcome. Yes, he could see ways in which he could equal or possibly outshine Gandalf, and such calming thoughts eventually allowed him to drift off to sleep.

Since that night of painful discovery, Saruman had been many times in Minas Tirith. He had made lists of things to study and accumulated great quantities of notes about them. These he kept in leather folders that were stored away on a shelf, stacked by category, and left untouched between his visits. Eventually, of course, he would have to delve into the archive at Rivendell. The idea of being in the same house with Erestor, however, had made him put that research off. There was no point in going there until he had exhausted the resources of the Gondorean collection, unless he encountered a pressing question that required material only found in Rivendell. Now, as he sat back down at the table, he looked around at the long rows of shelves and thought of the other rooms off the corridor outside, each crammed with more documents. Yes, he would have enough to keep him occupied for decades, even centuries, to come.

And why not? He had always found life in the White City quite agreeable. It was immensely more comfortable than being on the road. In earlier times he had been highly regarded by the kings, grateful for his past aid, and now that their line had failed, the ruling stewards were equally hospitable and respectful. In recent years the current steward, Húrin I, had urged him to spend as much time in Minas Tirith as he liked. Certainly the accommodations were luxurious and the food superb. Gandalf might prefer the Elvish enclaves deep in the forests, surrounded by the trees that he so loved. Saruman found the soaring heights of the City, with its breathtaking panoramic views out over the White Mountains and the great plain of the Pelennor more to his liking. And when Gandalf visited him there, the whole situation came near to being perfect. Reading for hours side by side in the archive, eating and talking and laughing in the evening, and finally making love and sleeping together in his large bed.

If only Gandalf would agree to settle down with him there! The Grey Istar traveled far too much, putting up with inclement weather and loneliness and danger. There was so much to be learned in Minas Tirith. Of course, Gandalf always said that the best knowledge was that gained from experience. From meeting people of many sorts, talking with them, and hearing of their customs and beliefs. That was all very well and no doubt useful, but what if vital, forgotten clues lay here, hidden in the books and documents? No one would be able to tell Gandalf about them. They could only be found by diligent reading. And speaking of diligence, he wondered where Gandalf was now. The other Istar had said earlier that he was taking a short break, and yet that had been nearly an hour ago now, and he still was not back.

Don't act as if you're trying to keep him on a leash, he chided himself. That would only make him want to leave sooner. He picked up another manuscript and began perusing it. It was a lengthy description of the palantiri of old. The unnamed author told of the seven stones of seeing: where they had been placed and how great rulers used them to communicate with each other. Saruman smiled wryly. Much simpler and more reliable than the Istari's system of bird messengers, he reflected. A pity that he and Gandalf and others of the Wise did not have those stones now. Of course, it would be difficult to use them when traveling about. Apparently they had to be aligned very precisely if they were to work properly. What a boon to their cause! Given that the stones were all lost, reading about them did not seem of much use. Still, one never knew what information might serve them someday, and the more obscure the topics that he could discourse upon to the Wise, the more they might come to see his learning and worth. Besides, he enjoyed research for its own sake and felt a great sense of satisfaction as the pages of his small, neat writing accumulated.

He finished the document and went back to the page that listed where the stones had been kept. The name "Orthanc" had caught his eye upon first reading. There had been many documents from early in the Third Age that mentioned the great black watch tower built by the Númenoreans after they founded Gondor. He shook his head, thinking that that had been a long time before the Istari had arrived, which itself now seemed long ago to him. Orthanc had been the home and fortress of the lords of Gondor who watched over the western reaches of the country, but it had been abandoned hundreds of years ago. It was hardly ever mentioned in more recent texts. The White Istar had been intrigued by Orthanc and resolved to visit it someday. The tower sounded impressive indeed, and it was hard to believe that such an important piece of property was standing empty and neglected. Apart from being an impregnable building, it was surrounded by fertile fields and groves. Surely they should protect it and make sure that Sauron did not put it to evil uses. Saruman had from time to time mentioned Orthanc to the stewards, but their attention was all to the east and south. A tower so far away and so isolated seemed of little import to them. Sauron's minions had not ventured nearly that far west, and the Dark Lord had never shown any interest in Orthanc. After the plague had decimated the populations of Men south and west of the Misty Mountains, the tower was far from any significant number of people that might need protection. Such considerations were enough to make the stewards ignore it. It occurred to Saruman that the palantir of Orthanc might possibly survive. Another reason to investigate the tower. Not that such a stone would be of much use without any of the others to communicate with. Still, if only as an artifact of a great by-gone age, it would be a fascinating thing to see. He set the document aside and leaned back in his chair, rubbing his eyes.

Hearing familiar footsteps approaching, he turned toward the door, and his face lit up as Gandalf came in and crossed the room to stand beside him. The Grey Istar leaned over and kissed the top of his head. "Where have you been all this time?" Saruman asked, grasping his hand.

"Talking with Eredan. The Man is quite a gossip, as you probably have noticed. For an archivist, he seems quite fascinated by present events. Not that I am particularly interested in the private lives of most of the people he talks about, but he is very witty and gives marvelous imitations of the subjects of his stories. I find him amusing."

"Yes, you always prefer frivolous talk to diligent research," Saruman replied, clicking his tongue and shaking his head in mock reproof. "Here I have been, laboring away, while you hear about the love-life of the steward's relatives."

"All too true," Gandalf said, with a look of equally mock contrition on his face. "Well, you know that I consider the routine that we have fallen into a trifle lacking in variety. I do enjoy studying here, of course, but a little change of pace, getting out and talking to people, can send one back to the task refreshed."

"I suppose so, but I quite like our routine. Especially how we typically end our days."

Gandalf chuckled. "Randy fellow! So, what have you been learning that will help us defeat the Dark Lord?"

The other Istar shrugged. "Nothing lately, I must admit. Fascinating historical tidbits, but little of real relevance, as far as I can tell." He kissed Gandalf's hand. "Since you will not stay here and help me, why don't you lure me away from all this to entertain me and feed me? It is nearly time to quit for the morning anyway."

"I would be happy to-though you know perfectly well that I have been very industrious during my stay here."

The White Istar looked adoringly up at him. "Of course. I am only teasing. You never neglect an opportunity to do anything that could aid our cause." He paused, trying to word what he was about to say so that it would not sound like a reproach. "It is simply wonderful having you here with me. I wish you would agree to stay longer. Middle-earth is largely at peace, after all."

"I should have left days ago, for I too am learning nothing of use-but I make excuses to linger." He leaned over to kiss Saruman softly but in a way that made the White Istar contemplate a short visit to their room before lunch. Gandalf straightened up and continued, "After all, it is not for nothing that we have taken to speaking of-"

"Yes, yes, I know, 'the Watchful Peace.'"

Gandalf laughed. "Sorry, I don't mean to point it out so often. Still, I could never forgive myself if I failed to notice signs of the Enemy's return because I was here, dallying with you. Our friend Sauron will not have forgotten us any more than we have forgotten him."

The Watchful Peace continued for another two centuries. Saruman traveled regularly, but in between he spent months on end in Minas Tirith. There he accumulated vast knowledge beyond what he already had learned, and the leather folders piled up and occupied several shelves. One thing that intrigued him more and more were the descriptions of Orthanc, of which he had encountered many by now-enough to fill two of the thickest of his folders. Finally, in 2403, he received permission to visit it. The Steward Hador gladly entrusted him with the great black keys, loaning him a horse and assigning a small entourage of soldiers to escort him. The journey to the vale where the tower stood required six tedious days of riding over rolling fields of grass, and Saruman began to understand why the Stewards thought Orthanc too distant and isolated to be of concern to them.

The arrival, however, was thrilling. The soaring tower was even more impressive than he had expected. Five hundred feet of shining, jet-black stone, elaborately worked. Its inky color was spectacular against the light grey crags and glittering snows of the Misty Mountains, whose southernmost peaks were visible behind it. Their foothills tapered down on either side to form the vale in which Orthanc stood. One of the large black keys fit the lock of a sturdy iron gate at the entrance to a tunnel that led through the great, thick wall that surrounded Isengard. Despite the ages that had gone by since the gate had been opened, the lock worked perfectly.

Saruman had read that the huge circular area within was fully a mile across, and he well believed it as the group emerged into the open once more. The gardens were tangled and overgrown, but the remnants of their layout and the lines of trees were visible and spoke of the area's former beauty. The tower seemed impossibly high as they approached it. The Istar remembered Gandalf's awed description of the great height of Dol Guldur, and he wondered if Orthanc might be even taller.

The place appeared deserted, and though the group checked the tower's only entrance, the great front door, there was no sign that anyone, whether Sauron's spies or others, had tried to enter it. Indeed, the construction of Orthanc was such that even a very powerful force would be hard-put to inflict any damage on it. At Saruman's request the soldiers tested its strength by heaving large rocks at the walls, but these bounced off without leaving even a scratch. A heavy iron pike driven against it brought no more result. The lowest windows were far above the ground, and they were narrow slits through which neither Man nor orc could fit.

The second key easily opened the door, and soon Saruman entered a spacious round entry hallway. One of the soldiers lit some torches, and they slowly ascended the tower, examining the rooms that opened out onto the great spiral staircase. The Istar wondered again at the immensity of the place and the lost skills that showed in the construction of every level. Most of the chambers were gloomy and echoing, but the White Wizard could imagine that in the era when it was in use, full of lamps and comfortable furniture and colorful hangings, it must have been a welcoming place. Indeed, he had run across a few descriptions of the tower's furnishings in its glory days. He longed to make a thorough inspection, for he had not forgotten the possibility that Orthanc's palantir survived. Such a search would, however, probably take at least weeks, if not months, to accomplish. There was also a warren of storerooms and barracks in the surrounding wall. He had told Hador that he would stay only for a day or two. He decided to spend one night and then return to Minas Tirith. Starting a search and then abandoning it almost immediately would be too frustrating. Already he was thinking forward to another visit, a longer one. Now he was sure that it would be worth the amount of organization and transport of supplies that would be necessary.

As Saruman climbed the great spiral staircase, he eventually abandoned the attempt to look into every room that opened out from the landings that came at intervals. Instead he determined to reach the top. It was a long climb, but like Gandalf, the White Istar was slim and wiry, more powerful than his appearance would suggest, and he was barely panting when he at last came out onto the flat pavement of the roof. The view dizzied him for a moment, so high and immense was it. The tower's splendid isolation and spectacular mountain view inspired awe in him. As he slowly circled the pinnacle, gazing into the immense vistas spread before him in all directions, it seemed a pity that Gondor should own such a splendid, impregnable edifice and yet not be able to use it in some fashion. He noticed strange symbols engraved in the paving stones beneath his feet. After wandering about and twisting his head this way and that, he realized that they must have something to do with the night sky. Here was another mystery of Orthanc that he now had no time to puzzle out.

Reluctantly he descended, and the soldiers laid down makeshift beds for him and themselves on the hard floors of the entrance hall, since none of the rooms seemed to offer any greater comfort. Once that was done, some of them retired to a kitchen they had discovered at the back of the ground floor and began to cook a simple meal.

As they worked, Saruman watched with an indulgent expression. The soldiers, whose life in the White City often consisted of dull tasks like standing guard all day, seemed to enjoy the whole trip as a bit of novelty-tedious though the travel had seemed to the Istar. Throughout the journey, they had deferred to Saruman in everything. It was the first time that he had ever been really in command of a group of Men, and he found the experience surprisingly exhilarating. In fact, as he surveyed them, he wondered just how far his control over them might extend. He hesitated for some time, watching them and imagining the reaction if he were to demand sexual favors of one. From what he had heard in Minas Tirith, officers often received such pleasures from the Men under their command. Now he himself held the same power over them-if not more. Could any of them deny him what he wanted and hope to avoid the possible consequences? It seemed unlikely.

His attention gradually focused on a particularly handsome fellow. Not the youngest of the group, it would appear, and certainly one whom the Wizard could easily imagine would have received overtures from his comrades. As Saruman's eyes followed the Man, he found himself hardening, and after a final debate with himself, the urgency of his need made it seem worth risking the small chance of angry refusal.

Saruman moved across the room and spoke quietly to the soldier, bidding him to come into a nearby room to help him with something. Looking puzzled, the soldier followed without question. As soon as they were alone, Saruman leaned up against the black wall of the chamber and looked at his companion with an expectant and knowing expression. "You are an attractive fellow," the Istar said quietly, "and I guess that you are ambitious for advancement as well." The young Man's curious air and respectful smile faded, and his little frown and glance down at the Istar's trouser-front showed that he knew exactly what was expected of him. His eyes returned to Saruman's, as if calculating whether the Wizard would carry through with the implied promise. Saruman continued to stare at the Man with calm assurance as he began to undo the trouser-laces. Taking a deep breath, the soldier hesitated before moving forward and kneeling in front of him. Once he was in position, he seemed determined to get the whole thing over as quickly as possible, and he pulled out Saruman's hardening member and began to suck it vigorously, pumping the base of the shaft hard and quickly. The White Istar had no particular desire to draw out the act, and he sighed and watched as the lad pleasured him. During the periods when Saruman was apart from the Grey Wizard, he often relieved his physical needs with such casual encounters. These usually involved more elaborate and lengthy preliminaries, however, before he persuaded some handsome soldier or servant to join him in his bed or do what this fellow was doing so very skillfully now. Yes, this chap had done this many times, willingly or no.

The ease and impersonality of this encounter appealed to the Istar. It bore no resemblance whatsoever to the deep feelings he had for Gandalf, and he did not even fantasize about his lover while it happened. He didn't need or want to. It had been long since he had had sex, and his arousal was rapid and fierce. Soon he gave a stifled groan and erupted into the young Man's mouth as the lad struggled to swallow the hot, thick liquid that gushed into his throat.

Saruman tucked his shrinking member into his trousers and laced them up as the soldier rose and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. The Istar smiled at him. "I shall commend you especially to your superior officer when we arrive back in the City," he said in a reassuring tone. The soldier smiled slightly in return and with a bob of the head muttered, "Thank you, my lord," clearly relieved to learn that he was apparently going to get what he had hoped for in exchange for his efforts. He quickly went out to join the others, and after lingering briefly and enjoying the afterglow of his climax, Saruman returned to the entrance hall to share in the simple supper which the Men had prepared.

The entire group spent an uncomfortable night on the hard floors of Orthanc before departing the next morning for the return journey to Minas Tirith. Despite the tedium and length of the travel, Saruman felt that the expedition had been worthwhile. In the years that followed this visit, he often tried to conceive of how Orthanc might aid their cause, but it was so remote from the lands inhabited by their enemies and allies alike that it seemed impossible to come up with a plan that would justify his return for a longer stay.

Gandalf met with Saruman at fairly frequent intervals, but he continued to insist that peaceful times were exactly when he needed to keep in touch with the leaders of various places, making sure that they did not fall into complacency and let down their guard.

The Grey Istar's vigilance was ultimately rewarded, for in 2460, he discovered quite quickly after it happened that Sauron had returned to Dol Guldur. He alerted Galadriel, Elrond, and others of the Wise and journeyed immediately to Minas Tirith. "Our respite is over," he told Saruman as they shared a meal at the pub that the two now habitually visited on the days when Gandalf arrived. "The opportunity to build up our strength has been used well, I think, and many of the lands are well-guarded. Still," he concluded with a sigh, "Sauron's might has no doubt grown vastly as well."

About three years later, Elvish messengers arrived unexpectedly at the various places where the Wise dwelt, bearing an urgent summons from Galadriel calling all of them to assemble at Lothlórien to formulate new policies. The Watchful Peace was at an end.

Lothlórien, 2463 TA

Saruman traveled alone on horseback from Minas Tirith to Lothlórien. He had little notion of where Gandalf would have been when the messages went out, but he certainly hoped that the Grey Istar had received one in time to attend the meeting. As always when he reached the Golden Wood, he was met by sentries at the edge of the forest and escorted to Caras Galadhon. It was late spring, and the young yellow-green foliage created a rustling canopy above them. The Wizard enjoyed the novel surroundings, happily anticipating long walks among the trees with Gandalf. There was one cloud on the horizon, however. Given the importance of the occasion, Erestor would almost certainly be part of the group arriving from Rivendell. Saruman had thought long about how he would deal with such a situation, but beyond realizing that he could not betray any hint of jealousy to Gandalf, he had not come up with any ideas.

Once he reached the Lord and Lady's city, Saruman paid a brief call on them. They were seated on a small, open-air talon. The only other person present was Galdor, who had also obviously just arrived after the long trip from the Havens. Galdor turned and greeted the White Wizard. After a polite exchange of words, he excused himself, leaving Saruman alone with his host and hostess.

"Good afternoon to you both. I am delighted to be back in Lothlórien, though I wish the circumstances that required this gathering of the Wise were happier."

Celeborn said, "Welcome, Saruman! We are fortunate indeed that you could join us in such a timely fashion. In fact, almost everyone has arrived. Only Gandalf is missing. We are assured, however, that he received the message and will be here in time for the meeting."

Saruman hid his disappointment and nodded. "I suppose that he could arrive at any moment."

Galadriel shook her head. "Not quite, for I cannot yet detect his presence within the Wood. No doubt this evening. He will not fail us."

After a few more exchanges, Saruman left the platform, hesitated on the steps for a moment, and decided to visit the library for the short time before dinner. It was such a contrast to the archives of Minas Tirith! Because of the great weight of the books and documents it held, the library was housed in a separate building on the ground. It stood a short way from the base of the enormous tree whose branches supported Celeborn and Galadriel's complex of rooms, high above. The interior was consequently less sunny and airy than those rooms, and the many shelves prevented it from having large windows. Despite all this, it was brighter than the Gondorean archives and far less cluttered and dusty.

As he entered the library's large, single, rectangular room and closed the door, he glanced around and realized that the only person present was a dark-haired Elf, seated reading at the long central table. With a small shock he recognized Erestor, but it was too late to retreat and avoid a private encounter. The Elf had looked up at him, and they stared at each other for an awkward moment before exchanging brief, formal greetings. It was the first time they had met since the White and Grey Istari had become lovers.

The Watchful Peace had meant that the Wise did not all have to assemble at once to receive and give counsel. Their meetings tended to be in smaller groups that came together by chance. Most business could be conducted by sending written messages. One reason that Saruman had spent more and more of his time in the South was to avoid visiting places where he might encounter one of Gandalf's other lovers. As he had feared, however, Erestor had journeyed hither. Galadriel's message had made it clear that if possible all of the Wise should convene for the emergency conference she had called.

After dithering briefly by the door, Saruman decided that shying away from talking to the Elf would only make things more difficult when Gandalf arrived. He walked to the table where Erestor was sitting. "May I join you? I apologize for interrupting your reading, but I think it would be best if we frankly confront our very awkward situation."

Erestor nodded, pushed his book aside, and gestured for the Istar to take the chair opposite him.

Once seated, Saruman stared briefly at the polished wooden surface and then looked up into the Elf's dark, grave eyes. Encouraged by the lack of resentment he saw there, the Wizard said, "Erestor, I hope that our relationships with Gandalf will not alter the respect that you and I have for each other-or our ability to work together as part of the group that is assembling here. I freely admit that I feel distinctly jealous of you, and I would imagine that the sentiment is mutual. Still, I shall try to suppress that feeling, or at least not to let it show if I cannot," he concluded with a tiny chuckle.

Erestor slowly nodded. "You are right, and I am grateful for your forthright words. There is no point in our hurting each other-or him."

The White Istar licked his lips. "No. I'm sure he doesn't quite realize how difficult this is for us. He has no experience of jealousy except by observing it in others."

Erestor smiled reluctantly, and Saruman realized that it was probably the first time that he had seen a smile on the Elf's face since that rainy day so long ago when he observed him greeting Gandalf so lovingly in Elrond's hallway. It seemed ironic that Gandalf, who laughed easily and often, should care deeply for someone so very serious in his demeanor.

Erestor replied, "No, and I suspect that such observations have been very rare for him. I don't know whether Legolas or Radagast have felt jealous over him, but he seems to assume not. I do know that I have such feelings, but I hope I have been fairly successful in hiding them from him. He has so many burdens to carry that I cannot weigh him down further." He paused before remarking, "I do not mean to be critical in what I am about to say, though it may seem so. But Gandalf tends to have things his own way without being remotely aware that he has charmed people into letting him do so. Oh, I don't mean in political dealings, where he often meets opposition to his ideas and plans. But in private matters of friendship and love, I believe few would risk creating any coolness between him and themselves by not letting him do as he wishes. Of course he never intends any harm or understands how he might sometimes hurt people's feelings-partly because no one ever tells him when he does. At least that is my impression. We simply love him too much to want him to be sad, even for a moment." He hesitated again and concluded quietly, "I could not bear to see sorrow reflected on that face and realize that I was its cause. I would do anything to make him happy, and I imagine that you would as well."

Saruman had nodded a number of times during this, though it disturbed him to learn just how profoundly Erestor understood the Grey Istar and hence how very dangerous a rival he was. He clenched his teeth at the Elf's final statement. Erestor truly would sacrifice his own happiness for Gandalf's. Saruman realized that he himself would never do so. He would certainly sacrifice a great deal to make the other Istar love him and only him, as he had for so long wished. Would Erestor do that as well? He suddenly was almost certain that Erestor also deeply yearned to gain Gandalf's sole, committed love--but the Elf could not do anything about it. Saruman could do something about it, he decided. He just had not yet figured out what.

"Yes, of course," he replied. "By the way, Gandalf and I shall probably be traveling together to Gondor after this meeting. Since you have had so little opportunity to see him lately, please feel free to spend as much time with him as possible while we are here in Lothlórien-including all your evenings." It cost Saruman considerable effort to reach this decision and to make the offer in a friendly fashion, but he could afford to be magnanimous and bide his time. Someday he would gain the Grey Istar entirely for his own. In the meantime, it would greatly please Gandalf to see how generous he was to Erestor. In addition, the Elf was a pleasant colleague, and it would not hurt to have the gratitude that he now would feel in accepting Saruman's offer. Still, he vowed inwardly to keep the time that he and Gandalf spent in the Golden Wood after the Council as short as possible.

Erestor nodded and replied, "It is extremely kind of you to make this offer. I had fully expected that some rancor would arise with the three of us coming together for the first time. I should add that I have long since reconciled myself to the idea that Gandalf has more than one lover-not that I am particularly happy about it. Among the Wise, you and he are unique in your situations. You are bound by your task to travel almost constantly and to eschew the pleasures and safety of a home. Whenever jealous feelings arise, I think of Imladris and how I love living there. It is luxurious, to be sure, but more important, it is such a marvelous combination of conviviality and peaceful solitude, housing art and lore and surrounded by natural beauties that stir the heart. I often think when I dine so splendidly there or sit in the Hall of Fire of an evening that Gandalf might well be out on the road, camping or depending on the hospitality of a humble peasant's cottage or a run-down country inn. You also experience such hardships, and I sympathize with both of you. That is partly why I am sincerely happy that as you and he traverse Middle-earth, you can meet at times and take solace together. You ... you are a lover worthy of him in a way that I can never be."

Saruman was even more disturbed than before to discover just how sympathetic and selfless Erestor was in his relationship with Gandalf. He replied, "You belittle yourself, for I know that your love means much to him. As to our ceaseless travels, they do weigh heavily upon me at times, in ways that they do not seem to weigh on Gandalf. He experiences their travails, no doubt, but he finds compensation in simple joys that, to be frank, often escape me. I truly envy you the ability to settle in one place that you love, especially such a serene place as Imladris." After a moment's silence he added, "I had come to find something to read in bed this evening. I shall do so and see you at dinner. And I hope Gandalf as well, since he is apparently due to arrive here tonight."

Erestor nodded. "Thank you for speaking so openly. I believe our conversation has done much to prevent a breach that might have arisen between either one of us and him."

Saruman nodded in return and smiled as he rose. Yes, a breach that might well have been more to the advantage of this beautiful, dark-haired Elf than to himself. Now, after this conversation, it might well be he who had the ultimate advantage. He turned to survey the bookshelves on a nearby wall.

Saruman stared at their spines with unseeing eyes, however, for he was thinking back on Erestor's words. They reminded him of what he himself had long thought but tried to keep out of his mind: that the ceaseless travels he and Gandalf had to put up with were what kept the two Istari from committing themselves to each other as exclusive lovers. It was such a pity that they could not stay in one spot, as the Grey Wizard's other lovers did. Thinking back, he calculated that he had spent perhaps a third or more of his own time during the Watchful Peace in Minas Tirith. It might be that the current steward would grant him a house of his own, with servants under his direct command. There he and Gandalf could set up a sort of home, traveling much of the time still, no doubt, but a place where they could live together for stretches of time. Perhaps gradually the Grey Istar would grow accustomed to the pleasures of a more settled life and, without realizing it, spend less and less time on the road-and in Rivendell.

He mentally surveyed the various parts of the palace and its surrounding buildings. Was there a wing or a separate house where they could stay? Someplace he could call his own, with the key in his possession. The notion of having a key abruptly brought his mind back to Orthanc. That was a large and imposing building that was sitting empty. He wondered if the steward would allow him to use it from time to time as a sort of headquarters, a base of operations that he could visit at intervals-and invite Gandalf to join him.

He thought back over what he had observed while there, and suddenly ways of making it livable and pleasant paraded through his mind. It was quite out of the way, far from any other inhabited area-yet that was part of its attraction. Far from Rivendell, far from Mirkwood. True, it would be very cumbersome to transport enough furniture and supplies from Gondor to the distant tower, yet the stewards were so grateful for his help that they might go to considerable lengths to accommodate him. The idea pleased him, for it occurred to him that such aid was parallel in a way to the great help that the Elves gave Gandalf. He would definitely have to investigate this idea further in a few weeks, when Saruman hoped he and the Grey Istar would again be in Minas Tirith. Yes, that was an intriguing possibility. He pulled a book at random from the shelf before him and turned, nodded with a friendly smile to Erestor as he left the library.

Gandalf arrived in Caras Galadhon quite late. He had reached the edge of the Wood tired and hungry and had paused to eat with the sentinels at a guard-post upon its eastern border. By the time he finished the last leg of his journey, he simply went straight to bed without greeting his host and hostess or any of his friends.

Saruman had already retired for the night. As the White Istar drifted off, he realized that in one way, Gandalf's delay in arriving worked out well. He would spend one fewer night with Erestor.

The next morning the entire group gathered for breakfast, and Saruman briefly embraced Gandalf in greeting. The White Istar left the open seat next to the Grey Wizard for Erestor, sitting down instead by Radagast, with whom he had spoken at dinner the night before. It was the first time that the White Istar had seen him in a long while, since Radagast seldom attended meetings of the Wise anymore. The Watchful Peace had only encouraged his tendencies toward staying home among the creatures that he loved. He had come now only because of the gravity of the situation and because the gathering was being held at the enclave nearest his own home. As far as Saruman was concerned, now that the Brown Wizard was no longer Gandalf's lover, any reason for resenting him had disappeared and there was now no need to avoid him. Indeed, Saruman was careful to praise Radagast for his great diligence in keeping the bird-messenger system functioning. That system had often proved very useful to the White Istar for making arrangements to meet Gandalf in various places. He listened politely as Radagast rambled on a bit about his home and life in Mirkwood.

After the meal the group retired to the large hall high in the great mallorn and sat on gracefully carven ash chairs in a circle. Galadriel and Círdan had arrived slightly early and were talking as the others came in and took their seats. As the Lady looked around the gathering, they all quieted, and she opened the meeting. Succinctly she told them that the return of Sauron had inspired her to propose the organization of the Wise into a permanent council. Up to that point, the Wise had met on a rather haphazard basis, with one or another of the members raising the necessity for a gathering. The great distances between the Elven enclaves and the unpredictability of Saruman's and Gandalf's locations discouraged any one person from summoning such a gathering. With a more formal structure, including a head of the Council, Galadriel suggested, the scheduling of meetings might be somewhat easier. Besides, she said, having a leader would give their efforts a greater cohesion. She concluded by tendering the idea that such a group be called the White Council, set up in defiance of the Dark Lord.

The others listened keenly to her words, some gazing earnestly at her, others sunk in thought. Gandalf pensively stared at the floor, nodding slightly at intervals. Saruman surveyed the group's faces, seeking to gauge their reactions. When the Lady finished, Elrond and Círdan spoke, expressing their support for the idea. They kept their statements brief, for the expressions of all present indicated that there was no opposition to the formation of such a body.

Galadriel resumed, "If there are no objections, my lords, then I shall assume that the White Council now exists. We need to decide upon a leader for it. I would like to suggest Gandalf the Grey for that post."

The White Istar froze, watching Gandalf and trying to suppress his anger at the unexpected and offensive statement. Saruman wondered for an instant if the Grey Wizard had planned all of this with Galadriel in advance, but from the thunderstruck look on his face, he was clearly hearing this proposal for the first time. Although some of the other Elves appeared to be slightly surprised at Galadriel's suggestion, none of them seemed dubious or puzzled by it. Certainly none of them looked at Saruman with the obvious thought that he would be the rightful leader. The White Wizard found himself almost holding his breath as he waited for Gandalf to respond.

The other Istar was seldom at a loss for words, but now he glanced around the group uncertainly, clearly troubled. Finally he said slowly, "As always, I cannot thank you enough for your high opinion of me, my Lady, but I do not feel that I can accept such a position."

Saruman let out a silent sigh of relief, glancing momentarily at Galadriel and sensing her keen disappointment, despite her effort not to allow her reaction to show in her face.

Gandalf went on, "My mission is not such that I feel I can abide in one place or own anything beyond my immediate needs. Similarly, as you all know, I have never desired a role, formal or informal, as the leader of any people or group or land. Naturally I shall do everything that is in my power to contribute in other ways to the vital work of the Council you have established here today, but it must be through wisdom, through mastery of lore, and through determination-not leadership." He fixed his gaze on Saruman with a hint of fond admiration in his expression. "It would seem to me that the person who was chosen as the head of our Order should have the same role in this new endeavor."

Several of the Elves nodded at this, and try as he might, the White Istar could detect no indication that anyone had colluded with Galadriel in her plan to push Gandalf forward as the leader of the Council-except presumably Círdan. The Shipwright almost never attended gatherings of the Wise save on the very rare occasions when they were held at the Grey Havens, preferring to send Galdor in his place. Having given Narya to Gandalf, he would obviously concur in Galadriel's choice of a leader for the Council. Saruman's bitter resentment at their placing the other Wizard above him was balanced, however, by his relief and joy that Gandalf should step aside in his favor so graciously and sincerely. If possible, he loved and admired the Grey Istar more than ever. He smiled in response to Gandalf's words, longing for the moment when he could embrace his lover and praise him for what he had said.

No trace of annoyance was detectible in Galadriel's face or voice as she replied, "You are, as always, far too modest, Gandalf. I personally do not see that such a position would betray your mission, but my respect for you dictates that I accept your own viewpoint." She turned to Saruman. "And that goes as well for your suggestion of a leader for the Council. Saruman, would you be willing to undertake the guidance of our group?"

With a polite smile the White Istar inclined his head slightly in a gesture that could be interpreted equally as a nod of agreement or one of deference. "You are most kind, my Lady. I would be honored to serve the Wise and indeed the Free Peoples of Middle-earth in such a fashion."

Galadriel asked for other nominations, but there was none. After thanking Saruman, she passed the running of the meeting to him, and the talk moved quickly to organizational matters, along with discussions of goals and plausible expectations for the success of achieving them. After nearly three hours, Saruman ended that day's gathering. Those present stood and clustered in small groups to talk more casually. Soon the White Wizard caught Gandalf's attention and raised his eyebrows slightly, moving to leave. The Grey Istar followed him out. They quickly descended the short flight of steps leading to the talons where the guest rooms were clustered.

As soon as they were inside Saruman's room with the door closed, the White Istar embraced the Grey. Hugging Gandalf tightly against his body with one arm, he cupped his hand behind the other Wizard's head and pulled it against his neck, resting his cheek gently on the white hair. Saruman sighed with delight. More than ever he wished he had something akin to a home where they could travel together after all the business of the Council ended. Someplace where they could be truly alone for a long stretch of time. Gandalf pulled back to look up happily into his face, and the White Istar caressed his cheek and murmured, "Thank you for supporting me in the Council. It must have been very difficult for you to turn down Galadriel's offer and defer to me in the matter of the leadership of the group."

Gandalf shook his head. "You're welcome, but it was not difficult. I honestly do not wish for such leadership. Ultimately my allegiances are to those who sent me and those whom they sent with me-at least the ones who remain true to our task. I can offer any amount of advice and help, but I cannot command. You are the only one in Middle-earth to whom I truly answer."

Saruman stared into the Grey Istar's face. He found it difficult to imagine such a lack of ambition, and yet Gandalf was so very honest that it must be true. Clearly he meant what he said. The White Istar replied, "Perhaps, and yet you are wiser than I. You should have accepted Galadriel's offer. I did not try to urge you to do so, since I knew it would be of no avail. You are, as she said, too modest."

Gandalf smiled lovingly at him and replied, "I am not particularly modest, and I don't believe that I am wiser than you. Still, it is sweet of you to say so. It is you who are being too modest."

Saruman hugged Gandalf tightly to himself again, moved almost to tears by such praise. He was glad that he had said his lover should have accepted Galadriel's offer. It was certainly safe to do so, since the Grey Wizard would never change his mind and desire the leadership of the Council.

After a short while, they pulled apart and removed their cloaks. As Gandalf draped his carefully over a chair, the White Istar was reminded, as always, of the Ring with the deep red stone that was hidden in it. His ebullience faded somewhat. Twice now others had favored Gandalf above him at crucial junctures. Círdan by giving him Narya, Galadriel by nominating him to run the White Council. Or no. This was probably the third time. In order to give himself a moment to think, he turned to pour himself and Gandalf glasses of water from a pitcher on a stand near the bed.

One of the few things he remembered quite clearly about Valinor was that fateful meeting when Manwë and Varda had chosen the five Istari. He himself had volunteered readily for the long and dangerous mission to Middle-earth, but Ólorin, as Gandalf was there, had demurred when asked to go and said he feared Sauron. Ironic, given what had happened at Dol Guldur four hundred years ago. Despite that, Manwë had insisted that Ólorin go as the third of the Istari-but Varda had quickly corrected him, saying, "Not as the third." Curomo, as Saruman had been then, had assumed at the time that she meant Gandalf was to be second, with him as the first. Now, though, he suspected that her meaning had been that she considered Gandalf foremost among the Istari.

A chill seemed to seep through him as the likelihood of that having been her meaning grew in his mind. That three such people should admire the Grey Istar above the four others simply confirmed his own view that Gandalf was indeed braver and wiser than he. That he was right, however, did not make it easier to accept. Far from it. How could he raise himself in the estimation of the Wise and indeed of the Valar? As always, he could think of no way other than by continuing to acquire greater knowledge.

Suddenly another possibility occurred to him. He had already studied the Rings of Power to some extent, mainly with the thought of tracing where some of the lost ones might be. So far he had not succeeded in that, but he could intensify his efforts. More significantly, though, he might discover documents that would reveal the vanished secrets of their making. Everyone assumed that the heights of craft and beauty that had been reached in former ages were irrevocably gone. Yet someone might have recorded how such things as the Rings were made. He smiled to himself at the notion that perhaps someday he could forge such a Ring for himself, to match or even surpass Gandalf's. It was not unthinkable, for they clearly had hundreds of years more here in Middle-earth. Another Ring of Power, particularly one that conferred might in battle and not just healing, could aid their cause immeasurably. An idea flitted through his mind, but when he tried to pin it down, it eluded him and was gone.

He turned, the two glasses in his hands. Gandalf was sitting on the windowsill, looking up dreamily at the swaying branches. Trees, reflected the White Istar with fond amusement. Quite Elf-like in his love for trees. He stood contemplating his lover for a moment before crossing to join him, putting a hand on his shoulder and leaning over when Gandalf turned to look up at him. The White Istar set the glass of water on the sill beside Gandalf and bent down to kiss his mouth slowly and thoroughly. Heat flowed quickly to his member, and reluctantly he withdrew. "We should not take this any further. I told Erestor that you would be his while we are here."

Gandalf stood and cupped his face with both hands. "Yes, he told me when I first saw him, this morning before breakfast. You have been more than considerate. Thank you for easing this situation for him-and for me. As I traveled here, I worried long about what would happen when we three met. I should have known that your wisdom and forbearance and patience would allow us to avoid any serious problem." He kissed Saruman's cheek and whispered into his ear, "I shall make it up to you later, I promise you." With that he crossed to the door, picking up his cloak and draping it over his arm on the way, and went out. As the White Istar watched the door close, he silently agreed, Yes, someday you will make it up to me. All of it.

Lunch was delayed slightly by the length of the meeting, and the members of the newly formed Council lingered over their meal, further discussing the possibilities for action that lay open before them. The Istari sat together, and Gandalf strove to draw Radagast as much as possible into the conversation. He saw something of the Brown Wizard's old warmth and engagement with those around him, and he rejoiced. Perhaps a sense of belonging to this group that Galadriel had formed would be good for Radagast. Saruman was friendly to their colleague as well, though Gandalf could detect a hint of condescension in his attitude toward the Brown Istar. Not surprising, he realized. As generous as Gandalf tried to be in his opinions concerning his former lover, he had to admit that Radagast had become of minimal help to their cause.

As the meal ended, Gandalf's eye was caught by Erestor's, and an unspoken agreement passed between them. The Grey Istar glanced a little apprehensively at Saruman, who smiled briefly at him and turned away to speak to Elrond. With a surge of gratitude toward the White Wizard, Gandalf rose to join Erestor as members of the group began to drift out of the dining hall.

After the pair had moved away from the entrance to the hall, the Elf drew Gandalf into a small side corridor and placed his hands on his shoulders. "During the centuries of peace, we have not been in the Golden Wood together, and we had not met here all that often before, either. After so many years, do you remember what we did together the first time?"

Gandalf pretended to think back. "Hmmm. Perhaps we sat together in the library, reading, and caressing each other surreptitiously under the table."

"We no doubt have done that on a number of occasions, here and elsewhere, but I meant something better than that, out in the woods."

"Out in the woods. Hmm. Possibly you were so eager to make love with me that you pushed me up against a mallorn's trunk and took me that way, standing up."

Erestor shook his head, and there was a hint of amusement in his face, though Gandalf would not have been able to say that he actually smiled. "I'm sure I have often been tempted, but I know you like for us to be more comfortable and take our time in pleasuring each other. I have never taken you in such a way-or you me, for that matter."

Gandalf stared off into the distance with a frown. "I do have a vague recollection of a pool ... yes, fresh, clean water, a lovely sunny clearing, and..." he looked suddenly into Erestor's eyes, grinning. "And a supremely beautiful Elf bathing with me."

Erestor actually chuckled softly at that. "I hope that Elf was I! For yes, that is the setting that I think back on so fondly that I would like to repeat the whole event. After all, that was well over a thousand years ago, long even by Elvish standards. Surely the novelty has not worn off such an idyll. Would you consent to walk far out into the Woods with me, my dear Istar?"

"My dear Elf, you need not say more! Of course I shall go with you. I only hope that we find 'our' pool unoccupied. Should I fetch towels or anything else that we might need?"

"No, nothing. Not even towels, for I believe on that lovely first visit here we came upon that pool by chance. We had not planned on what happened in it, and so afterwards we simply lay on the grass and let the sun and wind dry us-and how could we want anything better than that?"

"Lovely indeed! And I suppose that we shall be back here for dinner, so we need not carry any food with us."

"No. The only things that we should need I have tucked away in my pocket already."

"Then let us be off!"

They descended the grand stairway together. Although they passed a few others on the complex of steps, by the time they reached the ground, they were alone. The Elf paused uncertainly. "I suspect that you remember the path to that particular pool better than I do. Will you guide me?"

Gandalf nodded and took his hand, turning toward a narrow opening in the trees, just wide enough for two abreast, that led away northward. They walked for a time without speaking, savoring the mid-afternoon warmth and the orchestra of birdcalls that reached them from above.

At last Erestor broke the silence. "I feel quite the fool. The whole time I was traveling here, I dreaded meeting Saruman, and yet our first conversation was full of generosity and sympathy. I can see why you admire him so much."

Gandalf nodded happily. "Yes. Although I was somewhat worried myself, he has behaved wonderfully. I should have anticipated that he would. Do you know, at times I have fancied that he is a little jealous of you and Legolas-and earlier of Radagast. And yet I now discover that he is apparently not. Generosity indeed."

Remembering his conversation with Saruman in the library, the Elf glanced quizzically at Gandalf's face but did not reply.

They continued on, deep into the forest. At last they reached a branch where an even narrower path led off to one side. Gandalf reached up and turned over a green-painted wooden disk hanging from a hook on a tree. When he replaced it, the side facing outward was yellow. "Now we should have privacy," the Wizard said with a brief waggle of his eyebrows. "Very thoughtful of the Lórien Elves to make such a provision for lovers."

"Surely not just lovers. I would imagine that some would come here alone to bath and relax in privacy."

"True. I have done so occasionally myself. It's a lovely spot, but how very much preferable to be here with you!"

Two minutes of walking brought them to their destination, a sloping glade open to the sun, with a small pool in the middle, fed by a tiny stream that drained out at a low spot and continued on into the forest. Clearly the Elves had carefully modified an existing pool to make it more practical for bathing, and there was a wooden bench beside it.

Gandalf sat down to pry off his boots and socks and stood up again to swirl the toes of one foot in the water. "Marvelous! I don't know of any other pool in these woods that receives enough sunlight to warm it to such a comfortable temperature. I suppose it is partly the relatively low height of the trees here and partly the very slow rate at which the water fills it and then drains out again."

Gandalf surveyed the glade with a contented sigh, but suddenly his shoulders were seized and he was spun about and crushed against Erestor's broad chest. The Elf pressed his mouth onto the Istar's and thrust a demanding tongue inside. Muffled moans and gasps ensued, and when they finally moved apart, they stared briefly at each other with eyes already glazed with arousal. "Yes, I remember something of that sort from our first time here," Gandalf gasped. "Quite a few somethings of that sort, in fact." Panting, he reached out and began to unbutton Erestor's shirt, eyeing the stiffening nipples visibly poking up the smooth cloth. Soon he spread the shirt wide and paused, reaching to gently roll and rub the little beads with his fingers before bending eagerly to suck one.

The Elf brought one hand up to cup and caress the white hair delicately, and with the other he undid the buttons of Gandalf's shirt. He could not reach them all, however, since the Wizard was shorter than he and slightly bent over. The Elf knew that Gandalf would be in no hurry to end his current activities, though he had switched from sucking the stiffened nubs to flicking the tip of his tongue over them. Moving carefully, so as not to disturb Gandalf, Erestor instead undid his own trouser laces. At once the Wizard's hand slid down the muscular chest and belly. It entered the trousers, the laces stretching over it. Erestor moaned as Gandalf's adept fingers found and explored his heated erection. The trousers slid down until they were bunched around the Elf's ankles. Gandalf rubbed his thumb up over the head, finding the glistening thread of pre-come that was about to drop from the slit and smearing it down the underside of the shaft. Dragging his tongue lazily down Erestor's torso, the Istar slowly began to sink to his knees.

The Elf, however, grasped his forearms and raised him again. "Wonderful, but that is not how it happened that first time."

Gandalf chuckled. "No. I hadn't realized we were being so very strict in our reenactment. It's true, though. Why come to make love in a pool if you then allow yourself to be distracted by enticements ..." he gave the Elf's shaft a final squeeze before letting it go, "... and forget to get into the water?" He stood and watched as Erestor gracefully shrugged his loosened shirt off and stepped out of the trousers, lowering himself into the water until he was sitting on a low shelf that ran along one side of the pool's basin. He in turn watched avidly as Gandalf shed his clothes, freeing in the process a rigid member that bobbed before him as he straightened up from removing his trousers. He looked down to see Erestor sliding into a half-recumbent position. Beneath the clear water the Elf's hand was visible as he stroked his own shaft and gazed provocatively up at the Wizard.

With a ragged sigh of anticipation, Gandalf stepped into the water and straddled the Elf's legs, sinking onto the strong thighs and resting his forearms on Erestor's shoulders. He leaned in for a lengthy, deep kiss, rocking his hips so that their erections rubbed against each other. The Elf slipped one hand between Gandalf's thighs and backward until he could tickle the tiny folds around the Istar's opening, causing him to jerk and pull his mouth away for a moment. The middle finger pushed gently at the hole, then eased inside and forward until it nudged the little gland through the passage's slick wall. Gandalf emitted a hoarse groan. "Yes, yes," he murmured urgently. Curling his finger, Erestor pressed and tickled in time to the Istar's thrusts. The Wizard moaned and resumed kissing Erestor, and their bodies writhed against each other with increasing desperation. The Elf fumbled until he found one of the Istar's tight nipples and twisted and tickled it until Gandalf was trembling with need.

At last Erestor removed his imbedded finger and pushed the Wizard away slightly, inhaling deep breaths as he murmured, "Take me, as you did then! Please, now!"

Briefly Gandalf fastened his open mouth against the Elf's neck, sucking and licking the damp flesh before standing and moving slightly back. Erestor rose, stretched to reach the small jar of lubricant that they had laid ready nearby, and handed it to the Wizard as he turned away and leaned forward against the rim of the pool. He spread his legs and arched his back downward so that his cleft was open and visible to Gandalf. The Wizard stared at the entrance to his lover's body, dragging the fingertips of one hand fleetingly over and around the perfect buttocks as he managed to remove the top of the jar with the other. Panting deeply and slowly, he coated two fingers and passed them over the ring of flesh, finally poking one inside and working to open the end of the tight passage. He avoided delving deeply, for without caution, they were both too excited for this coupling to last.

Finally Gandalf pulled his rampant cock up out of the water and coated it as well, bracing himself with one hand on the Elf's hips and rubbing the tip against the relaxed hole. The resistance was great enough that he hesitated, but Erestor, his eyes squeezed shut as he waited, whispered urgently, "Do it!" and with a sharp grunt of pleasure Gandalf drove the end of his member inside. With short thrusts he progressed until Erestor grimaced and uttered a shill cry, pushing himself up until he could rest his weight on hands planted firmly on the smooth rocks that formed the edge of the pool. "Please, now," he begged again, spreading his feet further apart. The Istar began to thrust in earnest, his fingers digging deep into the firm cheeks and kneading them as he sought a rhythm that would keep both of them hovering in bliss without driving either into ecstasy too soon.

Whimpering with pleasure, Gandalf settled into that rhythm and leaned his body forward along the Elf's wet back, resting the side of his face against the rippling muscles and reaching around to pinch and pluck at both hard, puckered nipples. Erestor seemed nearly frozen in pleasure, barely moving except for the working of his mouth as he gasped and clenched his teeth at the almost unbearably exquisite sensations of the Istar's rigid erection driving straight and hard into his pleasure point. They maintained the delicate balance for long minutes, lost to any other sensation, until at last Gandalf began to feel lightheaded, shaking with the effort to hold back and desperate to come. He sensed that Erestor had reached the same state of need. Standing up straighter, he lowered one hand to grasp the Elf's throbbing sex and pump it as he increased the pace and force of his thrusting. Both had been so close that they erupted within seconds. Erestor gave a long, moaning sigh of relief as his seed spurted in long strings onto the rock between his hands, and Gandalf hissed as his clenching balls emptied him deep inside the moist, tight heat.

After panting for a short while without moving, Gandalf bent his knees slightly and pulled his shrinking member out of Erestor. They cautiously slid downward, turning to sit side by side on the low seat. The Elf put his arm around Gandalf and pulled the slight figure against his side. The Istar's head lolled back onto his lover's shoulder, and his eyes closed. Erestor kissed his cheek. "Truly splendid," he whispered. "Just like that first time."

Gandalf's eyes opened halfway, and he said in mock disappointment, "Just like? You mean we have not improved at all, after the considerable practice we have had since then?"

Erestor snorted softly. "I know you. You're just trying to make me smile. But I think I'm beyond smiling. A mere smile could not convey how I feel just now. And no, I don't think we've got any better at this. After all, how could one improve upon perfection?"

The Istar chuckled drowsily. "True, true. It's hard to imagine. Mmm, I seem to be getting sleepy. Between what has just happened and the fact that I arrived rather late last night .... Well, if I am going to drift off, I had better get out of this water so I don't slip under it and drown." He rose and stretched, climbing up onto the edge and surveying the soft, sunlit grass rippling gently in the slight breeze. "Yes, who needs a towel in this weather?" he added. He lowered himself to lie luxuriously on the lawn. Erestor joined him, and their skin dried quickly as they turned onto their sides to touch each other and rub their lips together.

His eyelids heavy, Gandalf slowly stroked Erestor's hair and moved his gaze over the lovely face. "What is the point of having such an exquisitely beautiful lover if one just dozes off afterwards? I want to look at you for hours, but I just can't keep my eyes open! Very tiresome, being in a human body and needing to sleep, while you Elves can stay awake or sleep as you like."

Erestor looked at him gravely. "I suppose the point is that when you wake up, you'll be able to delight in the fact that I'm the first thing you see."

Gandalf grinned, struggling not to let his eyes droop entirely closed. "That's it! Waking up to your face is just as wonderful as falling asleep to it. Even more so, since I shall be alert enough to enjoy it enormously. And perhaps after I've rested and we've gone back and fortified ourselves with a good dinner..."

Erestor whispered, "Yes, knowing you-and me-this will not be the only pleasure we share this day. Sleep, then, for I too want to look at you for hours... well, more like one hour, for we should not further delay starting back. That and the beauty of the Golden Wood will be rest enough for body and spirit."