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 Five

2510, Minas Tirith

Saruman stood by the final black-marble column in a row that ran along one side of the throne-room at Minas Tirith. A brief but impressive ceremony was taking place, during which Cirion, Steward of Gondor, had awarded Calanardhon, the vast, rolling grasslands that lay along the northern side of the White Mountains, to the valiant Rohirrim. Their leader, Eorl the Younger, was just finishing an eloquent speech in which he pledged eternal friendship between their peoples. They would be allies for all time, coming to each other's aid in case of attack. Cirion thanked him as he finished and pledged the same for the Gondoreans.

The White Istar eyed Eorl curiously. Saruman had not been present at the triumphant return of the troops of Gondor and Rohan from the battlefields just west of the Anduin, where together they had defeated Sauron's legions of Men and orcs. When the battle had taken place, he had been only a little way to the north, in Lothlórien. News belatedly reached him there that Gondor's forces were in grave danger of being beaten in the struggle. He had known that Cirion was a wary and watchful leader, but enemies assailed the country from the south, where the Corsairs perpetually harried the coastal cities, and more recently from the north. Tribes of fierce peoples had settled to the south of Mirkwood, clearly in the thrall of Dol Guldur. Indeed, it was about them that Saruman had wished to consult with the Lord and Lady of the Golden Wood. Taking leave of them, he had hurried southward to Gondor's capital, expecting the worst.

To his amazement, he returned to a city in celebration. Banners were flying from every tower and window, it seemed, and the people were in the streets, hailing the many soldiers who milled about in little groups-especially in front of the pubs. Saruman frowned in puzzlement, for many of these soldiers wore uniforms unfamiliar to him, with a white horse emblazoned on their chests and great horse-tails as plumes atop the helmets that they carried. From some of the citizens whom he questioned, the Wizard learned that Cirion had sent a call for aid to the Men who dwelt in the areas west of the upper reaches of Mirkwood. His appeal went out too late, many had deemed, for his army found itself trapped between the fierce tribes to the east and orcs coming down out of the Misty Mountains on the west. Just north of the Limlight River the Gondorean army rallied for what boded to be their last stand. Yet as all seemed lost, a great horn was heard in the distance, and regiments of mounted soldiers arrived at the field from the north to stand and fight with the troops of Gondor. Their coming saved the day.

Now, watching the ceremony and learning that a new country called Rohan was to be established, Saruman smiled slightly as he pondered the benefits of this development for the Istari's cause. Such a major new ally here in the South could be just what was needed to halt the ups and downs in Gondor's fortunes. The country had suffered from these waves of attacks at long intervals, in most cases eventually defeating their enemies, but at great cost in lives and in towns on the eastern bank that had had to be abandoned. These latest assaults had nearly brought an end to Gondor itself. What would have happened had the Rohirrim not intervened was grim to contemplate.

Saruman was roused from these thoughts by a gesture from Cirion, who had turned toward him as the onlookers began to file out of the large hall. The Steward beckoned to Saruman to follow him as he touched Eorl's elbow and led him toward a small side study where he and his predecessors had often met with members of the Wise. Saruman was very familiar with that study, having consulted with every Steward and King who had ruled Gondor since his return from the distant Eastern countries.

Once inside, Cirion closed the door and introduced Eorl and Saruman to each other. After the Istar had said some polite words of praise and congratulations, they all sat down.

Saruman went on, "I only wish that my fellow Istar, Mithrandir, could be here for this glorious moment in the history of our struggles here in Middle-earth."

Cirion nodded with a broad smile. "Yes! It is a pity that he is not with us." He turned to Eorl. "Do tell Lord Saruman what you told me about Mithrandir."

Eorl looked at Saruman. "We received the call for help from the Steward nearly three weeks ago. There was some debate as to whether we should respond, for Gondor lies so far from our lands, and there had been but minor communication between our peoples. It was the other Wizard, Mithrandir, or Gandalf, as we call him, whose urgings finally won out. He has been telling us for years that we have strong links to Gondor, despite living so far away. We have no written records of such things, and indeed only a few among us can read. But for generations before I was born he has sat by the fire at the court many an evening, telling us tales of Gondor and a time when our folk lived further south. And there has been a tradition passed down among us that we had sprung from the great race of Númenóreans. When the summons finally came, most of us were ready and willing to come to your aid. And as Gandalf said, if Gondor were to fall to the Enemy's forces, it would only be a matter of time before his reach grew greater and Middle-earth was overrun."

Cirion nodded again and turned to Saruman. "Once again we have reason to thank the Istari, who have aided us so often."

Saruman smiled and nodded deferentially. "Yes, many years ago Gandalf told the Steward of that age about the importance of the doughty Horsemen who had settled in the northern areas between the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood. Now he has carried forward our policy of binding together the peoples of Middle-earth in mutual defence-to a very happy result." Saruman had no wish to take the credit away from Gandalf for having made such a vital contribution to the rescue of Gondor, but it did not hurt to say that he had done so through carrying out "our policy." Gandalf might have formulated the coordination of powerful leaders, but Saruman had agreed to it. Indeed, he thought ruefully, he had tolerated his lover's absence for long periods in carrying out that policy. He deserved some of that credit. He turned back to Eorl. "I gather that the rest of your people will be moving into the lands west of here. If there is any advice or assistance that I can provide in the establishment of your new country, I shall be happy to do so."

""I thank you, Lord Saruman," Eorl murmured politely, clearly not at all sure what sort of aid the Wizard might provide.

Cirion saw this and said quickly, "I think Lord Saruman could be of great help in choosing locales for your capital city and for the fortifications that you will inevitably need in these dangerous times-and the possibly more dangerous times to come. His knowledge of these southern lands is unsurpassed."

"Of course! Yes, I see. I would be most grateful, Lord Saruman, for such advice."

The Istar and Eorl soon took their leave of the Steward. Just outside the door, Saruman touched the Man's arm to detain him. "Gandalf does not seem to have traveled south with your troops. Do you know whither he was bound?"

"He traveled with us for a time but turned aside to see a relation of his in Mirkwood."


"Yes, that was the name."

Saruman thanked him, and they parted. The White Istar walked toward his room, thinking cheerfully that if Gandalf was at Radagast's home, he might soon receive a message from the Grey Wizard and even, with luck, a visit.

Saruman spent the next few days poring over maps of the former area of Calanardhon. Most of them also showed the vale of Isengard. It occured to him that if the tower of Orthanc did not exactly lie within the new country of Rohan, it at least was on the northern border. Within a few years the tower would not be nearly as isolated as it was now. One foothill that seemed a likely candidate as the site of the new capital lay much closer to Orthanc than did Minas Tirith. Two days' ride or less. A bit longer for wagons bearing supplies, but still ... The provisioning of the place would be far easier than if everything had to come all the way from Minas Tirith.

He realized anew that there were many potential advantages to living in Orthanc. He and Gandalf could be together there, at least part of the time, away from the rest of the world. Saruman was also beginning to have enough information about the Rings of Power that he felt it might soon be necessary to have equipment and a forge for experiments-experiments that he would rather carry on away from such a populated area as Minas Tirith. In the White City he really had no access to such facilities. He was simply a guest.

He looked up from the map he had been perusing and stared into space, recalling the few visits he had made to Orthanc. There, Saruman realized, he would have a substantial body of Men at his command. Soldiers, servants. It would take many people to keep such a building fortified and comfortable. He would be in charge there, in complete control in a way that he really never had been before. It would be an immense task to furnish it adequately, though, and he had to be able to give the Steward a strong justification for allowing him to live there. The Wizard knew, too, that the rulers of Gondor had come to think of him as an adviser who was frequently available for consultation, and his request might well be refused if the Steward saw it as more advantageous to keep him in Minas Tirith than to allow him to move so far away.

The Istar decided that he would watch the growth of Rohan closely, aiding it when he could, until possibly someday it could provide him with that strong justification.

On the fourth morning after the formal agreement in the court, Saruman presented his recommendations and several other suggestions for the foundation of the new realm. Cirion and Eorl praised and accepted all his ideas, and he delighted that now he would be the trusted counselor of two such important leaders of Men.

Early March, 2759, Minas Tirith

Saruman woke with a start. It was cold in his room, as usual at this hour of the morning. The severe winter that was gripping Middle-earth had reached even as far south as Gondor, which seldom saw snow except on the mountaintops. By now spring should have come. The farmers should be out tilling their fields, but the moist, rich earth was stiff with frost. Nevertheless, he felt lucky to be in Minas Tirith. The weather was not nearly as frigid as it was in most parts of the continent, and he was well looked after. The current Steward, Beren, had ordered that he be moved temporarily into a smaller bedroom that could be heated more easily than the high-ceiled one he usually occupied. Every night when Saruman was about to retire, a servant would prepare his bed with a warming pan. When first he slid between the sheets, the bedding was comfortable, and he fell asleep readily. Later, though, as the fire burned low and the cold seeped back, he woke far too early.

Perhaps he could have slept through the night despite the slight discomfort, but lately nightmares and worries had been the main cause of his waking in the wee hours. It had been months since he had heard from Gandalf. Saruman supposed that the normal methods of sending messages via birds were impossible in this unnatural weather. At first the Istar had expected that his lover would appear, joining him to wait out the winter here in the White City. That had not happened.

He squirmed and curled into a ball, wishing as he did every night that he could spoon up against the other Wizard's back and enfold Gandalf in his arms. They could keep each other warm through the long nights, whether through vigorous coupling or quiet sleep. The longing for his lover's touch was like a physical ache, and he suddenly gave a gasp that was almost a sob. His body writhed briefly in frustration, but that brought him into contact with cold portions of the bedclothes, and he quickly settled into his previous position.

Where was Gandalf now? Despite his jealousy, Saruman had come to hope that the Grey Istar was safe in Rivendell or Thranduil's underground city. Having him spend months with one of his other lovers was far preferable to some of the possibilities which Saruman had fantasized during seemingly endless, miserable nights of solitude. Gandalf trapped in some farmer's cottage, unable to travel, isolated and frustrated by idleness. Gandalf doing something foolish in a misguided effort to help someone and accidentally being killed. Saruman's face twisted briefly in a grimace as he pictured, not for the first time, the other Wizard's body lying in the woods somewhere, stiff and half-buried in snow. There were rumors that fierce beasts, usually confined to the great forests and plains, were desperate for food and foraging into populated areas more boldly than ever before. Could Gandalf fend off a pack of ravenous wolves if they surrounded him on an isolated stretch of road? Of course he could! Saruman assured himself sternly, but the nagging doubt remained. What if they came upon the Grey Istar in his sleep? Yes, Saruman could bear the thought of his lover being with Erestor or Legolas-as long as he knew that he was safe!

He tried to force his mind to some other image of Gandalf. He thought of his lover as they had been here in Minas Tirith many times, comfortably in bed, making love late into the night. Saruman hoped that such memories would be arousing enough to allow him to distract himself by relieving his own need and then falling asleep, satiated, afterward. Lately, though, the cold and the worry had meant that he seldom felt such desires.

Saruman could not imagine going through much more of this agony of waiting and uncertainty. Endlessly cycling through the same set of grim thoughts, night after night for months would eventually be enough to drive him mad. And what if such a thing happened again? Maybe the climate was changing. Maybe another dreadful winter lay in their future. The possibility made it all the more urgent that he should persuade the Grey Istar to travel less. Gandalf would probably never agree to settle down with him altogether. Still, Saruman simply had to convince his lover to spend at least the winters with him!

His thoughts turned to Orthanc, as they so often did these days. After much consideration, Saruman still felt that having such a home was his best chance for binding Gandalf more closely to him. Once the "Grey Pilgrim" (how Saruman had come to detest that nickname!) had experienced stretches of the luxury and bliss that they would share there, surely he would spend less and less time away from their ... their home, as the White Wizard secretly dared to think it might become. He wished that he had some excuse to ask the Steward's permission to live in the great tower.

With a sigh he rolled onto his back and leaned up on his elbow, reaching for a goblet by the bed. After suffering several nights of lying awake, he had mixed himself a mild sleeping potion that usually allowed him to drift off when he woke too soon. Saruman drank this night's dose and reached down to pull his crumpled cloak, which he habitually put on top of the bedclothes, up until it again spread out over his body. With the slight additional warmth and the help of the potion, he eventually drifted into an uneasy sleep.

Early March, 2759, The Shire

Gandalf ducked his head as he passed through the front door of the Smials, ancestral home of the Took family. He stood aside as four members of that family helped some weakened hobbits from a remote farm into the warmth of the building and then shut the door behind them. It was already late in the evening, for it had been a long journey.

The Wizard had been in the Shire for months, helping the Hobbits cope with the prolonged frigid weather. As soon as it had become clear how arduous this season would be, he had thought of the little folk and how they might be threatened. He traveled west as far as Bree and heard news of early frosts and snowfalls that had killed the winter wheat after it had barely sprouted. With a shortfall of grain and the frost damage to the late-ripening fruit and vegetables, many Hobbits did not have enough food to get through the winter.

Upon hearing all this, Gandalf had gone at once to the Smials to offer his services to the Thain, Bandobras Took. It was very lucky, the Wizard often reflected, that such a Hobbit should be his country's leader at a time like this. Bandobras was huge for his kind, fully four feet five inches tall-the biggest Hobbit Gandalf had ever encountered and thought by most to be the biggest ever. Only eleven years ago Bandobras had actually led a force of Hobbits that defeated a gang of Orcs invading the Shire from the north. The feat had earned him the nickname "Bullroarer." Just the person the Shire needed now that the world was growing more dangerous.

Since his arrival Gandalf had organized and helped carry out an effort to bring Hobbits in from outlying areas to live together in the larger buildings in the towns: inns, mills, and the homes of the wealthiest citizens. In this way they conserved fuel by sharing heat and made sure that all got a portion of what food was available. This group they had just brought in were among the last, Bandobras had reckoned. The Wizard had also helped put together hunting parties. The Hobbits did not ordinarily go after game to supplement their diet, for their farms produced in abundance all that they needed. Still, many were skilled with bows and arrows, used mainly in defense, and now hunters went out daily to bring in meat to be shared. Other teams transported stored grain from the farms so that it could be milled into flour and used to feed those gathered in the towns.

Now the new arrivals, thin and pale from lack of food and sun, were escorted into the kitchen to be fed. Gandalf wearily took off his cloak and sat down near the fire, blowing on his hands to warm them. Bandobras was already there, smoking his pipe, and he looked up with a grin.

"Welcome back!" he said softly, so as not to disturb the people asleep on the far side of the room, for cots and pallets filled every available open space of the house. "You look half-frozen. Pull your chair closer to the fire if you like."

One of the women of the house brought Gandalf a small bowl of steaming stew and a mug of ale, and he gratefully began to eat. Gradually the fire and the food helped him stop shivering, and as he finished, his companion passed a small tobacco-jar across to him. Since pipeweed was dried before usage and stored away, there was still a fair amount of it in the cellars of most of the inns and larger Hobbit dwellings-along with ale and wine.

"Thank you. It is very pleasant to have such luxuries amidst all the privation," the Wizard said, opening the jar and filling his pipe. He twisted in his chair and watched as one of Bandobras' nieces cared for an old lady who had been brought in from a distant farm on the afternoon of the previous day. She was now lying on an improvised cot in a warm corner of the room. How patient and tender they can be with one another! Gandalf thought. To socialize in a Hobbit inn of an evening in normal times, one would never think from the gossip and the quarreling and the teasing that these little folk were capable of such pity and solicitude. Yet over and over he had witnessed such caring moments while he had been here. It must take hard times to bring those qualities out, he concluded with a smile. In a pinch they seem to display unexpected strengths.

As the niece straightened up and turned, Gandalf saw the weariness in her eyes and said encouragingly, "Your patient seems distinctly better now, Daisy."

She smiled and nodded, moving to stand before him. "Is there anything I can do for you, Master Gandalf?" she asked.

The Wizard shook his head. "No, thank you. If there's anything I need, I know where to find it by now. Everything seems set for the night here. Take yourself along to bed! You've earned it, and you will need your strength tomorrow."

Bandobras agreed, "Indeed, my dear. Off you go!"

Wishing them both a good night, Daisy took up a candle and went off down the hallway toward the warren of bedrooms at the rear.

After a short silence Gandalf took another sip of his ale and turned to find Bandobras' eyes fixed on him. The Hobbit said thoughtfully, "This is the second time that you have come to the aid of us Hobbits, Gandalf."

With a puzzled little frown, the Wizard stared at him closely. "You mean the era of the Great Plague, I suppose. That was a very long time ago. How do you come to know about my part in that? I don't recall any Hobbit mentioning it to me, not since the few decades after it happened, that is. Your people don't pay much attention to their own history, I'm afraid."

"True, most of them don't. But we Tooks take on greater responsibilities than most, and we have a few records stored away-not much by your lights, I suppose, but more of a library than almost anywhere else in the Shire, except maybe in Michel Delving. At any rate, our family has a tradition of passing down tales, and I have heard about several of your deeds during that dread time. And now you came to us again, when you certainly didn't have to. I'm sure you had great concerns in other areas which could have kept you busy. Apart from you, none of the other big people has come to help us. Oh, I've heard tell of some of the Men out Bree way doing things this winter for the older and poorer Hobbits in that area, but those folks are neighbors to each other. Here big people don't pay us much mind. I'm curious to know why you thought of us."

For a few moments Gandalf stared into the fire with a hint of a smile about his lips. "Well, I have always much enjoyed the hospitality here in the Shire when I come this way. Perhaps I just felt that I could repay that hospitality a little."

"Yes, I can see that. After your travels and hard work in the world outside, it must be pleasant to come here and relax. You have to make a special trip to visit us, I would think. You surely don't drop in here on your way to someplace more important. There's not much that lies to our west or north-unless you fancy crossing the Sea, that is," he added with a chuckle.

Gandalf winced inwardly. There was nothing he wanted more than to go back across the Sea to his home, but the Hobbit could have no way of knowing that. "You're right. It's only very rarely that I make the long trip to the coast beyond the White Towers, when I need to consult with some of the Elves who live there. Most of the time when I come this far north and west, it is specifically to spend a restful time in the Shire and see how you all are doing. Perhaps the reason that I am here now is simply that I felt you needed my help more than others did. Not that I mean to imply you Hobbits can't take care of yourselves! Ordinarily you can do that extremely well. But the peoples who live out in the big world are more used to adversity than you are. They must defend themselves against various foes of which you here in your isolated little area know only by rumor. The Elves, of course, do not feel the cold as others do, and they are safely hidden in their fortified enclaves. The Dwarves do feel the cold, but they are very hardy, and they have immense stores of food in their underground dwellings. No, it was for you Hobbits that I was most concerned."

Bandobras nodded slowly. "And I am extremely grateful. We all are, though I fear that as the years pass the memory of your aid will again fade among most of our folk. Still, I hope that some of us will remember it. Certainly the tale will be told here, and you will always be more than welcome in this household-and I hope in many another here in the Shire. Your very good health!" he added, raising his mug and draining it.

"And yours!" the Wizard responded, taking another long sip from his own.

The Hobbit yawned. "I think I shall turn in, if you will excuse me." He stood and stretched, then bent down to bank the fire carefully, making sure that every scrap of wood was made good use of.

"Of course. I shall do so myself in a few minutes. Good night."

After Bandobras went out, Gandalf's thoughts turned quickly to Saruman. During this grim time spent in the Shire, he had been able to send a message east to Rivendell with a group of Elves who had passed through, traveling thence from the Grey Havens. Erestor, he was fairly certain, would have had word of his safety and why he had come to spend part of the winter with the Hobbits. Erestor in turn would have done as he requested and at least tried to send word further east to Legolas. But there had been no means of contacting Saruman. He could do nothing about it until the winter eased and one of the birds that were part of Radagast's widespread system of messengers returned. As soon as he could, he would send a letter winging its way to the White Wizard. Gandalf would promise to come and visit his lover as soon as he was sure that the spring was finally arriving and the Hobbits could struggle back to their normal life.

His heart sank at the idea of how much the other Istar must be worrying. Gandalf felt quite sure that Saruman was at least safe, domiciled in Minas Tirith and pursuing his inquiries in the City's archives. The Grey Wizard briefly thought about how pleasant life would be if he were there with his lover now. His jaw clenched, and he fought a surge of arousal as he pictured himself in bed with Saruman, the other Istar's hands and mouth moving eagerly over his body. There was little privacy to be had here in the Smials, especially since he was too large to sleep in the bedrooms and had to make do with a pallet on the floor of the spacious kitchen. Still, he might manage surreptitiously to relieve his own need. With that thought, Gandalf pocketed his pipe and quietly made his way to the kitchen.

Mid-March, 2759, Minas Tirith

One morning as Saruman was strolling in the courtyard before the palace, enjoying the pale, weak sunlight and the hint of a warm breeze from the South, he was summoned to a private meeting with the Steward. Beren was seated behind his desk in a small study, his elbows planted on its surface and his head in his hands. He looked up as Saruman entered and stood respectfully by the door.

"Thank you for coming, Lord Saruman," Beren said wearily. He straightened up and gestured toward a chair near the fire.

Saruman crossed to the chair and seated himself. "You seem very troubled, Lord Steward. Not surprising in these grim times. Is there anything that I can do to relieve your mind?"

"I am afraid not-though if anyone could do so, it would doubtless be you. No, the news that I have just heard is grievous beyond imagining. Word comes that Helm Hammerhand has died of starvation, trapped in the depths of his stronghold, Helm's Deep. Rohan apparently faces certain defeat. Orcs and Dunlendings have quite overrun the country. Even the area around Isengard is occupied."

Saruman breathed deeply as he listened to these ill tidings. His hopes for Orthanc seemed to be slipping away. "The Rohirrim came to the aid of Gondor years ago," he said tentatively. "Would it not be right now for the troops of the White City to return the favor? These are valued allies, who in normal times are a mighty strength at your back as you face the threat in the East."

Beren leaned forward and rested his forearms on the desk, looking up grimly as Saruman spoke. "You are right, as usual, my friend. The thought had occurred to me yesterday, after the messenger arrived, but I have debated with myself as to its wisdom. Yet your suggestion of the same idea seems to confirm that it is the right choice. We must change our attitude. Always we have sent our strength eastward and southward, but the Enemy's reach has grown long. Now even to our north and west his minions threaten us-and our friends."

He stared resignedly into the fire for a short while before continuing, "Yes, I shall give orders for the troops to be assembled and sent to aid Rohan in its desperate plight. My son Beregond shall lead them."

Saruman nodded gravely. "I am sure that your efforts will be successful, my Lord. I am not trying to flatter you when I say that your son is one of the greatest warriors Gondor has ever seen. His success against the foes that have plagued your southlands will be repeated, have no fear. And, my Lord, once the invaders have been defeated, I would beg leave to take an active part in helping to protect the Rohirrim and aid their recovery from all these dire events. I could perhaps act as your representative in the west, ensuring that Rohan once again regains the force to serve as a useful ally."

Beren smiled slightly. "That would be very helpful indeed. I would be sorry to lose you, for ever your counsel is good. Moreover, I fear it would require a great sacrifice on your part to leave this city, which I know you love, for a place at the court of Edoras, rustic and unsophisticated as it is."

Saruman hesitated only briefly. "I had in mind something rather different, though I'm afraid it would depend on your great indulgence and aid."

He raised his eyebrows, and Beren nodded for him to continue.

"I think that we might make use of the mighty tower of Orthanc. I have told you something of what I learned about it during a few visits that your forebears have allowed me. Now that region is overrun with enemies, but once Gondor's troops have swept them away, I could take up residence there, keeping watch over the Rohirrim and the Dunlendings as well. You could post a small garrison of troops there permanently, ready to respond quickly in an emergency. If occupied with enough soldiers, the Ring of Isengard would be impossible to breach-and thus even if Rohan were to be invaded again, there would be a force to counterattack. The isolated situation of Isengard, however, means that the tower would need to be furnished from here, at great expenditure of time and manpower. Once the court of Rohan returns to normal it would, I imagine, consent to supply me and the body of soldiers and servants that the establishment would require with food and other basic day-to-day necessities."

Beren nodded again, more thoughtfully. "Yes, your idea seems very wise. It is more than kind of you, Lord Saruman, to make such an offer. Having someone as powerful and knowledgeable as you in charge there could be invaluable. You have my word that, if we triumph over our foes in that region, I shall turn over the keys of Orthanc to you and furnish it so that you may live as comfortably there as here. I shall formally appoint you my Lieutenant in that region, as well as the Warden of the Tower. That way you would have command of all the troops assigned to Orthanc. Thank you! You have both confirmed my opinion about going to the aid of Rohan and eased my mind about what might happen after our victory."

All happened as Saruman had envisioned it. The troops of Gondor freed the eastern reaches of Rohan and made their way west, flushing the Enemy's troops from Edoras and then Isengard. Beren held a formal ceremony, bestowing titles upon Saruman and handing over the large black keys of the tower. The White Istar's first duty was to represent the Steward at the crowning of Fréalóf King in the Golden Hall of Meduseld. He took with him rich gifts, not simply of gold and precious gems, but herds of cattle and other beasts, for the Rohirrim had suffered grievous losses among their livestock. The King and the court welcomed him gratefully and hailed the news that he would soon be established on their northern border, offering protection and aid. The feast that celebrated the coronation served to honor Saruman as well, and he sat upon the King's right hand. Fréalóf assured him that Rohan would supply him with foodstuffs to the best of its ability. Saruman returned to Minas Tirith happily anticipating the move to Orthanc and the process of returning it to something of its former glory.

Upon his arrival he was elated to find a message from Gandalf. He was back in his old room now, and the letter was sitting in the middle of the large desk. Relief swept over him, and he had to lean on the back of the chair and take several deep breaths before he was able to pick it up. Saruman ran his finger over the G-rune in the wax seal before breaking it and extracting the letter.

It was detailed and told of the Grey Wizard's travels early in the winter and his decision to go west to the Shire. Saruman paused and read that part over again. Why the Shire? He had suffered this protracted, worrisome parting from his lover because of those silly little Hobbits? He stifled his anger and read on. At the time when Gandalf had written, in early May, a very belated spring had begun to arrive, and he promised to set out for Minas Tirith in the third week of that month. Saruman rapidly estimated how many days it would take Gandalf to reach Isengard and realized that he would have only a short time to make the tower livable enough to welcome the other Istar in the grand manner he had long envisioned. At once he wrote a reply telling Gandalf to make for Isengard rather than Gondor.

Thus even as Gondor's soldiers and the Rohirrim were pushing on toward the western bounds of Rohan, Saruman set out with a large body of soldiers and Men to act as servants and caretakers of Orthanc and its grounds. They took great wagons full of furnishings and provisions and equipment-and boxes of books and scrolls. For years Saruman had had scribes busily copying many of the most useful books in Minas Tirith, and he had over the centuries acquired numerous others on his travels. In cases where more than one copy of a text existed in Gondor's repositories, Beren had allowed him to take the duplicates. His new library would not be nearly as vast as that of Minas Tirith, but it would be substantial enough to be useful and to impress Gandalf. As they crossed the broad Pelennor and passed through its northern gate, Saruman suddenly felt that he was in command at last, standing in the place of the Steward as far as these Men were concerned. He also had immense influence in Rohan-possibly even as much as Fréalóf King himself, he reflected. If things continued to go as well as they had lately, perhaps all his plans would be achieved. He smiled benignly over the host of marching Men and bade their leader to strike up a song among them to provide some entertainment on the journey.

Late June, 2759, Isengard

Saruman was seated in his luxurious new study at Orthanc. He and his entourage had arrived weeks ago and had worked feverishly to prepare Orthanc for its function in keeping Rohan safe. Soldiers repaired and equipped the barracks and storage areas in the eastern portion of the great surrounding wall. The stables, storerooms, and living quarters for the outdoor servants were prepared in the opposite side. Inside the tower itself, the kitchen was set up, the indoor servants' quarters established, and the furnishing and decoration of Saruman's own suite of rooms was launched-rooms he hoped he would someday share with Gandalf.

The three gardeners assigned to restoring the former glory of the great circle of Orthanc were hardly adequate to such a huge task, but they had concentrated on trimming and cleaning the areas on either side of the broad road that led from the entryway through the surrounding wall to the foot of the steps leading up to the tower's door. Even in their neglected, wild state, the gardens were full of flowers at this time of year. Everything that could possibly be done in the time available to give Gandalf a favorable first impression of Isengard had been done.

The White Istar was trying to read, but his mind kept drifting to the question of when Gandalf would arrive. He had carefully examined maps and documents, calculating and recalculating the possible duration of the other Istar's trip. About five days earlier he had felt he could realistically begin to expect the Grey Wizard's arrival. Saruman had ordered preparations for an exquisite welcoming dinner. Now it was just a matter of waiting.

During the furnishing of his study, Saruman had unpacked his library and arranged it to his liking on the new shelves. The White Istar had then spent much of his time searching for information on the Shire. It was maddeningly difficult to find. That little country featured on most maps of the continent, but its outline contained more blank space than details. Much of what he had read about Hobbits seemed more like rumors or myth than solid facts. He had not really paid much attention when Gandalf talked about Hobbits, since they seemed so inconsequential. He recalled a few basic traits: small, fond of food-and hence chubby-quiet, peace-loving, and ignorant of the outside world. They didn't even wear shoes, and they lived, apparently, in underground burrows. Why in Arda would the other Wizard want to spend so much time there?

It had quickly occurred to him that Gandalf might have a lover there. At first Saruman dismissed that notion. Gandalf was very open about his lovers and would not keep one of them secret. Or would he? Saruman had known about the Grey Istar's earlier lovers not because Gandalf told him about them but because he learned about them from observation or from some casual remarks dropped by the other Wizard. Gandalf clearly had told the other three about him, once they became lovers. But Saruman was the last of the four. Would Gandalf invariably tell him if he took another lover? There was no way to be sure. Gandalf would not lie to him, but he regarded such things so casually! Maybe he wouldn't think it worth mentioning. It seemed absurd that the other Wizard should be that fond of one of these placid, short creatures-and yet Gandalf traveled so much among all the races of Middle-earth. Perhaps he did find them attractive. Perhaps-

Saruman slammed the book that he was reading shut. If he wanted to learn something about the Shire, old documents were clearly not going to help him much. He decided that he would question Gandalf about the Shire. If the other Istar's explanations were not adequate, perhaps he would have to take some action. Sending agents to investigate and report back would be elaborate and cumbersome-but it might be worth it. How would one go about it, though?

He was about to rise and pace while he thought, but a knock at the door interrupted him. Saruman froze, trying not to get his hopes up. "Come in," he called.

The door opened slightly, and a Man whom he recognized as a guard from the complex's front gate looked cautiously in. He doffed his hat. "My Lord, he's here! Lord Gandalf has arrived."

Saruman stood up abruptly. "Has a stable-boy come to take his horse?"

"We have sent for one, my Lord. He should be on his way."

Saruman moved quickly around his desk. The guard pushed the door wide open and stood aside to allow the Istar to pass through. Saruman hurried down the single flight of stairs to the large entry hallway. He turned to the Man, who had followed him. "Go to the kitchen and tell them to begin preparing the welcoming dinner. And tell them also that I said you should have a mug of ale and something to eat." There would be no bystanders gawking as he was reunited with Gandalf. The servants probably had heard rumors of the two Istari's relationship, but he did not want witnesses to their intimacies. The Man grinned at the mention of ale, bobbed his head gratefully, and hurried toward the back of the tower.

Saruman paused and assumed a calm demeanor before opening the door. Gandalf was about two-thirds of the way along the path, which was nearly half a mile long. He had dismounted from his horse and was walking it, gazing upward at the soaring tower in awe and surveying the mile-wide circle of Isengard. Saruman refrained from calling to him, wanting to give the other Istar all the time he desired to react to his first sight of Orthanc. To Saruman's relief, a lad came running up to Gandalf and took the reins of his horse, leading it off toward the western edge where the stables lay. Yes, the staff seemed to be functioning smoothly so far.

At this point Gandalf looked toward the door and waved. Even at this distance Saruman could see his delighted smile, and he felt a rush of joy that banished some of his nervousness. He slowly descended the steps as the Grey Wizard walked toward him, still glancing upward frequently. Finally they met at the foot of the stairs and hugged tightly for a moment. Aware of the eyes of servants and soldiers who might be watching from a distance, Saruman reluctantly pulled back from the embrace. "Come inside," he said softly. "Welcome to Orthanc." Gandalf shook his head slightly in amazement, gazing up again as the façade of the tower loomed over him, noting the intricate, seamless carving of the complex ridges and patterns in the black stone.

As soon as Saruman closed the door behind them, he leaned against the wall and drew Gandalf to himself. Their mouths joined and opened and clung as they held each other. At last they pulled apart, and the Grey Istar moved to the center of the hallway.

Saruman watched as Gandalf examined the strangely shiny walls, the intriguing doorways, the great staircase curving upward. The White Istar was torn between two strong impulses. He longed to lead Gandalf through the building, or at least the lower reaches that had so far been opened, and to show him the wonderful dwelling that he was making of it. Yet he also desired to take the other Wizard into his arms, to draw him immediately into his study and lie beside his lover on the soft cushions that he had arranged many days ago in front of the fireplace. Saruman felt lightheaded at finally having Gandalf in their home-for he was determined that eventually the Grey Wizard would come to see it in that way. Numerous visits to come, longer stays each time, more comforts and attractions provided by Saruman. He crossed his arms firmly against his chest and once more leaned against the wall, savoring how impressed Gandalf appeared to be with his first inspection of Orthanc. Finally, unable to keep away from his lover, the White Istar took a deep breath and moved to stroll with a happy smile a few steps behind Gandalf.

The Grey Istar looked around curiously, awed, and yet he seemed vaguely disquieted by the shiny black walls and floor. He turned and squinted at Saruman with a grin. "Your clothes are so gleaming and bright against this inky stone that they almost hurt my eyes." He shook his head. "Amazing! It reminds me so vividly of the greatness of Númenór and the immense craft of its people. So much was lost at the destruction of that land, and yet even the refugees who managed to reach these shores were still able to accomplish such feats! I had never realized just how magnificent an achievement Orthanc was."

Saruman beamed at him and nodded. This was the reaction that he had hoped for!

Gandalf looked around again. "I can't quite imagine living here, though. It seems too grand and intimidating for that. And you didn't exactly choose an easy place to get to. You are so far from everywhere else that I visit!"

Saruman froze, and his smile faded. He managed to chuckle. "You must admit, it is not as if there are large, available buildings scattered across Middle-earth. I was lucky to be granted access to this tower and to receive its keys from Beren, the gracious Steward of Gondor. Besides," he went on as Gandalf looked at him somewhat dubiously, "you have not seen its more attractive, intimate side-only the imposing facade and this barren hallway. After all, I have only just recently arrived and begun to make it livable. Once more furnishings come from Minas Tirith and Edoras, it will be more welcoming, I assure you. But in the meantime, do not judge it until you have seen the living quarters. I have concentrated to start with on my own study and library, and it is quite comfortable. Let us withdraw to it now."

As they started slowly up the immense circular staircase that stretched the hundreds of feet to the roof, Saruman continued, "But I was not just looking around for someplace to live. I was quite happy using Minas Tirith as my base of operations. There are reasons why I chose this particular place, and I shall fully explain them to you. For now I shall simply say that I am here to help ensure the safety and well-being of my neighbors, the Rohirrim. You probably are not aware of all the sufferings and dangers they have recently undergone."

"I know a little. On my way here I encountered some of the aftermath of the fighting on the western border of Rohan. The soldiers who had been at Helm's Deep over the winter told me ghastly stories of privation and death. But Gondor came to its neighbors' aid, which is splendid! Just what one would want and expect to happen. I imagine that you had some hand in that."

Saruman nodded. They had reached the door of his study. "Some, yes."

"Excellent! First I send the Rohirrim to rescue Gondor and then you send Gondor to return the favor. If only other world leaders cooperated with each other in such a fashion-and listened to our advice as readily!"

Saruman savored the other Istar's praise and resumed, "Well, later I shall explain in detail the Steward's and my strategy in reoccupying this tower. But come in, come in!"

He threw open the door of his study and stood aside, again allowing Gandalf to wander through the room and inspect it while he closed the door and remained by it, watching avidly for any reaction. The Grey Istar moved past the large desk, covered with books and notes, surveying across the shelves of books, the devices for experiments, the maps on the walls, and the luxurious chairs.

"Yes, this part of the tower is quite different from the entryway," he said. "Who would expect it to house this well-furnished and beautiful a room?" he said finally, turning with a smile. "Yes, I suppose I can see why you would find it comfortable here. You have created a place suited to yourself. And the Steward has been very generous."

Saruman's joy returned. "Indeed, and that generosity reflects the importance he places in my dwelling here-on and off, that is--for a time, to be his representative in the realm of his vital allies." He avoided mentioning that Beren had conferred official titles on him. The Grey Wizard would hardly approve of that. The Men had been told to call him nothing but Lord Saruman while in Isengard. "But again, talk of that can wait," he added, no longer able to delay his desire. The two moved toward each other, and Saruman kissed his lover demandingly.

Finally the Grey Istar pulled away, panting as he asked teasingly, "Now, aren't you going to whisk me off to some equally splendid bedroom?"

Saruman shook his head, his hands sliding down to cup and knead his lover's buttocks. "It will soon be luxurious, but at the moment it is rather spare, and I do not use it. The Steward promises a large bed, especially constructed for me, which should soon be on its way here in the second shipment of goods. For now ..." He drew Gandalf slightly to one side, so that he could see past the chairs near the fireplace to where a heap of cushions and blankets lay spread before the hearth.

Gandalf laughed and replied, "Yes, quite adequate for now. Very inviting, in fact." He turned to stare into Saruman's eyes, his own becoming glazed with passion.

Saruman pulled the other Istar to himself and kissed him, more ardently this time. Soon Gandalf was sucking on his tongue, and their hips ground against each other as their arousal mounted. The Grey Wizard pulled his mouth loose abruptly to draw in shallow, uneven little breaths and expel them in sharp gasps as Saruman's fingers found his nipples within his shirt and teased them skillfully. The White Wizard's tongue slid across his neck and began to thrust into his ear rhythmically. Their rapidly growing erections pressed together through the cloth, and Gandalf moaned. It had been so long since Saruman had heard that wonderful sound, and his lust flared even hotter.

Now Saruman guided his lover to the makeshift bed before the cold fireplace, lowering him to the floor. He fumbled under the long white beard for the buttons and pulled them rather roughly open.

Gandalf brushed his beard aside and laughed breathily. "It's a good thing the Elves make my clothing for me," he said. "Otherwise those buttons would be flying in all directions."

Saruman was panting heavily. "I want you . . . now!"

Gandalf pulled his partner down on top of himself, squirming beneath him. "Believe me, I'm not complaining. I like that eagerness!" He reached to cup and stroke Saruman's bulging trouser-front. "And I like that, too. I want it inside me! Just don't let it end too soon."

"Naturally I want to savor this," Saruman said, stripping them both as rapidly as he could, with considerable help from Gandalf. He nudged the Grey Istar to raise his hips, sliding a large cushion beneath them. Gandalf offered himself completely, his bent legs lolling open and his erection jutting upward to hover above his lower belly. At the sight, Saruman became too impatient to linger over exploring the rigid shaft and heavy balls with his mouth and seized a jar of lubricant off a small side table. He gouged a dollop out with his fingers and swiftly placed them at the tiny, puckered opening.

"Remember," Gandalf cautioned, hoarse with mounting desire, "it has been long since I have done this."

Saruman nodded and forced himself to go slowly. He gradually sank one finger inside, stretching and circling gently. At last he rubbed the tip over Gandalf's pleasure point, and the Grey Istar's entire body jerked and shuddered. Saruman stroked the little gland repeatedly and watched as Gandalf writhed in pleasurable abandonment. Finally the other Wizard shook his head briefly and rapidly. He murmured in a strangled voice, "I hate to say it, but no more! I am so close that I shall spend before you enter me."

Saruman pulled his finger back slightly, and his free hand slid lightly over the other Wizard's shaft, feeling the familiar high veins and silky skin. He forced a second finger into the end of the tight passage, concentrating now on opening it enough to allow him in. A few tiny flickers of discomfort crossed Gandalf's face, but eventually he opened his eyes and looked up at his lover. "I think that's enough."

The White Istar nodded and shifted onto his knees between Gandalf's legs. He rapidly coated his member with the cream and then placed the tip at the slack entrance. Leaning forward, he rested one fist on the bedding by Gandalf's waist and pressed his fingers down on top of his shaft near the head. Soon it popped inside, and the other Wizard flinched slightly.

"Relax, my love," Saruman whispered, beginning to thrust very gently as he reached up to stroke the other Istar's cheek. For a short while there was no sound but their soft gasps as Saruman worked his way inward. His beard brushed back and forth over Gandalf's member, making the Grey Istar quiver with delight.

Gandalf jerked again and whimpered as the crown reached the special place that gave him the greatest joy. "Oh, yes," he slowly sighed, looking up through half-closed eyes, a dazed smile on his lips.

Saruman rocked his hips, not trying for the moment to bury himself further. He rhythmically stroked the hidden spot, watching his lover's eyes slide closed and waves of bliss cross his face. The hot grip of Gandalf's passage was exquisitely familiar, and yet it had been so long! He paused, struggling to keep from coming, then edged his knees further apart and pushed, eased up, and pushed again until he was almost completely inside.

The White Wizard was no longer aware of Gandalf's expressions but closed his own eyes, frowning in intense concentration as his buttocks flexed in short, quick thrusts. He fumbled for the other Istar's member and squeezed it as he felt himself about to lose control. Gandalf's legs encircled his thighs, sliding and pressing as the Grey Wizard struggled to impale himself at the perfect angle. "I'm so close," Gandalf whispered, and the White Istar pumped his lover's cock hard and threw his head back as his come erupted deep into Gandalf. At the same moment he heard the other Wizard utter a strangled groan and felt a hot, wet ribbon drape itself on his cheek. Further spurts flew upward in decreasing jets as Gandalf thrust through his fist. Gradually the last fillips of ecstasy faded, and they carefully shifted until Saruman was lying atop Gandalf, whose legs were loosely wrapped around his hips. The Grey Istar laughingly wiped his come off his lover's cheek with a finger, and Saruman stared into his eyes with a smile, slowly licking it off. They nuzzled and kissed each other's faces and necks, feeling their damp skins grow cool after the heat of passion.

At last Saruman's shrinking member dropped free, and he rose to kneel between his lover's legs, grasping a cloth to wipe them both. He pulled a blanket over them as he lay down beside Gandalf. The Grey Istar rolled slightly and stretched his neck to kiss Saruman's cheek. "I'm so happy to be here with you."

Saruman's breath caught briefly. Could Gandalf be starting to like the place already? Or did he just mean that he would be happy to be reunited with the White Istar, wherever they were? He forgot his doubts when Gandalf pushed his nose into the hair over his ear and whispered, "I love you."

Saruman slipped his arm around the other Wizard and gently pulled him a little closer. He sighed happily. He remembered vividly the first time Gandalf had said that to him. It had been at Lothlórien, a few days after they had initially slept together. They had paused during a long ramble in the woods to watch some fish lazily swimming against the current in a crystal-clear stream. Gandalf had leaned his head on the White Istar's shoulder and said softly, "I am delighted that you finally got up your courage the other night. I love you."

Saruman had drawn back and cupped the sides of the Grey Wizard's head, his throat too tight with emotion for a moment to reply. Finally he said, "I love you, too-more than you can know."

Gandalf had reached up to grasp his forearms lightly and answered with a cheerful smile, "Oh? Then I hope you will go on trying to show me just how much."

Now Saruman lay gently stroking Gandalf's hair. It was still true that the other Istar did not know the extent of his love. From the moment that Gandalf had reached out in his sleep for his hand, Saruman had sensed that he could not reveal how very much he loved him. He knew Gandalf loved him in return, and yet it was not enough to make him give up those other lovers. It was certainly not enough to make him slacken in his dedication to their mission in Middle-earth. Settling down and living with Saruman here at Orthanc would mean that Gandalf-at least in his own eyes-would be shirking some of his duties. Yet Saruman still wanted him to do so. He had gradually realized over the years that his devotion to the Grey Istar was greater than his devotion to their mission. Whenever he had to make a decision or plan, he thought first of how it would affect his hopes for his future with Gandalf and second of how it would further their cause.

Such thoughts tamped his joy. How many times had Gandalf said, "I love you" to others? Only to three people-apparently. Despite his frequent visits to the Shire, he probably did not have a Hobbit lover. But how many times had he said it to each of the three? What did it mean now when he said it? A great deal, no doubt-but not enough.

Soon they rose and resumed their clothes, gazing at each other with little grins and pausing to kiss at frequent intervals. Then Saruman bade Gandalf to pour them both some wine as he summoned a servant and ordered that dinner be served as soon as possible.

There was a short wait, during which they wandered around the room, sipping their wine while Saruman showed his lover some of the most interesting items he had brought from Minas Tirith. Soon servants appeared, moving a small table to the center of the large chamber and setting it for two. As the pair took their seats, the first course of a surprisingly well-cooked and sumptuous meal arrived. The Grey Wizard had subsisted on spare, simple food during his stay in the Shire and then his journey, and he relished and complimented each dish. Saruman watched delightedly, rejoicing that he could offer such hospitality despite having moved into the tower so recently. Between their lovemaking and this meal, Gandalf should by now have quite a pleasant impression of life here at Orthanc.

For a while they talked mainly of the food, but then Saruman explained his arrangements with Beren to make the tower and its surrounding wall into a military establishment once more, as its builders had originally used it. He carefully avoided calling it a home or saying that he was giving up traveling altogether. He told anecdotes about his visit to Edoras for the coronation. The other Istar listened attentively during this.

Then Gandalf told of his long, dreary journey through Eriador, which had been so hard hit by the harsh winter. He said little about his time in the Shire, perhaps sensing that Saruman considered the Hobbits insignificant and his own interest in them misplaced.

Finally, as the dishes were cleared away and they lingered over dessert and after-dinner drinks, Gandalf looked around the room again. "I can understand that Isengard could be an important guard-post on Rohan's border, but I still don't see why you have chosen to live here in such isolation. You are not a military leader. Surely someone more suitable could be found to command this ... this fortress, I suppose one might call it now. Why don't you simply spend even more time in Minas Tirith, since you seem to want to travel less? It would be more practical, and I know you love being there. To have that vast archive close to hand, to be in a safe and convivial place ... I would suggest Rivendell, but I have not forgotten that you prefer the company of Men to that of Elves. A pity, for I am quite the opposite, and I find Rivendell a perfect base of operations-and it has a large archive as well."

"Indeed it does, and I plan to visit you there at some point."

Gandalf looked at him in delighted surprise. "Oh, so you do intend to keep traveling. And to the north as well. It has been long since you came that far. Do let me know when you will be there, of course, and obviously I shall be sure to time one of my stops there to coincide with your stay."

Saruman smiled fondly at him and replied, "Of course I shall." He had always planned to visit Rivendell eventually, for the archive there would hold many documents relevant to the history of the Rings of Power, especially the Elvish ones. He would research them thoroughly and enjoy Gandalf's presence at the same time. It occurred to him that studying Erestor on his home territory might give him some ideas for driving a wedge between him and Gandalf. Unlikely, perhaps, but worth a try. After all, he had learned a great deal about his rival from their brief conversation at Lothlórien so many years ago. And lately another reason for going north had occurred to him. He might find out something more about the Shire and why Gandalf spent so much time there. Possibly he might even go and see it for himself. He leaned forward and took the Grey Wizard's hand, drawing it to his lips briefly.

"Come, bring your drink," he said softly, rising and still holding the other Istar's hand. They moved to sit on a padded bench before the fireplace. A fire had been laid there, and Saruman kindled it before joining his lover.

The two kissed languidly for a time, but eventually Gandalf said, "You didn't really answer my question just now. Why live here and not in Minas Tirith, as you have done so often until recently?"

Saruman shook his head and replied, "This place is too important to leave to the command of a military officer. Don't you see, a structure like this gives us power, and we need all the power that we can get to counter Sauron's rising might."

"Power, yes, but not of this sort-not for you and me. Rather we should strengthen the Men of Gondor and Rohan-the heirs of Númenór could gradually re-occupy this great tower that their forebears built."

Saruman said sardonically, "True, but they need help. Have you been in Minas Tirith recently? They cannot fully populate and maintain their greatest city. Beren does his best, but even with so successful a warrior as Beregond serving him, they gain no ground. He was able to send fewer soldiers with me than I had hoped. There is certainly room for plenty more. Gondor has lost Minas Ithil to Sauron, and Osgiliath will inevitably fall. Gondor is in decline-not seriously yet, but to the point where they really need such nearby allies as Rohan. As to Rohan, it is a fledgling country, and it has suffered a severe setback. It needs protection while it grows and gains the strength that you so rightly want it to have. That is one of the main points in my adopting this as my base of operations and returning frequently to check on the situation. And there is another consideration, Gandalf. Can you imagine what harm Sauron could do if he obtained Orthanc and occupied it with a Nazgul or two?"

Gandalf frowned thoughtfully but did not reply.

Seeing this, Saruman pressed the point, "Yes, another dark tower in the service of evil: Barad-dûr, Minas Morgul, Dol Guldur . . . and Orthanc. Can you imagine it, Gandalf? Is preventing such a thing not part of our mandate? Surely a provincial military commander could not deal with a concerted attempt by Mordor to seize this place. The fact that the Dunlendings overran it during this last series of incursions shows that it is no longer far from the Enemy's thoughts. In guarding Orthanc, we would not be attacking or using our own innate power to attack. It would be rather an act of defense, of preservation-something you are very keen on."

Gandalf listened, seemingly half convinced by now. He clenched his teeth briefly, however, and then said hesitatingly, "Yes, I can see that. Still, you have manned Isengard with enough troops to keep it safe were you to go on occasional journeys. Frankly, I find it difficult to visit all the places that I need to. They are so far apart! It was not so difficult during the Watchful Peace, but as the situation slowly worsens, I must move about more often. I don't know if you have heard the news, but there have been reports from far to the northeast that a dragon or two have moved back into the mountains there and troubled some of the Dwarves in that area. Those dragons will inevitably become a serious problem. Just the sort of creature that the Dark Lord could use against us. Who knows, he may be responsible for their creeping back toward settled places. The danger does not lie entirely in the regions around Gondor. I don't mean to reproach you, but must you spend absolutely all your time in the South?"

Saruman struggled not to let the worry that he felt as he listened to this speech show in his face. There was a slightly tense pause before he replied. He stared into space with a sad expression as he said, "I realize that I have put more and more of that sort of work off onto you. But consider, Gandalf. Before you even arrived in Middle-earth, I was constantly traveling, and far further than you have ever gone. I continued to do so for six hundred years after that. I have never really told you the extent of what we did in the East and the dangers we sometimes faced. Hostile tribes or kingdoms that we had to win over, arid plains and deserts that we occasionally had to cross. I will not weary your ears with tales of them now, but frankly, I had my fill of journeying during those long years-though I did carry on with it for quite some time after my return, and even now I am far from sedentary. I know that you did not mean to reproach me, but I hope you will understand why I have increasingly preferred a more settled existence."

Gandalf listened solemnly to him and finally nodded. "You are right. I'm sorry, I didn't think of it that way, but you have indeed carried your fair share of our burden. I can go on as I have. If the situation greatly worsens I may need to call upon you for help, but for now ..." He shrugged.

Saruman smiled at him. "Thank you. And I must say, I think I am carrying on research that may aid our cause. I haven't discussed it much with you, but in recent years I have concentrated even more of my attention on the lore of the Great Rings."

Gandalf stared at him with a puzzled frown. "Why?"

"Because, like the astonishing craft needed to build this tower, the secrets of their making are lost-but perhaps not irretrievably so. I have amassed much material, and I hope that someday I might be able to make a Ring of Power myself. Would that not be an enormous aid to us?"

The other Wizard paused before replying, "If you were able to do it exactly as the Elves did, no doubt it would. Certainly the Three are being used now for vital protective and healing purposes. But do you really think it is likely that you could gain enough information? So much has been lost-forever, I suspect, despite your hopes."

Saruman responded eagerly, "I have learned so much already! I brought my notes and writings from Minas Tirith, and I intend to visit the White City occasionally, to confer with the Steward and to seek further documentation. I shall also do so in Rivendell, as I said. But Orthanc is a place where I could work very well. Space enough for forges and laboratories for experiments-something that we certainly could not have in our quarters in Minas Tirith. You and I have always been dependent on the hospitality of others when we go to peruse the old documents. Really, Gandalf, what knowledge could we not obtain if I continued to build an archive here? To have the texts we need without having to travel hundreds of miles just to read a few. And to have the facilities to put into practice what we learn. The whole project might aid our cause enormously!"

Gandalf nodded slowly. "Yes, I can see that could be an advantage . . . and a large one, to be sure. Yes, if you undertake to settle here with those goals-to watch over the young kingdom of Rohan, to protect this mighty tower from a great Enemy, and to build a center for research and experiment, you would undoubtedly perform an enormous service to our cause. But of course I would still have to travel hundreds of miles to consult your new archive, even as I travel now to Minas Tirith and Rivendell and other far-flung places where such collections exist."

The Grey Wizard hesitated before going on with a wistful expression, "Indeed, if my part in our mission is to be the consultation with various leaders and the coordination of their efforts, I would probably come south less often. You will be dealing with the Men of Rohan, protecting them and fostering their new alliance with Gondor-and winning the Dunlendings over to a peaceful relationship with their neighbors. Given how seldom either of us would visit Minas Tirith from now on, we would not have much occasion to meet there." He shook his head sadly.

Saruman's elation dimmed somewhat as the other Istar spoke, and his smile faded. He felt Gandalf slipping away from him again, felt the loneliness of the past winter hovering over him. "But surely you could further our mission by staying here, with me-for stretches of time, that is. I have accomplished important things in Gondor and Rohan, and I do not travel nearly as much as you do."

"Yes, of course, but precisely because you concentrate on those two lands, I must take care of the rest. By your logic, I should stay more at Rivendell, since it is in the north that I must do my work. Besides, you credit me with having sent the Rohirrim to the aid of Gondor two centuries ago. Your work here, fostering the growth of Rohan, would not be possible had I not done that." He sighed. "I love you very much, but you know as well as I that our great task must always come first. Love is an enormous solace in that difficult work, but it is not the purpose for our being here. And think of it in this way. We both yearn to return to Valinor, and once we do, presumably love can become more central. At least, I hope that the Valar do not take away from us the marvelous boon that they have granted us here."

Saruman nodded uncomfortably during this. It was all true, and yet the return to Valinor seemed so vague and distant and uncertain. What would life there be like after all that they had done and discovered here? The power and knowledge and happiness that he had managed to build in Middle-earth over the centuries was far more tangible. Happiness, that is, when he had his lover here with him. But he must not push the matter. He was trying to go too fast. The point, Saruman reminded himself, was gradually to lure Gandalf to stay longer, to enjoy the life here at Orthanc. He shouldn't be trying to convince him all at once, here at the start. To achieve his goal, he would have to continue to endure these long separations, at least for the foreseeable future.

"I didn't mean that you should give up your travel or your important work. I simply meant that you would come back here at intervals and spend stretches of time here, to be with me and share in this work. After this ghastly winter, when I worried so much about you, I long to have you with me at least in that season. Have you not had enough of weary, lonely days on the road in the cold?"

Gandalf sighed. "We cannot both settle into a sedentary life of watchfulness and study, even if only for a season. That was a luxury we could afford during the Watchful Peace, but now ... Remember, you and I are doing the work of five! With the Blue Wizards gone and Radagast ... well, essentially doing nothing besides keeping up the system of bird messengers ... I receive more useful aid from Elrond or Galadriel or others among the Wise-or indeed from the powerful Dwarf monarchs of Erebor and the Rangers of the north--than I do from him, and I must keep in touch with them more thoroughly than I can through the birds.

"I hate to keep pointing it out, for I know you must be very lonely at times-even more so now that you have left the great city for such an isolated spot. Still, one of us must go on traveling, to gather news, to keep our current allies true to the common cause and to find fresh ones. If you are not willing to continue our wandering life, then I am the only possible candidate. Believe me, I miss you very much when we are apart, and I wish that there was some way that we could be together more. But if this is how you see yourself pursuing our goals, then long stretches apart seem inevitable. I shall certainly visit you each and every time I can. Especially during the winter. I can imagine what a miserable time you spent worrying about me. Perhaps there will be years when I can settle in for the whole winter here. It certainly is an appealing thought." He smiled sadly and put his hand over the other Wizard's.

After a pause, Saruman simply nodded. There had been a distinct tension at intervals during their conversation, more so than ever before. "I truly hope you can," he whispered, and then continued more loudly, "You are right, as always. Forgive me, but the joy of having you here with me again has overshadowed all other considerations-for a little while. But I shall travel occasionally and otherwise stay here and do my work and try to be content with having you visit when you feel you can." He embraced Gandalf, kissing him gently and for a long time. The Grey Istar's sweet, responsive mouth reassured him. Gandalf had clearly accepted his explanations. Any hint of discord melted away, and the mood became quiet and peaceful.

Eventually Saruman rose to feed the fire, and they sat comfortably sipping their after-dinner drinks. Gandalf searched in his small bag and pulled out a long, thin, curved object with a little cup on the end of it. Saruman stared at it in puzzlement. What was it? Some sort of odd wand? But what would Gandalf want with a wand when he had his staff? The Grey Istar produced a leather pouch as well and began carefully to take out pinches of something and press them into the cup. The substance looked like the sort of thing that servants swept off the front steps of the tower after windy days-tiny, dried bits of leaves. The stuff seemed quite unpleasant, and when Gandalf put the other end of the object in his mouth, lighting a scrap of paper and holding it to set fire to the clump of debris, Saruman shook his head with a frown of mystified distaste.

"What in Arda are you doing?" he asked.

To his surprise, the Grey Wizard sucked at the object, which appeared to consist mainly of a hollow tube, and blew out a cloud of blue smoke. Gandalf looked into his face and chuckled. "True, I have taken up smoking since last I saw you. I am told that the Hobbits discovered this delightful pastime. This is pipeweed, which was first cultivated nearly a century ago now, and this is a pipe." He drew upon the stem and carefully rounded his mouth to send forth small circles of the smoke.

"And only Hobbits use this ... pipeweed?" Saruman inquired, his face full of doubt and skepticism.

"Well, originally, yes. But apparently many of those who have occasion to be in or near the Shire have taken it up as well. Many Rangers smoke, I am told, and the Men who live in the Bree area. I am surprised that the habit has not spread further, given how pleasurable it is. Indeed, I first tried it during this latest stay in the Shire, since there was little to do in the evenings. It proved most soothing after a weary, cold day of rescue work. The main problem is that the weed itself is not available anywhere but in the Shire. I had a good deal of it when I left, but I am nearly out. Who knows when I shall be able to replenish my supply? I must say that one does miss it when going without. I shall have to figure out some way to take quantities of it to Rivendell and perhaps some of the other places I visit regularly."

Saruman shifted uneasily. He hated to encourage this silly new pastime, especially since it derived from those little creatures who seemed to occupy an inordinately large amount of Gandalf's attention and time. On the other hand, he certainly did not want to encourage the other Wizard to return to the Shire even more often.

"You could bring as much of it as you like here and store it. There is obviously plenty of space for it." Good, it occurred to him, that will make Gandalf feel some connection to Orthanc-even perhaps think of it more as his home.

The Grey Istar smiled. "Yes, of course. Thank you for offering."

Saruman shook his head. "Not at all. You should think of Isengard as being entirely at your disposal. Use it as you wish! I do not consider it mine, of course. It belongs to Gondor. It's simply a place that both of us can have as a sort of headquarters."

"I have always thought of Rivendell as my headquarters, to the extent that I have such a thing, but I suppose that this could serve as a second one, here in the south."

Saruman nodded with an grin. Yes, that would do for a start.