The Road to Isengard

by Nefertiti

Rating: NC-17

Pairing: Gandalf/Saruman (also in some chapters, Gandalf/Radagast, Gandalf/Legolas, and Gandalf/Erestor)

Disclaimer: These characters belong to their respective rights-holders; I offer my original story based upon them free of charge to fellow fans.

Archiving: Meddling in the Affairs of Wizards; LoM; others please ask.

Author's note: The events of this chapter and in some cases brief passages of dialogue and prose, have been taken from Appendices A and B, the Unfinished Tales, and The Silmarillion.

In Appendix B, Tolkien says that at the White Council's meeting of 2953 Saruman told the White Council that the Ring had rolled into the Sea. In The Silmarillion, he says that Saruman made that claim at the Council's 2851 meeting. The 2851 date makes more sense (such a claim contributes nothing to the plot of LOTR if it happens in 2953), and I have used it here.

Many thanks to Sarah for her many astute suggestions, her encouragement, and her beta work.

Chapter Seven

2850, Isengard

Fog was rolling down from the Misty Mountains, gradually obscuring the sun and allowing only glimpses of the views that had been so clear during most of the day. Standing on the pinnacle of Orthanc, Gandalf drew his cloak about himself, but he lingered despite the growing chill. The settling grey was strangely appealing, with a sort of pleasant melancholy about it. It reminded him a little of Valinor-or one tiny bit of what he could remember about his home. In some coastal areas such mists were common, he knew.

It seemed very strange, arriving at Isengard and not finding Saruman there. Of course the other Istar made occasional journeys to confer with the Rohirrim leaders at Edoras, but so far none of Gandalf's earlier visits had coincided with such absences. Indeed, Saruman usually sent him a message notifying him of any planned trips away from Orthanc. Perhaps he had done so in this case, but Gandalf had not received it. The Grey Wizard had reached the tower three days earlier, and he had spent the time reading through Saruman's large collection of books and documents concerning the Eastern lands to which the White Istar had traveled long ago.

Each day Gandalf climbed the long stairway to the roof, which remained his favorite part of Orthanc, and spent an hour or two enjoying the enormous vistas. He wondered when Saruman would return. It was time that they worked together on the important new task that had brought the Grey Istar here on this particular occasion. As always upon making these visits, he also wondered if he would be able at last to discern what had gone disquietingly wrong with his lover. Saruman had stopped visiting the Shire, but he still maintained a network of spies there. Hobbits were such gossips that the White Istar had been naive to think that he could keep such things secret from Gandalf. Decades had passed, yet nothing ever seemed to come of Saruman's little game of spying. It still all seemed a bit silly to the Grey Wizard, yet he could not help but feel there was something disturbing about it as well.

He had tried on a number of occasions to probe Saruman about possible jealousy or anything else that the other Istar might be hiding from him. Saruman had assured him that nothing was wrong, that he had conquered his resentments of Gandalf's other lovers, that he was making slow but distinct progress in his researches on creating a new Ring of Power, that he was doing important work in keeping Rohan safe. The White Wizard had seemed cheerful and certainly was as devoted and hospitable to his lover as ever. Gradually Gandalf's doubts had receded, but he always felt a slight trepidation upon arriving at Isengard that Saruman might surprise him unpleasantly with some new demand or revelation. Yet no such thing had happened for many years, and Gandalf had enjoyed his visits to Orthanc immensely.

Now he glanced up as a fine, cold drizzle began to wet his face, and reluctantly he started down the many steps to return to the warmth of Saruman's study.


Dinner at the court of Walda, King of Rohan, was drawing to a close. It was late in the evening, but when Saruman was a guest, the dinners lasted long. The White Wizard enjoyed the superb hospitality of the court, and he spoke eloquently and amusingly to those about him. As always, he was an honored guest, sitting upon the right hand of the King. For decades now Rohan had been assailed by orcs, and Saruman's advice was always welcome. The luxurious food and drink were among the reasons that he often prolonged his stays beyond what was strictly necessary for planning and strategizing. There was no point in rushing back to Isengard, he thought, if the Grey Istar was not there to keep him company.

Eventually the group rose and separated, leaving the great dining hall. Feeling a trifle tipsy, Saruman entered the corridor that led to the guest bed-chambers. He smiled as he saw a Man standing there-a very attractive Man whom he had met several visits ago and who had shared his bed regularly since. Aldor was a low-level official, only a minor assistant to one of the King's ministers. The Istar suspected that the fellow had initially become intimate with him in the hope of gaining a higher status in the court, and indeed he had risen slightly in rank since then, perhaps because others noted what a high opinion of him Saruman seemed to have. Aldor had, however, come to appreciate Saruman as a skilled lover, and clearly he genuinely looked forward to their nights together.

Now the pair walked toward Saruman's bedroom, chatting happily and anticipating the joy to come. Suddenly a guard from the gatehouse of the palace appeared, hurrying up to the Istar. With a little bow, he said, "Lord Saruman, there's one of those birds outside the front entrance. The ones that come-"

Saruman had grinned with delight as the fellow began speaking, but he composed his face into a more restrained smile. "Yes, with messages," he interrupted. "I shall be there directly." He turned toward his companion, who was impatiently listening to this exchange. "I hope you will pardon me. I shall not be long. But it may be some important news, vital to the well-being of Rohan."

Aldor nodded politely. "I shall await you in your room, then," he murmured, turning and going along the corridor.

Saruman walked swiftly beside the guard. The message might be from Radagast, but very likely it came from the Grey Istar. His heart was pounding as he saw the bird, a large raven, standing on a parapet near the door, its claw resting upon an envelope that lay upon the stone surface. He recognized it as Carc, a bird from the region of Erebor who sometimes flew south to participate in Radagast's system of messengers. As Saruman approached Carc, the raven lifted its foot and allowed him to grasp the letter. The Wizard spoke briefly to the bird, thanking him for his help. The raven acknowledged his words and asked if there would be a reply.

Saruman had already examined the seal and seen the familiar G-rune. Happily he broke the little wax disk and pulled out the letter. Once he had glanced it over quickly, he told Carc that he did not need to send a response. After a few polite exchanges, the raven departed into the starry sky.

Tucking the single folded sheet back into its envelope, Saruman gave the soldier who had notified him of Carc's arrival a generous tip and walked quickly to his own room. Aldor was there, sitting on the arm of large chair and swinging his foot nervously. He looked around expectantly as the Istar entered. "Good news, I trust," he said, though he was clearly more concerned with whether their night of intimacy would be curtailed.

Saruman walked to Aldor and composed his features to look steadily and sadly into his eyes as he responded, "I am very sorry, but I find that I cannot invite you to join me for the night after all. Tidings have arrived that compel me to return to Isengard immediately. I must set out at dawn, and it would not do for me to be overly tired while making that journey. It is late already, and ... you understand, I trust. I shall console myself by looking forward to my next visit to Edoras." He reached to caress Aldor's cheek.

The Man controlled his disappointment and managed a small smile. "I am sorry that our usual pleasure should be prevented, but, as you say, I shall anticipate our next opportunity," he murmured as he rose to his feet. They embraced each other and kissed softly before Aldor departed.

Saruman was relieved. He did not want to lie with another now that the prospect of soon being with Gandalf occupied his mind. Quickly he pulled out the letter to re-read it more carefully. The text ran:

My dearest Saruman,

I arrived at Orthanc today and discovered that the previous message I had sent to you arrived just after you had left on a routine visit to Edoras-or so they tell me. I should be delighted to hear that you actually went there as a result of some new discovery or strategy-or victory!

At any rate, I shall impatiently await your return-which I hope will be hastened by your receipt of this missive! I am eager to see you, of course, but I also need your help on a vital matter.

With much love,

PS. Do not be startled if your guards inform you that I arrived in the company of four rather odd-looking Men. They are part of a scheme that I have hatched relating to the vital matter that I mentioned.

PPS. Sorry to intrigue you so, but the whole thing is too important to commit to paper when I shall be seeing you soon anyway.

PPPS. Sitting in the chairs by the fireplace in your study is very lonely in the evenings without you!

Saruman read and reread this letter, puzzling over the references to "a vital matter" and especially "four rather odd-looking Men," but also treasuring the romantic passages. He pulled the cord to summon a servant. When the Man arrived, Saruman ordered that his escort be notified that they would set out for Isengard early the next morning. He prepared for the departure and retired, determined to travel as quickly as possible to Orthanc.

Late the following afternoon Saruman and his small entourage rode through the short tunnel that formed the only entrance to the grounds around Orthanc. The sun had passed below the foothills to the west, yet the sky was still bright and the scene before them perfectly visible as they emerged. The White Istar urged his horse to a quick trot, leaving the guards behind. Within a few minutes he approached the tower. Suddenly the door opened, and Gandalf came out and stood looking down at him with a delighted smile.

The White Wizard's breath caught in his throat. Gandalf standing in that doorway, awaiting him! He looked so at home, so natural there. It was exactly what Saruman had dreamed of for hundreds of years. From the corner of his eye he saw a groom hurrying toward him to take his horse, but he could not tear his gaze away from the other Istar, who was now coming down the flight of shiny black steps to meet him. Saruman dismounted and simply stood for a moment as the groom led his horse away. He wanted to savor the sight of Gandalf being there to greet him upon his return to their home. Finally he walked forward to join the Grey Wizard, who embraced him tightly.

For a moment, they stood unmoving, and then, not caring who saw them, kissed with growing warmth and eagerness. At last they pulled apart, panting slightly. "Welcome to Orthanc, Lord Saruman," Gandalf said with a smile that seemed more enchanting than any the White Istar had ever seen on his lover's face.

Saruman grinned back at him. "Thank you. You are a most courteous host."

Their arms around each other's shoulders, they slowly mounted the steps again and entered the tower. Despite the urgency of Gandalf's reason for visiting, being together rapidly enflamed their passions, and they quickly shut themselves in Saruman's study and made love before any further talk.

A short time later, after they had washed and resumed their clothes, the Grey Istar asked Saruman to sit in one of the chairs near the fireplace. Saruman watched Gandalf, who began to pace around the table at the center of the room. He seemed oddly reluctant to begin his explanation. At last Saruman asked, "Won't you tell me what this 'vital matter' is? You have made me mightily curious."

Gandalf sighed and pressed his lips together, finally moving to sit in a chair opposite the White Istar. "Yes. The time has come to reveal a plan that I have been working on for nearly two years to prepare. I am sorry to have kept such important information from you, but I knew that you would vehemently oppose it-not because it is a bad plan but because ... well, it involves my going into considerable danger. Wait! Let me finish. Before I tell you about what I have underway, I should assure you most firmly that I am determined to go through with this mission. Virtually all the arrangements are complete, and nothing you could say would dissuade me from it."

Saruman stared at him with a little frown, his breathing growing deeper and his long fingers clutching his knees. He seemed about to speak but finally simply nodded.

The Grey Wizard went on, "All right, with that understood, I shall tell you that I have decided to pay another visit to Dol Guldur."

Saruman's hands flew to grasp the arms of his chair as he straightened up and said with an appalled look, "What!? Why in Arda would you want to put yourself at such risk? There is obviously at least one of the Ringwraiths dwelling there, along with a large force. Sauron would not have sent them to reoccupy the tower if he did not feel that he is finally strong enough to begin his move against us. You would not find an abandoned tower this time, you may be sure."

Gandalf shifted in his chair and stood up to pace again. "Why? Because there is something exceedingly mysterious in all this. For a start, I think that the power inhabiting the Tower is not simply one or more of the Nine-as everyone in the White Council persists in assuming. I halfway believe the Elves have convinced themselves of that because it is so much easier for them to dismiss such a threat and do nothing about it. It's just as the situation stood before my previous visit to Dol Guldur. Again I would wager anything that it is Sauron. The rising number of orcs around the Misty Mountains, the dragons that are making inroads in the north, that sort of thing. He is controlling them from there-and very successfully, too. And for once Elrond even agrees with me, I might add. If we are right, though, it baffles me that he should choose to occupy Dol Guldur and not go straight to Mordor itself. It would be far safer to ensconce himself within the barriers formed by the mountain ranges and to dwell away from areas strongly held by the West, like Lórien. Certainly the minions he has sent ahead of him have been all too successful in driving back the forces of Gondor that had so long guarded the western fringes of the Dark Land. The whole thing makes no sense to me, and I must find out what the Enemy is up to."

Saruman struggled to think of something, anything that he could say to dissuade Gandalf from carrying through with this mad scheme. It must not happen, and yet he knew the other Istar to be resolute and bold enough to attempt it. "How can you possibly hope to enter the tower when it is occupied and escape being recognized-especially if, as you claim, Sauron now dwells there? I cannot bear to think of the hideous things he would do to you if, as seems inevitable, you are caught." Tears stood in his eyes, and he could not continue.

Gandalf moved to his side and softly patted his shoulder before again walking slowly around the table. "I expect to succeed in not being recognized by making myself unrecognizable. As I said, I have been working on this plan for two years, very elaborate preparations indeed, and I have had considerable help from Galadriel and from Belecthor, Steward of Gondor. Basically I propose to disguise myself as an emissary from one of the distant lands you visited centuries ago--Khand. Its people have long been allies of Sauron. I mentioned that I brought four Men with me. They are Variags from Khand, prisoners of war who have for many years been held in Minas Tirith. Belecthor turned them over to me, promising them that if they serve me well during this mission-and if we survive!-they are to be given their freedom and a considerable monetary reward. So far they have upheld their part of the bargain, teaching me their language and informing me of much about their culture that I would need to know. Appropriate clothing was made for me, copying that of the prisoners but with little additions to indicate my higher rank."

Saruman looked dubiously at him. "You said you needed me to help you in this endeavor. What if, for your own safety, I refuse?"

The Grey Istar chuckled mirthlessly. "You will not refuse, because I would go ahead with the scheme anyway-but I would have distinctly less chance of succeeding. If you want me to escape and return safely to you, you must do everything you can to assist me.

"What I primarily want from you is lessons in the writing system used in that land. These four soldiers are illiterate, of course, so they could not teach me anything but the spoken language. I must be able to write a message, the delivery of which would be my excuse for visiting Dol Guldur."

Saruman objected, "But if you deliver such a message into Sauron's hand, surely he will sense who you are, what you are!"

"He might well, so I have to make sure that I am not an important enough guest to warrant being granted an audience with Sauron himself. I shall rather address the missive to one of his lieutenants."

"And how will you know the name of such an official?"

"That's where another aspect of the plan is crucial. I have been provided by the Steward with a considerable amount of gold. With luck I shall be able to buy the information I require-passwords, names, and so on. The four Men will go with me as my escort, of course, and they will presumably be quartered and fed along with Sauron's troops for the short time I hope to be there-a couple of days at most. But I need enough time to single out which of the mid-level officers would be worth approaching with my bribes, as well as enough to explore the place as much as I dare.

"I shall also ask for your advice in devising what the content of the message should be. These four chaps don't know much of anything about politics in their country, but perhaps on the basis of your experience, outdated though it may be, you could come up with something plausible."

Saruman frowned dubiously. "The Variags are, as you said, allies of the Enemy. How have these Men behaved? Are they to be trusted? Have they been looking for an opportunity to escape?"

"No, on the whole they have cooperated and obeyed orders. Naturally we had an escort of half a dozen Gondorian soldiers, so they were closely guarded. And of course they are not to receive any of the money until after their assignment is over. I must also admit that I have not thoroughly explained the nature of the place we shall be visiting, and I am hoping that by the time they realize it, it will be too late for them to do anything about it."

Saruman looked at him in surprise. "Would you lead Men into such danger without telling them? That does not seem like you."

Gandalf paused in his pacing and stared out through one of the tall, narrow windows into the inky blackness of the night. "Well, of course, I hate to do anything of the sort. But I occasionally find myself forced to put someone else in danger-if the situation is important enough and warrants it. Here I consider it extremely important. And, after all, I am also going into danger. Obviously I would not take them-or myself-into such a situation if I did not have some reasonable hope of bringing us all out again safely. I also console myself that if all goes according to plan, these Men will be far better off than they could ever otherwise have hoped to be."

Saruman raised the last objection that he could think of. "Gandalf, once they realize what you have led them into, how can you be sure that they would not simply betray you to Sauron to instead receive a reward from him?"

To his surprise, Gandalf laughed. "They won't. For one thing, once we arrive in the neighborhood of Dol Guldur, I shall point out to them that Sauron would either promise to pay and then renege or he would torture the information that they offer to sell out of them. These soldiers serve on the Enemy's side only because their ruler forces them to, and they resent and fear Sauron. Besides, some of them have married and started families while in Minas Tirith. Those families await them there and would not be turned over to them without a letter from me. And I must say, unless I much deceive myself, the four have become friendly enough with me that they would be reluctant to betray me. No, everything speaks in favor of their loyalty."

Saruman sighed unhappily, but he knew that Gandalf had backed him into a corner. He had no choice but to help assure that the other Wizard had every possible chance of success. For a moment the thought of locking Gandalf in Orthanc to protect him flitted through the White Istar's mind. With a tight little smile he at once dismissed the notion as ludicrous. What else could he do to help Gandalf? he wondered.

"I have a small collection of documents from the region. It might help for you to study them," he volunteered, "and maybe they could even provide a model for the message you intend to carry."

Gandalf looked relieved that his lover was not raising additional objections. "Good! Anything like that might prove useful in giving me a better sense of the place and its people." He paused, seeing the misery in Saruman's eyes. The Grey Istar thought for a moment and then seemed to come to a decision. "If it will make you feel any better, I shall tell you that I also carry with me a ... a special protective power that should help me to some degree, though I am not sure how much. I'm sorry, but I cannot say any more about it, even to you."

Narya, Saruman realized. Yes, that would probably help, but it seemed little consolation.

Gandalf leaned down to hug him briefly. "Oh, cheer up! At least you have me here for the time it takes me to learn everything that I can."

Saruman gave him a wan smile and replied, "Yes, but that will be small comfort when I am sitting in Lórien agonizing over your wellbeing. Will you be ready to set out and put your plan in motion once you have finished here? I assume that you will go to the Golden Wood on your way, and if so I shall travel there with you and await your return."

"Fine! Yes, I shall stop there for some last consultation with Celeborn and Galadriel. Ordinarily, of course, they would never allow Men within the borders of the Wood, but since these fellows are such a crucial part of the plan, they are making an exception. Oh, and the Elves will also be putting some streaks of dark coloring into my hair and braiding my beard! Apparently that is the way officers wear their beards in Khand."

"Yes. I believe I have a book with some drawings that might be useful." Saruman stood and embraced the other Istar loosely, gazing sadly into his eyes. "I wish there were more I could do to help you. I suppose I should volunteer to go in your place, but I cannot imagine being able to summon the courage to approach the tower, let alone enter it. You are amazingly brave, you know." He stroked Gandalf's hair softly.

The Grey Wizard smiled. "Perhaps. Or perhaps just impatient to see some progress in our long, long mission. And to go home." He leaned forward and turned his head to rest his cheek against Saruman's shoulder, closing his eyes.

You are home, Saruman thought, but he had long ago learned not to say such things aloud. The White Istar held the Grey one, silent and unmoving, for a long time.

Some weeks later, Lothlórien

Gandalf spent a short time in the Golden Wood, as the Elves carefully darkened portions of his hair and beard to look as natural as they could make them. His staff, too, was transformed, disguised to mimic the standards carried by messengers of Khand. Finally everything was ready, and early one morning the Grey Istar set out with his four companions. Saruman watched him go with a sad frown on his face. He was torn between his admiration for his lover's wisdom and courage, which might possibly carry him through this foolish endeavor, and a belief that the danger was too great even for Gandalf. He spent the next nine days in an agony of fear and despair, eased at times by hope. Galadriel and Celeborn were equally worried, and Caras Galadhon was more silent than usual as the Elves tried to find activities that would take their minds off their suspense.

Late one afternoon, however, an Elf came to Saruman in the library and delightedly told him that Gandalf had again returned safely from Dol Guldur. Saruman rushed up to the main meeting-room at Lórien to greet him. The Grey Istar was surrounded by a cluster of Elves, but he waved and smiled as Saruman came in. The White Wizard made no attempt to push his way through the crowd, for he hardly wanted their reunion to be so public. Instead, he stood just inside the door, watching with pride and an overwhelming sense of relief. He could wait to be alone with his lover. The accolades the Grey Istar was receiving were well deserved. For now just to savor the fact that Gandalf was safe was joy enough to smother nearly all envy over all the attention being paid to the other Wizard.

After a short time the group began to disperse, and Celeborn walked over to Saruman. "Mithrandir says that he is not too tired to join Galadriel and me for a drink and a bite to eat, since he is quite hungry after his trip. Naturally we are eager to hear the tale he has to tell, and you no doubt wish to form one of our little party."

Despite Saruman's intense desire to be alone at last with the other Wizard, he nodded. After all, he was equally keen to hear what had happened.

Gandalf had had little to eat on the journey back, having shared what was given to them at Dol Guldur equally with the four Men, now on their way to Minas Tirith with a letter of commendation from the Grey Wizard. A small plate of cheese and bread and fruit was brought, as well as wine for the group. Gandalf managed somehow to empty the plate even as he recounted his adventures. Incredibly, the whole thing had come off almost exactly as planned. They had encountered a band of Sauron's troops while still a few hours' walk from the great tower. They were Men, not Orcs. "Not Men of Khand, fortunately!" Gandalf added. "Otherwise I would have been hard put to fool them into believing that I was what I claimed to be."

The little group had been escorted to the tower. As they walked, Gandalf talked with the leader of the Enemy's soldiers, and the Man was so loquacious that the Wizard learned some of what he wanted to know without the necessity of offering payment in exchange. "I think I managed to speak the Common Tongue with a plausible Khandian accent," Gandalf remarked to his auditors. During a rest stop, he had managed to extract a small writing kit from his pack and inscribed the name of one of Sauron's lieutenants whom the leader had mentioned onto the envelope carrying the purported message from Khand. By the time they arrived at the tower, Gandalf had apparently gained the confidence of the soldiers' leaders, who turned him over to the guards at the door with a cheerful admonition to take good care of their guest. The four soldiers went off to have a meal with the troops of the tower. Gandalf had warned them to use only their native language and not to betray the fact that, after years in Minas Tirith, they spoke the Common Tongue quite well. "I certainly didn't want to suggest that we had not come directly from Khand, and if they couldn't talk with the other soldiers," the Wizard pointed out, "none of the four could inadvertently make some mistake that would betray us."

Thus Gandalf had found himself within Dol Guldur once more. "It was a fearsome experience, and yet I must admit that there was a thrilling aspect to it at times. Perhaps I just enjoyed being able to lie with a clear conscience for once in my life," he added with a chuckle.

"Yes, that is certainly an unfamiliar activity for you," Galadriel said with a smile. "Were you able to get much gossip or move about the tower to any extent?"

"Gossip, yes, quite a bit. Much of it irrelevant, of course. Yet by putting together a few remarks from various conversations, I was able to learn the answer to the mystery I had gone to investigate. It quite amazed me to hear it, but the Enemy is hunting for the One Ring, and he is also seeking information about the Heirs of Isildur-whether they still live, and if so, where."

He paused to refill his glass and to give the others time to absorb that extraordinary information. The three looked at each other in surprise.

Finally Galadriel asked, "Do you think he has some specific information that the Ring survives and that it might be found in a particular place? Or is this attempt an indication that he has little hope of ever regaining his previous strength without it?"

Gandalf sighed and thought for a moment. "Not the latter, I think. Finding the One would virtually guarantee him victory, no doubt, but he is disturbingly powerful already. Dol Guldur is well-provisioned with arms and full of soldiers. I could not really determine how confident Sauron is that the Ring is somehow findable. Naturally that is not something that he would reveal to anyone, even those closest to him. He is apparently concentrating on the River Anduin, deploying gangs to search along its length north of Rauros. Hence his preference for his lesser tower over Barad-dûr itself."

He paused and frowned. "I felt that I should explore the Tower as much as I was able, though not of course to try and investigate Sauron's own chambers. I was able to bribe my way into the dungeons in the cellars, thinking that I might possibly learn something from those who were held there. I pretended that I wanted to see the prisoners out of a cruel desire to witness their sufferings. The guards all too readily found that plausible. That visit was certainly difficult to endure! There are many prisoners there, and it galled me that this time I could not do anything to save them. There is one large pit into which those who are on the verge of death are flung. There I found something odd: a Dwarf, very near to succumbing. I wonder how Sauron was able to capture a lone Dwarf. Unfortunately although he tried to tell me something, the poor wretch was so far gone that he could not even give me his name."

There was another short silence before Gandalf concluded, "I would say that we should quickly summon the White Council to discuss this new revelation." He glanced inquiringly at Saruman.

The other Istar replied, "Yes, of course. This matter is so important that we should hold it at a locale where all can attend relatively easily. At Imladris, I would propose, unless that discommodes you too greatly," he added, turning to their host and hostess.

"Not at all," Galadriel said graciously. "Clearly Círdan should be notified as soon as possible, and we would spend less time waiting for him or his representative if we converge upon Imladris. If you and Gandalf would go on ahead quickly, you could make the arrangements, and we would follow more slowly with companions."

They all agreed on this plan, and Gandalf furnished more details about his visit to Dol Guldur until the time for dinner arrived.

Later that evening the two Istari retired to Saruman's bedroom. It was the same one where they had made love for the first time, so many years ago. They moved to the fireplace, and Gandalf used his staff to light the wood carefully laid there. The pair stood gazing down at it, holding hands.

Soon the White Istar's eyes moved to his companion's hair. "I take it that the dye used by the Elves on your hair is indelible and will need to grow out slowly," he said with a touch of amusement.

Gandalf nodded. "I'm afraid so. I must say that I am still a little startled each time I confront myself in a mirror-not that I have had much opportunity to do so. I believe I have more black in my hair than you do at this point."

"Perhaps. We certainly resemble each other more than we ever have."

"Is that good or bad?"

"Good, I suppose, though grey or white, you look attractive to me."

Gandalf turned to face him, grasping the sides of the White Istar's waist lightly. "You are very sweet. You certainly look attractive to me as well."

Their smiles faded as they gazed into each other's eyes. Saruman whispered, "I cannot tell you what a relief it is to hold you again, safe and sound."

Gandalf shook his head. "Believe me, I am equally relieved that you are able to do so. I-"

Before he could continue, Saruman's mouth seized his eagerly, invading immediately and sending their arousals soaring. Gandalf's arms went around his neck and pulled the taller Istar's head down against his, sucking hard on his tongue. Their hips were grinding together, and their swelling members rubbed against one another. Finally Gandalf pulled his mouth free and dragged wet lips across Saruman's cheek and neck, pausing now and then as they clung briefly in a kiss. "Would you mind if I do what I did that first night?"

Saruman gasped as he felt the tip of his lover's tongue tickling at the entrance to his ear. "What, suck the seed out of me before the fireplace?"

"No, I mean afterwards. To go inside you. I know you prefer to be the one doing that, but I like a little variety. And you don't seem to mind it on those occasions when I do propose it. You always seem to enjoy it."

Saruman pulled away to gaze at him lovingly. "We shall do it any way you like. And I do enjoy it, especially knowing that it makes you happy."

Slowly Gandalf undressed the other Istar, his mouth traveling over each bit of skin on Saruman's shoulders and chest as it was revealed. His fingers slipped under the beard and plucked at responsive nipples until Saruman's panting erupted into a little whimper. One of the Grey Wizard's hands undid the laces binding the front of the white trousers and slipped inside. He gasped as it encountered Saruman's moist, hot erection, and he stroked it, his fingers lingering over the sensitive ridge beneath and pressing lower to tickle the balls. The White Istar sought Gandalf's nipples through his shirt and caused his lover to jerk and moan as he gently pinched and rolled the hardening nubs.

At last Saruman gasped, "If you're going to take me, you had better do so quickly. If you excite me anymore, I shall be the one doing the taking! One way or another, I need you!"

Gandalf abandoned the leisurely pace, immediately lowering the other Istar's trousers. After stepping out of them Saruman climbed onto the bed. The Grey Wizard was removing his own trousers, and Saruman gazed with delight at the tip of his lover's rigid purple member, jutting out as it was released and pushing aside the wispy tip of his white beard. Gandalf gave a tiny nod toward the bed's headboard, and Saruman turned and rose onto his knees, clutching the wooden edge and gasping raggedly with anticipation.

The Grey Istar quickly opened the bedside drawer and found what he needed. He removed the jar's lid as he leaned forward to run his tongue up Saruman's spine, eliciting quivers and starts as he touched sensitive places. Gandalf dipped a generous dollop of the ointment with his fingers and dabbed part of it on the tip of his own cock before smearing the rest around his lover's tight opening. Saruman lowered his forehead to rest it on one of his hands as he strove to relax and allow the breaching of his puckered hole. One finger went inside, pushing until it just brushed the most sensitive point. The White Istar gulped and straightened up, waiting in suspense as his lover carefully slipped a second finger inside and moved both in a slowly widening circle, now and then nudging the small gland tantalizingly. Now any discomfort was lost in Saruman's rapt concentration on the fingers' slightest movement within him, and once he gasped, "Yes, there!" when the other Wizard touched the spot more firmly.

To his regret, the fingers withdrew, but immediately he felt the large tip of Gandalf's cock nudging firmly against his opening. There was a breathless pause, and Saruman begged, "Push it in!" Gandalf rotated his hips slightly, pressing forward and letting the end of his erection continue to open the resistant ring. The bead of ointment there heated and spread to slick the crown of his cock as he rubbed it firmly into the spreading wrinkles. Finally, when he sensed that the entrance was relaxed enough, he grasped Saruman's waist on either side, half leaning forward and half pulling the other Istar's body to impale itself on his member. Within seconds it slid deep enough to make Saruman's body stiffen and shudder. The White Istar's knees quickly shifted wider apart, and he arched his back slightly to guide the end of Gandalf's length squarely against the pleasure spot. With that Saruman froze, his hands clutching the headboard as Gandalf pumped into him steadily. The Grey Istar's face was fixed in a grimace, and he occasionally emitted a tiny grunt of effort and pleasure.

"I want to do this all night," Gandalf said in a tight voice, his hips rocking in a slow rhythm, driving him into the snug, clutching, hot depths and totally absorbing him in exquisite sensations.

Saruman shook his head quickly and gasped out, "We can do it again later if you want it all night! For now ..." His clenching teeth cut off the rest as Gandalf drove perfectly into him again and again. Suddenly the Grey Istar leaned forward and murmured, "Would you rather stop and trade places now?" Saruman shook his head more emphatically and uttered desperate, keening sounds. His lover took pity then and reached around to grasp his bobbing shaft, jerking it suddenly as he redoubled the speed of his thrusts. Almost at once Saruman threw back his head and groaned loudly, over and over, as the other Istar's hand sent his come scattering wildly across the headboard until the ecstasy eased and the last little spurts and dribbles spread over the top of Gandalf's fist. As the spasms of pleasure moved through Saruman's loins, his passage clenched more firmly on the Grey Istar's member, and Gandalf stiffened and made short, rapid thrusts into it, gasping as his balls contracted and drove his seed out with waves of intense, dizzying bliss.

Saruman's hands dropped to the mattress, where he remained on all fours as he panted, his eyes closed. Gandalf leaned against him, fully embedded, until his shrinking erection threatened to slip free. Plucking up the handkerchief that he had found in the drawer, he placed it under his shaft and wiped them both as he withdrew. Moving to one side of Saruman, he collapsed onto his back and lay savoring the lingering ecstasy in his lower body. The White Istar lowered himself onto the bed beside him. They turned their heads to grin lazily at each other. Gandalf chuckled, "If you missed being on top, you hid it with masterful tact."

"Not at all. As always on such occasions, you remind me of the virtues of variety. I cannot imagine feeling more contented at this moment."

The two lay silently for about twenty minutes. Gandalf finally recovered enough to roll onto his side facing his lover, who instantly embraced him and cradled him against his own body. The Grey Istar sighed. "I feel able to relax for the first time in nearly two weeks. Every instant I was in the tower, or even near it, my body felt as taut as a bow-string, always prepared to respond to any danger that might arise. Now, in your arms and in the heart of the Golden Wood, I feel exactly the opposite. How could I possibly be safer?" Within what seemed like mere seconds, he was sound asleep.

Saruman's mind was in too great a ferment to allow him to drop off himself. He pondered all that Gandalf had told Galadriel and Celeborn and him about Sauron's endeavors. The Dark Lord seeking the One Ring. Could it really have ended up in a place where it could be found? Sauron seemed to think so, if he would delay returning to Mordor in order to make a search for it. If the Enemy regained the One, the cause of the West was almost certainly doomed.

Presumably the Wise and other leaders allied with them would have to make a search for the Ring as well, to attempt to locate it before Sauron could. Perhaps he himself would be lucky enough to be the person who found the Ring! He imagined himself announcing that news to the White Council and the stir it would cause. That would be a feat that would equal Gandalf's great deeds. Those who had favored and admired the Grey Istar so much in the past would have to admit that Saruman was worthy of the same high opinion. If he were very diligent, it might just possibly turn out that way. Yes, he would begin to organize his search as soon as possible. He had not run across anything among the papers at Orthanc that related to the One Ring, but there might possibly be such material in the Minas Tirith archives.

The prospect seemed discouraging. Such a tiny object, lost in the huge Anduin and probably sunk deep in the mud of its bed after such a long time. And what part of the Anduin, a river that ran hundreds of miles before reaching Rauros, let alone the Sea? He knew, though, that the Ring would want Sauron to recover it. It would strive to get back to him. Might it reveal itself if it sensed the nearness of its Master? he wondered. Quite possibly that was what the Dark Lord was counting on. If the Ring did emerge in some fashion and Saruman were quick and thorough in his own search, he might be the one to locate it. In making such a search, he would risk having Sauron discover it first, and yet the temptation to become the savior of the West was strong.

Gandalf, of course, would be eager to attack the tower and try to capture or kill Sauron, or at least to drive him away so weakened that he could never rise again. If that happened, though, it might mean that the Ring would not be found at all. It would be better, the White Wizard decided, if Sauron were allowed to keep up his residency in Dol Guldur for a while. He wondered how the others among the Wise would react to this news about the Ring. Would they support Gandalf's position? Saruman contemplated whether he should oppose his lover and urge the Council to delay an assault. Of course he would not tell them why he was doing so. His own search for the Ring would have to be secret, and he would have to discourage the others from looking for it. It would be just his luck that Gandalf would find it before he did, adding yet another triumph to his growing list of feats, and Saruman would once again be overshadowed.

Soon Saruman's pondering was dampened by another consideration. If Sauron once more held the One Ring, then he would gain some sort of power over the Three. Not direct and utter control, perhaps, but many of the thoughts and deeds of the three Keepers would be laid bare to him. Gandalf would almost certainly be in great danger. All the more reason for the White Istar to find the Ring and keep it away from the Dark Lord. He would be protecting his lover. He decided that, rather than traveling with Gandalf to Rivendell, he would go south instead, visiting Minas Tirith to search for any documents concerning the Ring and Isildur. Alone and on a swift horse, he could do so and still be at Rivendell as soon as the Elves from the Grey Havens most likely could arrive there. He bitterly regretted missing the time with his lover on the journey north, but this task was so important that he would have to make that sacrifice.

Finally, after much thought, he gently released his hold on the Grey Wizard's body and moved back slightly. He grasped Gandalf's arm loosely with one hand and gradually fell asleep.

Late 2850, Minas Tirith

Saruman's researches in the archives of Minas Tirith had heretofore concentrated primarily on the Second Age. That was when the Rings of Power had been created, and there must lie the secrets of their making. Upon arriving there after the revelations Gandalf had made in Lothlórien, however, the White Istar requested that the archivist, Eldacar, show him everything relating to the early Third Age and especially to Isildur.

The Man had delved deep into the oldest areas of the shelves, at intervals emerging with ancient scrolls and sheets of faded writing. Saruman had perused them all eagerly, gaining scraps of information about how Isildur had heroically gone forth when Men and Elves had fought side by side at the great battle before the gates of Mordor. As the White Wizard was reading one document, Eldacar carefully deposited another group of scrolls on the large table in the back reading room where Saruman was working.

"That's the last of them, I think," the archivist said, pulling out a handkerchief to wipe his dusty hands. "I do hope you find what you're looking for," he added politely before going out to return via the labyrinthine corridors to the main front room of the great library.

Saruman finished the pile of texts he had been working on and turned to investigate these new scrolls. The fourth one caught his interest immediately. "The Great Ring shall go now to be an heirloom of the North Kingdom ..." He skimmed the rest and then went back to read it slowly and carefully and then to reread it several times. Obviously it was a rare and hitherto unnoticed document.

The scroll had been written by Isildur himself and included a description of markings on the One Ring of the Enemy. Saruman sat thinking over what he had so far gleaned from the various documents about the fate of Isildur after he left Minas Tirith with the Ring. Slain in the Gladden Fields, swimming invisibly with the Ring on, seeking to escape an ambush of orcs. The Ring had slipped off and sunk in the water. Lost forever-or so it had been assumed.

The Gladden Fields. That revelation considerably narrowed down the region to be investigated. But still, what an enormous task, to comb such a large area for such a small object-especially underwater and after such a length of time! No record seemed to survive that offered even a vague approximation of where within the Fields Isildur had been killed. Yet the Enemy must have some hope that the Ring could be found. Apparently, though, Sauron had not yet narrowed the search down to the Gladden Fields. If the White Istar acted quickly, he might get there first.

The new information made him think again about what an achievement it would be to find the Ring before Sauron could. He began to breathe more deeply with excitement.
Saruman pondered how he could go about his own search. It would mean keeping the information he had recently learned about Isildur and the Ring and the Gladden Fields secret during the upcoming Council meeting. Indeed, in discouraging the White Council members from moving militarily against Sauron, he would have to lie to them for the first time, he realized. Still, the chance of success was worth it, and after all, he was trying to accomplish something that would help their cause immeasurably.

By now Saruman had nearly finished the documents from the early years of the Third Age. He decided that that evening at dinner he would inform the Steward that he was departing for Rivendell two days hence. His lip curled slightly at the notion. On the few occasions when the two Istari and Erestor had been in the same locale, Saruman had continued the precedent set at Lórien and selflessly stepped aside in favor of the Elf. He would presumably be expected to do so again in this case. Gandalf's gratitude was always some compensation for this sacrifice, but the White Istar's impatience with this unpleasant little custom was growing. And the current trip to Minas Tirith, vital though it had proven, had deprived him of considerable time with his lover. Really, he thought, I shall insist that Gandalf at least come back with me to Isengard after the meeting. He owes me that.

Late 2850, Rivendell

When Gandalf arrived at the Last Homely House, he went quickly to Elrond's study and knocked on the door. Ordinarily he would have made inquiries as to whether the Elf was occupied with some important business-but there was no business that could possibly be as vital as the news the Istar brought. He heard Elrond's voice bid him enter, and he went in. There were two Elves talking with the Master of Rivendell, but seeing Gandalf's grave expression, Elrond said to them, "The rest of this matter can wait until another day. I beg leave to speak with Mithrandir alone."

Once they were gone, Elrond and Gandalf moved together and embraced. The Elf pulled back to smile into his face. "I cannot tell you how glad I am to see you! Each day I have hoped for a message conveying news of your safe escape from the Enemy's lair." He glanced up at the Istar's hair with amusement. "It is strange to see you thus, but your plan obviously worked."

Gandalf nodded and turned to sit, being weary from his journey over the pass in the Misty Mountains early in the winter. "With more and more of the Enemy's spies about, I thought it too dangerous to entrust crucial information to the regular system of bird messengers. And I came so swiftly that I hope I have not kept you in suspense too long." He sighed and shook his head. "True, alas, is our guess. This is not one of the Úlairi, as many have long supposed. It is Sauron himself who has taken shape again and now grows apace; and he is gathering again all the Rings to his hand; and he seeks ever for news of the One, and of the Heirs of Isildur, if they live still on earth."

Elrond stared sadly at him for a moment before replying, "In the hour that Isildur took the Ring and would not surrender it, this doom was wrought, that Sauron should return."

Gandalf looked keenly into his eyes. "Yet the One was lost, and while it still lies hid, we can master the Enemy, if we gather our strength and tarry not too long." He saw uncertainty in Elrond's eyes and pressed ahead. "Obviously we must summon the White Council. Indeed, I have taken the liberty of speaking with Saruman and Galadriel and Celeborn. They have agreed that a meeting should be held here. By now Galadriel and Celeborn would have set out to follow me, escorted by a group of their people. Saruman had some business in Minas Tirith, but he too will soon set out, more speedily, to join us. Let us send to the Havens as well, as quickly as may be. With luck, in perhaps a month or more likely two we could hope that the Wise would be assembled in Imladris. There is no time to lose, in my opinion."

Elrond sighed again and nodded. "Yes, clearly this matter must swiftly be made known to all and discussed."

More than discussed-acted upon, Gandalf thought, but he had had such conversations with the Elf before, and at this point he was too tired to argue the issue yet again. He rose, saying, "Good! If you will undertake to send word to Círdan, I shall go and assure Erestor that I am not languishing in the Dark Lord's dungeons!"

Early 2851, Rivendell

Seven weeks later the Wise had assembled at Rivendell, and the Council was held. During the morning session Gandalf recounted the events of his mission to Dol Guldur at length, making it perfectly clear that their great Enemy had returned to the West of Middle-earth, seeking the One Ring. As everyone had expected, he then urged them to swift deeds to prevent the Dark Lord's possibly achieving his goal and gaining the vast power he would need to defeat them. By the time he finished, the morning was well advanced.

When he finished it was Saruman's turn to speak, and he enthusiastically praised Gandalf's courage and wisdom. Then, to the Grey Wizard's dismay, the other Istar unexpectedly began arguing against his advice. Saruman's speech was confident and eloquent, urging the group to wait and watch in the hopes of learning more of Sauron's intent.

Eventually Saruman stood up and paced the length of the table and back, speaking slowly and emphatically. "That Sauron should be seeking the One Ring should not cause us to panic and act precipitously. For I believe not that the One will ever be found again in Middle-earth. Into Anduin it fell, and long ago, I deem, it was rolled to the Sea. There it shall lie until the end, when all this world is broken and the deeps are removed."

The entire group sat silent for a moment, thinking over what the White Istar had said. Gandalf suspected that he saw traces of relief on the faces of some. Finally he asked Saruman, "You are probably right, and yet, if we were somehow to discover a Ring of Power, how might we determine whether it was the One?"

All eyes turned to Saruman, and he felt a little thrill of pride at being able to inform Gandalf of something in front of the assembled Wise. He drew himself up slightly and replied, "The Nine, the Seven, and the Three had each their proper gem. Not so the One. It was round and unadorned, as it were one of the lesser rings; but its maker set marks upon it that the skilled, maybe could still see and read." He paused, and, not wanting anyone to ask where he had obtained that information, added, "I have no doubt that, in the highly unlikely event of such a Ring coming to light, I have the lore that would allow me to identify it. Yet as I have said, it almost certainly now lies where neither we nor Sauron can ever lay hands upon it, far under the waves of the Sea."

There was another short silence, and Glorfindel said, not addressing anyone in particular, "If indeed Sauron is seeking that which he cannot find, might it not be better to allow him to waste his time and energy in that fashion? We could continue to try and gather our strength and become better prepared to deal with him in the future."

"Exactly!" Saruman said with an approving nod. "The researches that I am pursuing might well put us in a position of superiority, but they require more time."

Gandalf frowned as some of the Elves glanced at each other, seemingly impressed by this point. He said, "But the passage of time has not strengthened us in the past, at least not in the long run. Such victories as we have achieved have been short-lived indeed. Now, with the Dwarves in distant exile, pursuing their own goals, and with the population of Ithilien dwindling, we shall probably not be in a better position to attack Dol Guldur for decades, even centuries. Sauron, however, is not likely to wane in power, even if he does not find the Ring. Quite the contrary! And what if he gives up the search and moves to Mordor? He would be far more difficult to reach than he currently is."

Saruman was about to speak when a clear bell rang out, signaling the break for lunch. Upon reaching the dining room, the Grey Istar rather pointedly sat down with Galadriel and the other Elves from Lothlórien, though he remained largely silent throughout the meal. Erestor happened to be sitting across from him. Saruman clenched his teeth but turned to the others of the Wise who were seated near him, trying to speak with them in a cheerful fashion. From the conversation, Saruman sensed that most of the Elves were inclined to side with him, and his cheerful mood soon became genuine-aside from the nagging awareness of Erestor's sympathetic glances at Gandalf and his occasional murmured comments across the table to him.

After lunch ended, the group returned to the chamber where they had been meeting. The White Istar noticed that Gandalf sat apart from the group and even pulled out his pipe. Surely he is not going to smoke here! Saruman thought with a flash of anger. But the other Wizard indeed filled and lit his pipe-the first time he had ever done such a thing at a Council meeting. Some of the Elves glanced at each other with amused expressions. Saruman strove to concentrate on the many reasons that he could give the group for not taking Gandalf's advice and attacking Dol Guldur. His mellifluous voice seemingly held the Elves spellbound for a time before he finally gave the floor over for discussion. Many of those present chimed in with comments, some supporting Gandalf's views, but most siding with Saruman. To the White Wizard's surprise, Gandalf did not enter into this discussion at all, but smoked pipe after pipe of weed.

Finally everyone who wished to speak had done so. Saruman put the issue to a vote. With only Elrond and Galadriel siding with the Grey Istar, the decision was made not to attack the tower. Saruman ended the meeting, adding, "We shall assemble again tomorrow, I presume, to discuss what specific policies we should pursue from this point on."

The group stood up, though most lingered and broke into little clusters to discuss the results of the session. Saruman glanced toward Gandalf and saw that Erestor had gone over to speak consolingly to the Istar, who was the only one still seated. The Elf leaned down slightly to make his voice audible over the murmured conversations around them. Watching Erestor's lips moving as he spoke, the White Wizard imagined them descending to touch Gandalf's mouth. He ground his teeth. The smoking had brought back all his old suspicions and doubts about the other Istar's strange doings in the Shire, and now Saruman's rival was flaunting his relationship with Gandalf before his very eyes. The combination created in him an uncontrollable urge to assert his power over his fellow Istar in front of the others before they dispersed.

Without weighing what he was about to do, Saruman moved a few steps toward the other Istar and said in a mildly reproachful voice, "When weighty matters are in debate, Mithrandir, I wonder a little that you should play with your toys of fire and smoke, while others are in earnest speech."

To his surprise, Gandalf simply laughed and replied, "You would not wonder, if you used this herb yourself. You might find that smoke blown out cleared your mind of shadows within. Anyway, it gives patience, to listen to error without anger. But it is not one of my toys. It is an art of the Little People away in the West: merry and worthy folk, though not of much account, perhaps, in your high policies."

Some of the Elves chuckled softly and began to turn away, thinking the exchange a minor matter. Yet Saruman was appalled that Gandalf should explicitly and publicly accuse him of erring, and he glanced at the others before speaking in an icy tone. "You jest, Lord Mithrandir, as is your way. I know well enough that you have become a curious explorer of the small: weeds, wild things, and childish folk. Your time is your own to spend, if you have nothing worthier to do; and your friends you may make as you please. But to me the days are too dark for wanderers' tales, and I have no time for the simples of peasants."

Gandalf did not laugh again; and he did not answer, but looking keenly at Saruman he drew on his pipe and sent out a great ring of smoke with many smaller rings that followed it. Then he put up his hand, as if to grasp them, and they vanished. With that he got up and left Saruman without another word; but Saruman stood for some time silent, and his face was dark with doubt and displeasure. What had Gandalf meant by that strange gesture? Did he possibly know something about the One Ring that he had not revealed to the White Wizard? Suddenly he remembered the other Istar's joke about having enjoyed lying while he was at Dol Guldur. Certainly those lies had been very effective in getting Gandalf safely into and out of the Enemy's tower. Maybe he was more deceitful than he seemed.

These ideas flitted through his mind in seconds, and he suddenly noticed that the Elves had turned to each other with puzzled frowns, shocked at the Istari's exchange. As Saruman looked around, they quickly turned and filed out of the room. Breathing heavily, the Wizard tried to gather his swirling thoughts. The Elves' expressions made him aware that he had gone too far, much too far. Jealousy again! he realized. He had once more let it overpower him. And the whole subject of the Shire made him rash, rasher than he would have believed possible. The only thing that mattered now was to make it up with his lover, to somehow convince him that the little argument had been trivial and meaningless. He had to apologize at once and make all right again. Surely Gandalf could not long stay angry with him.

Once he felt himself calm enough, Saruman left the chamber. Gandalf had probably gone to his own room, and Saruman walked along the corridors toward it, forcing himself to go at a moderate pace and breathe slowly and steadily. Finally he reached the door and knocked. Gandalf's voice from within bade him enter.

As Saruman closed the door behind himself, Gandalf was pacing before the window, but he stopped and faced his lover with an angry, accusing expression. "Well," he said coldly, "would you care to explain what just occurred?"

Saruman's heart sank, and he realized that he would say anything he needed to in order to bring the light of love back into that face. "Gandalf, I should not have said what I did to you at the end of the meeting. I was worried and uncertain about the whole thing, for I knew that there were deep divisions in that room over what should be done. You and I were on opposing sides, and yet I was concerned that you should indulge in a rustic little pleasure in the midst of such serious discussion. I hated to see you demean yourself in the eyes of the Wise. I am profoundly sorry, however, that I expressed myself so. I freely admit that I was far too sharp with you. You know I love you, and I want you to behave in a fashion worthy your high position-that's all. Can you forgive me?"

Gandalf stared at him throughout this speech, and his expression changed little, though a hint of sadness gradually blended with the anger. He replied softly with a tone of deep disappointment that sent a shudder through Saruman. "You have never spoken to me in that way before. And in front of others at that! How can my smoking demean me more in their eyes than your harsh words do? After all, most of my friends know about that harmless little habit anyway and apparently tolerate it, even if they think it is odd. It seems such a petty thing to make you treat me thus."

Saruman responded quickly, "Yes, you are absolutely right, and I have asked for your pardon. I spoke without thinking, and believe me, it will not happen again." He paused and looked soulfully at his lover. "Gandalf, the decision is made, and others of the Wise have agreed with me. Let not this difference of views on political matters cast a shadow over our personal lives. For we can love each other and yet disagree on strategy, can we not? I forgot that distinction in speaking to you this afternoon, but I know that you are more patient than I am."

Gandalf shook his head. "It is not the political disagreement that I resent. I feel that the decision was wrong, but at least it was made on the basis of long and earnest consideration. No, it is your final statements to me that seem so uncalled-for. I don't think that I behaved in any way unworthy of my position. Still, I realize that you do." He paused and smiled slightly, and Saruman took hope at last.

Gandalf went on, "The odd thing is that everyone who has cause to pass frequently through the Shire seems to take up smoking." He paused, as if expecting Saruman to say something, but the White Istar had no idea how he should respond. After a moment Gandalf sighed and continued, "I discovered its delights early on. Most of the Rangers of the North have done the same, as have the Men who live in the areas adjacent to the Shire. More recently many of the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains have become smokers, since they often pass through the Shire on their commercial travels to and from their new home." He hesitated and again looked at Saruman earnestly before shrugging resignedly and saying softly, "I wish you would try it yourself, and perhaps then you would be less condemnatory."

Saruman blanched slightly, for he did not wish Gandalf to dwell on that notion. The whole subject came all too close to his earlier scrutiny of the Shire and his continued maintenance of a small network of spies there, as well as his receipt of a steady supply of imported pipeweed. He chuckled. "Perhaps I would, but for now, I hope that you can exercise your great patience with me. I cannot tell you how much I regret having spoken harshly to you. You know that I love you very much."

"Yes, naturally I know you do, but I wish you would not let it influence what you say in such meetings. Our private life and our public duties should be completely separate-or as separate as possible, at any rate. I did not fail to note that I had been talking to Erestor just before you criticized me. It has been so long since you expressed any resentment of him or Legolas that I thought you had conquered your feelings about them. But in general, if you are jealous or annoyed at something I do, please, let's discuss it only between ourselves. And if you wish me to be patient with you, perhaps you could be patient with my interest in the little folk of the Shire. I realize they seem to you very tangential to our mission, but I am not so sure of that-and I simply like them." He suddenly looked into Saruman's eyes as if an idea had occurred to him for the first time. "If you somehow think that I might have a lover in the Shire that I have never told you about, I can assure you that it is not the case. Since you and I declared our love to each other, I have not become intimate with anyone new."

Saruman struggled not to betray how glad he was finally to have this concrete assurance from Gandalf.

The Grey Istar went on, "Of course, there are still the two others, but you need not be so jealous. They both accepted my relationship with you when it began. I wish you would return them the favor. After all, you know that none of my feelings for them takes away from my deep love for you."

The sad, tender expression on Gandalf's face as much as his words caused relief to flood over Saruman. He grasped the other Wizard's hands and pressed them against his own chest. "I do know that. You are right, absolutely right! I could not be more contrite, believe me. I shall control my jealousy in future-and try to put it aside altogether. I promise that I shall never reproach you about your interest in the Shire or your love of smoking. Your love for me is what matters." He raised one of Gandalf's hands to his lips and kissed it.

Gandalf's expression softened further and he replied, "Our love matters greatly to me as well, of course, and I accept your apology." He pulled one hand away and cupped the side of the White Istar's head with it.

Saruman wanted nothing more than to take the other Istar to bed, but to suggest that Gandalf renege on their arrangement with Erestor would hardly do at this point. The White Wizard had to content himself with a long, reassuring embrace. He moved his hands slowly up and down Gandalf's back, kneading his shoulders and buttocks, feeling the firm muscles of the body that was still his. Or at least partly his. He vowed to spend his lonely evenings planning ways to implement his search of the Gladden Fields. Rivendell's huge library should afford maps that would be of great assistance.

A short time later, after parting from Saruman, the Grey Wizard went to consult with Elrond in his study. The pair looked dejectedly at each other for a moment. The Elf gestured for Gandalf to sit, but he himself paced slowly about the room. Finally he said, "Saruman was very eloquent today, and perhaps he is right that there is no need to attack Sauron at this point. Nonetheless, I forebode that the One will yet be found, and then war will arise again, and in that war this Age will be ended. Indeed in a second darkness it will end, unless some strange chance deliver us that my eyes cannot see."

The Istar nodded slightly. A strange chance, yes, and somehow he had a vague notion ... "Many are the strange chances of the world, and help often shall come from the hands of the weak when the Wise falter."

Elrond paused, surprised, and regarded him with a puzzled expression. "'The hands of the weak.' What do you mean?"

Gandalf looked back at him, bemused. "I don't really know. I suppose I mean that we should look for help in all sorts of places, not just among the strong and the wise."

Elrond moved to sit at his desk. "Yes, that is always your approach, and I quite agree-in principle, since so far, to be frank, I do not see it bearing much fruit. Apart from the various communities of Elves and the Men of the Southern kingdoms, there are few allies contributing to the struggle against our great Foe."

Gandalf shrugged uneasily. "True. Much of my effort goes toward trying to keep the peoples at least somewhat aware of each other, and I can but hope that a growing danger will make them see where their mutual interests lie." Stated so baldly, his plan seemed distinctly inadequate, even to himself. As always, it was all so vague.

After a few more minutes of conversation, Gandalf left Elrond's study and wandered back to his own room. It was chilly, and he lit a fire, sitting down before it and pulling out his pipe. His mind wandered back to his remark about "the hands of the weak." An odd thing to say, and yet it seemed right. That reflection and the pipe in his hand led him to think of another odd moment, the gesture he had made at the end of the Council's meeting, pretending to try and grasp the smoke rings that he had blown. Why had he done that? It had been just an impulse, really. He smiled to himself. He seemed to be saying and doing mysterious things lately. Was his heart trying to tell him something? He searched deep within himself, but his reflection led to no new insight.

Probably his gesture with the smoke-rings was meant to warn Saruman that he had become too obsessed with studying Ring lore. It was all very well to say that such study would help their cause, but the White Istar should face up to the fact that in the many years he had been experimenting, he had not succeeded in making a Ring of Power-or even a tentative essay in the craft. His efforts could better be used in pursuits more directly relevant to their cause.

The Rings of Power. Gandalf frowned. Saruman believed that the One was lost forever, yet Elrond had just expressed a foreboding that it would be found again. The Grey Istar wondered which of the two was right. For the time being, it didn't really matter. Even without the Ring, Sauron was already gaining in strength. If the others of the Wise would not take swift, direct action, Gandalf had no choice but to continue to try and weaken their Enemy in other ways. There were the Orcs of the Misty Mountains, and the dragon still occupied Erebor. The situation in Ithilien was worsening, and clearly some sort of change of strategies would have to be worked out if Gondor was to have any ability to guard the area between the Anduin and the Mountains of Shadow. More travels to far-flung places, more brief respites with his lovers-when he could snatch the time. The Istari's mission seemed to drag on with no specific goal or vital task arising. Of one thing he was increasingly convinced, though: Saruman's hope to make a new Ring of Power was not a strategy likely to provide a breakthrough in their great mission-far from it.

Saruman. The nasty little exchange at the end of the Council meeting had revealed that there was still something distinctly wrong with the White Istar. It had been so long since there had been any sign of it that Gandalf had begun to hope that the problem had gone away. Clearly it had instead grown worse. He was happy that they had reconciled, and yet the underlying cause, whatever it was, had obviously not vanished. For a moment he wondered if he should go to Saruman's room and spend the night with him, reassuring him that the rift was not serious and trying to probe him further.

On second thought, he decided not to do so. Saruman had always stepped aside when in Rivendell, allowing Gandalf to spend his time with his Elvish lover. Gandalf consistently expressed his gratitude and tried to travel with Saruman or visit him longer, making it up to him. The delicate balance had existed for centuries, and the Grey Istar did not want to upset it now or go back on his promise to Erestor. Besides, after this acrimonious exchange with Saruman, he longed for the serenity that being with the Elf always brought him. And he had to admit, he still felt a trifle resentful at Saruman's scornful statements to him at the end of the meeting. Not that he would again reproach the other Wizard over them. Nevertheless, Saruman had a habit of persisting in urging the Grey Istar to do things that he had made it clear he would refuse to do-most obviously the whole business of settling in Orthanc and ceasing to pursue his travels. Yes, it would not do Saruman any harm, he thought, to be left alone to contemplate the possible consequences of repeating such behavior as had caused their argument today. It might teach him a bit of a lesson.

With that idea, his mind was made up. He yawned, thinking that a nap would not be amiss, especially given that he hoped to spend a lively time with Erestor that evening. He rose and went to the bed, kicking off his shoes before lying down. "The hands of the weak." Smoke rings. Drowsily he decided that he should travel west soon and pay a visit to his good friend Gerontius Took in the Shire. No harm in finding out how that little land, of such scant concern to the Wise, was faring.