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 action in this chapter is based on Appendix B's chronology, on the chapter "A Short Rest" in The Hobbit, and on "The Quest of Erebor."

As always, immense gratitude to Sarah for her suggestions and beta work.

Chapter Eight

2851 Mirkwood

Saruman suppressed a sigh of bored annoyance as he listened to Radagast drone on about the birds and animals that had visited him that day. As none of them carried a message from the Grey Istar, they were of absolutely no interest to the White one, but he forced himself to nod and smile in response to the anecdotes. They were sitting at the table over the remains of a meal that Radagast had prepared. Saruman was glad that he had sent a message notifying the other Wizard of his arrival, for Radagast had had time to concoct quite a large dinner for them. A bit unsophisticated, to be sure, and some of the ingredients were odd, but the extraordinary freshness of the food made it enjoyable. It would have been improved by having a good roast or steak as its centerpiece, but that was obviously not an option here.

Saruman let his mind wander back a few months, to the meeting of the White Council where the Wise had followed his advice and voted not to attack Dol Guldur. How close he had come to alienating Gandalf with his foolish, jealous words at the end of that meeting! He still wondered if he had truly succeeded in reconciling with the other Istar and preventing any loss of love between them. Perhaps Gandalf had been punishing him when he declared that instead of traveling with his lover back to Orthanc, he would ride west to visit the Shire. Saruman had bitten back his immediate response, having promised not to criticize the other Istar's interest in that land. Gandalf had not been to Isengard since. Saruman was willing to undergo this punishment, assuming that was how Gandalf viewed it, if it would mean that their relationship could return to normal. After all, he reassured himself, most of the intervals between Gandalf's visits were longer than the few months that had so far passed since they parted. Now, though, he was more determined than ever to find the Ring. Surely that accomplishment would not only impress the Wise with Saruman's abilities, but it would make Gandalf happy and renew his love for his fellow Istar. He had come to ask help in his task from Radagast, but he wondered if the fellow would ever let him get a word in.

Soon, however, Radagast began to talk about his dealings with the peasants and woodcutters whom he had encountered on a recent short trip. "They all speak with fear of Orcs and evil Men that have been seen in the vicinity of the Anduin," Radagast said with a shake of his head. "Clearly Sauron is behind it all, but no one I met seemed to know what exactly is going on. Apart from occasionally approaching the local people to demand food, these strangers have made no trouble, so it is not to maraud among the good farm-folk of the area that they come. A few mention that they seem to be searching for something, but these agents of the Enemy have not questioned anyone, as far as I can determine."

At last, a perfect lead-in to what he wanted to talk with Radagast about, Saruman thought. He said, "Yes, I also have heard some rumors of the sort. The Elves of the Golden Wood have noticed these Orcs and Men as well, for they search the River along much of its length. That in fact is why I have come to visit you."

Radagast's face crinkled into a smile. "Foolish me, to think that I could spring any news upon you that you would not have heard already. You are very diligent in your task. But if you did not come for information, why have you come? Not that I am not delighted to see you, but I gather that you travel almost as little as I do, at least beyond the borders of Gondor and Rohan."

"Because I need exactly the sort of help that you can supply. I am concerned about these searches by the Enemy. They are more significant to our cause than you could know, given that you did not attend the Council meeting late last year in Rivendell, nor have you, I would venture to say, visited Lothlórien recently. Gandalf has entered Dol Guldur again and discovered that the Enemy's minions are seeking the One Ring."

Radagast stared at him, shocked, but before the Brown Istar could say anything, Saruman hurried on, not wishing to linger on accounts of the past. "Naturally the Wise are debating what is to be done. In the meantime, I have recruited some agents among the Men who live along the River, especially in the Gladden Fields region. They are willing, for a price of course, to send me any information they might gather. What I need is a method for them to convey news to me in a timely fashion. Might it be possible for you to expand your bird-messenger system to include that area and for some of them to dwell there specifically for that purpose?"

In fact, Saruman had just spent considerable time setting up an extensive group of agents in the area of the Gladden Fields, but they also were trying to find a plain golden Ring. He offered a considerable wage to each during the search, with a large reward for the eventual finder. "Do not," he had warned them in explaining what he wanted done, "try to make or buy another Ring, thinking to deceive me and collect the prize. The Ring I seek has a spell on it, and I can recognize it from all other rings in Middle-earth. You would lose the money I am paying you regularly if you try any such trickery. Diligence and luck, not deceit, will make you wealthy." Many had been eager for the gold and daunted by the impressive Wizard and his Voice. Special nets and other devices for trolling the riverbed had been supplied, and the Men were to go as systematically as possible along the River. It might take many years, but if the Ring was there, he reckoned he had a decent chance of finding it eventually.

Radagast nodded earnestly at Saruman's request. "I think so, especially if these agents of yours will provide them with food and shelter. There are many birds who understand the system. Of course your agents will not be able to communicate with them as we Istari do. But as all the messages from that source would be going to you at Orthanc, it should be quite simple. Let us work out a schedule, and you can take a bird or two with you now. If you show them where to go and explain to your agents how the messages would be picked up, we should be able to institute regular visits immediately."

"Thank you. That may well prove a great help to our cause. We should be able to establish a very few pick-up points. Naturally, most of these folk are illiterate, so the few who can read and write are the leaders and will be responsible for contacting me." Saruman hesitated, for he wanted to devise a way to keep Radagast from inadvertently revealing to Galadriel or Gandalf that the White Istar was keeping agents in the region of the Gladden Fields. He resumed, "It would be very helpful if you were to stay put here. Not that you travel much, but I know that you pay the occasional visit to the Golden Wood. I need you here, ready to send me any news that might reach you, either from the region around Dol Guldur or from the folk on the east bank of the Anduin."

"Of course! I am delighted to be able to make an occasional contribution. I do realize that for a long time now I have not really been pulling my weight, but ..." Radagast shrugged and after a short silence added more cheerfully, "Well, shall I serve the dessert?"

2852, Minas Tirith

Gandalf was on his way to Gondor's capital. He had not visited Minas Tirith for several years now. To a considerable extent he depended upon Saruman to monitor the situation there, since the White Istar still made fairly regular trips to consult with the Stewards. Gandalf had concentrated, as usual, on moving about the northern regions, trying to unify and encourage the peoples there. Now, however, information concerning greater problems in Gondor had reached him at Rivendell. Sauron's emissaries were stirring up the Haradrim, and it was only a matter of time before an attack came. The same problems we have faced and solved in the past arise yet again, Gandalf had thought wearily, resolving to ride south as soon as possible.

His journey was lonely, though on the way he allowed himself a short respite of a few days, visiting Saruman at last. The Grey Istar had stayed away from Isengard longer than usual after their acrimonious exchange at the end of the White Council's meeting-nearly a year and a half. During his time at Orthanc, he was delighted to find Saruman his old self, witty, cheerful, and generous. It had almost been like the early days of their love.

As his unusually short visit drew to a close, however, Saruman stood in the large, comfortable bedroom that they shared, watching Gandalf pack his few belongings in his small bag. The White Istar moved to rest his forearms on his lover's shoulders, staring sadly into his eyes. "Have your ceaseless journeys really yielded progress in our cause? Are you not finally tired of our being apart so often and for so long?" He leaned in for a kiss before continuing, "I am not asking you to remain here always, but for longer stretches of time, as you used to do years ago. After such a lengthy absence, you are staying so briefly."

Gandalf hesitated before replying, "Yes, I miss you and yearn for our reunions. But apart from other considerations that we have discussed, if I stayed here, there is so little that I could do on my own. I suspect that I would essentially become an assistant in your research and experiments-no, wait! No doubt you would say that there is plenty to do and that I could pursue separate inquiries. But you are better at that sort of experimentation than I am, and inevitably I would primarily help you in that area. And diligent though you have been, you cannot gather all documents to Orthanc. Far from it. One of us would have to travel to consult or discover unique scrolls and books at other centers of study. I know you have become increasingly convinced that what I am doing in the way of endless diplomatic visits is not bearing fruit. Still, I persist in believing that such an approach is the most hopeful one. And really, as I have pointed out far too often, by electing to stay here, you make it all the more imperative that I continue to do what I have always done."

The Grey Wizard paused again. "If you will not travel on your own errands and you want us to be together, could you not at least occasionally accompany me on my journeys? I would be overjoyed to have you with me, and you could come back here in between."

Saruman froze for a tiny moment, suddenly worried. He did still travel a bit, occasionally to Minas Tirith and Edoras and somewhat more often to the area of the Anduin where his spies were searching-and he certainly didn't want Gandalf to know about those latter journeys. "No! That is, I could not. My studies are too vital to our cause. I cannot carry the books and scrolls that I need, and I could hardly sit by the campfire and read them. I must take notes and ..." He smiled at the other Istar. "And it would be difficult to concentrate with such an appealing companion," he added.

Gandalf smiled briefly at the compliment, but his eyes turned down as he nodded. "Well, then we must both accept that things will continue on as they are. I cannot stay here always, and you say you cannot come with me. I shall return as soon as I can. That is all I can promise."

He lifted his bag and walked down to the entry hall, followed by Saruman. They kissed lingeringly, and Saruman watched from the doorway as Gandalf descended the steps and climbed onto his horse as the groom held it for him. The Grey Istar turned to wave when he set out. As he rode he could feel his lover's eyes on him, but he did not look back again. As always, Saruman had seemed to accept what he had said, but Gandalf had long since realized that that acceptance would not last. There would be another time, and another, when Saruman said much the same thing and urged him to settle down. Much though Gandalf had enjoyed this visit, its ending made him wonder how soon he would want to return to Orthanc.

Upon arriving in Minas Tirith, Gandalf found a dire situation. Belecthor II, who had given him such help during his preparations for the visit to Dol Guldur, was dying. Apparently his illness had developed so suddenly that the message announcing it to Saruman had been sent even as the Grey Istar was within a day's ride of the White City. Gandalf settled sadly into one of the usual guest rooms assigned to the Istari in the past. The Steward was unconscious and incapable of receiving visitors, so the Grey Wizard spent his time talking quietly with some of the officials of the City, as well as Belecthor's heir, Túrin, the second of that name. What Gandalf learned of the state of things in Ithilien alarmed him. Equally chilling was the news that the White Tree of the Court of the Fountain was dying even as the lord of the City did.

Gandalf inquired as to whether a seedling had been found, but the officials assured him that, though a diligent search had been made, none had been discovered. The Wizard went out into the court and saw that their words were all too true. Sear leaves lay on the ground and floated in the water, and more fell from the Tree even as he watched. The remaining leaves were all withered around their edges.

It seemed incredible to Gandalf that after eons the line of Telperion, Eldest of Trees, should be dying out before his eyes. Of the few memories he could still call to mind of Valinor, the light of the Two Trees was among the foremost. The sense of loss and decline that had struck him so often during his time in Middle-earth had seemed but an echo of the tragedy of the Trees' destruction so long ago. Now all such losses seemed to merge. Even though there had been long stretches when Gandalf had not visited Minas Tirith, he always looked forward to visiting the Tree, for it felt like a link, however tenuous, to his life in the Uttermost West. Was this a sign that the royal throne of Gondor would never again be occupied, that their many efforts to guide the West to victory and restore the heir of Isildur would be in vain? That the situation had slipped beyond even the ability of the Valar to aid it? He stood sadly watching as more leaves dropped, until nightfall came and he was called away to a cheerless supper.

That night Belecthor succumbed, and when the Wizard wandered outside the next morning, the Tree was leafless and brittle. Túrin had told him that it would be left standing, since the tradition of a White Tree in Minas Tirith was an ancient one. Gandalf wished that he could find a living sapling to replace it, but the prospect of that ever happening seemed dark.

The Istar attended Belecthor's funeral and stayed long in Minas Tirith, giving advice to the new Steward and gathering information about enemy troop movements and encroachments on the eastern and southern borders. Gondor was once again becoming one of the continent's troubled areas, and Gandalf felt close to despair. The Dwarves in exile, the Elves hiding in their secure enclaves, Orcs overrunning the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood, and now Gondor slowly crumbling under the threat from the East. Even Saruman had ceased to be of much help, going so far as to hinder him in the crucial business about attacking Dol Guldur. Despite how loving the White Istar had been to him during his recent visit, Gandalf suddenly felt very alone in the struggle.

Nonsense, he told himself, you still have Elrond and Galadriel and Thranduil and many others. And Túrin seems determined to keep a significant number of soldiers on the east bank of the Anduin at any cost. Yet each day, passing the withered Tree in the Courtyard on his way to the Palace, such cheering thoughts seemed feeble indeed in the face of the threat that was constantly growing. Gandalf longed to think of something, some specific task, which he could tackle and accomplish and thus make a decisive step forward. But what? The answer eluded him. As always, he would have to travel, keep the peoples alert to the danger, encourage cooperation, and so on and on. If this pattern kept up, they would never win. It was as simple as that. He could barely remember ever having been so discouraged. Once, perhaps: the period just before Saruman's return from the East. The White Istar had given him such hope then, but now that source of hope was fading for reasons that still mystified him. Perhaps another source of hope would arise, but he could not imagine what form it would take.

The events of the decades that followed did nothing to give the Grey Wizard more cause to believe that he was making progress in his tasks. Sauron was becoming more aggressive toward Gondor, stirring up the Haradrim. In 2885 the troops of Harad attacked Gondor, with great loss of life. The sons of Folcwine, King of Rohan, were among the many Rohirrim soldiers that came to the aid of their ally, but the two died together in battle in Ithilien. Within twenty years after the first assault, that pleasant land was all but deserted. At Gandalf's urging the Gondorian army maintained a presence in Ithilien, but they were reduced to stealthy patrolling. A secret refuge, Henneth Annûn, was built to shelter them.

The Istar kept up his habit of visiting the Dwarves, though he did so at wider intervals. Their leaders welcomed him with courtesy and as much hospitality as their reduced circumstances in exile permitted, but they remained reserved. If they were making any plans or progress in their efforts to regain their former kingdoms, Gandalf neither saw nor heard evidence of it.

He continued to spend some time with Saruman, but he went to Orthanc less frequently than before. Gandalf was disturbed not so much by any lingering resentment over the harsh exchange they had had at the last White Council meeting as by the White Wizard's increasing secretiveness. Gandalf found that, try as he might, he could not break through and discover what Saruman was really thinking. The feeling of being shut out of the other Istar's plans and thoughts disturbed him. More and more he stayed in the north, seeing his two Elvish lovers and finding peace and conviviality in his occasional visits to the Shire. His friend Gerontius was by now of such unusually advanced years that he had come to be called "the Old Took." Gandalf always enjoyed being among the jovial Hobbit's expanding family. As much to cheer himself up as to delight the Hobbits, the Wizard took to making fireworks again, giving great displays on special holidays like Midsummer's Eve.

In 2911, however, Gandalf's visits to the Hobbits took on a more serious purpose. The Fell Winter struck, bringing such bone-chilling cold that the rivers froze, and White Wolves from the north invaded Eriador, including the Shire. With the help of the Rangers, the Wizard was able to minimize the attacks by these fearsome beasts upon the inhabitants of the little land and their livestock. He stayed long with Gerontius, whose vast underground home had expanded so much that it was now called the Great Smials. The old Hobbit remained hale through all this, and it was not until 2920 that Gandalf received news of the death of his friend.

The Old Took's passing greatly saddened Gandalf, for he had come to think of seeing Gerontius as one of the major joys associated with visits to the Shire. He nearly ceased going there at that point, for his efforts to extend counsel and unite the various peoples of Middle-earth took him more often to the east, and he depended upon the Rangers to keep the Hobbits safe. And always the Istar sought for signs of some specific task that he could undertake and begin to feel a real sense of progress. No such task presented itself, and his discouragement deepened as the years passed.

2939, Isengard

Saruman had just begun eating his lunch when the bird messenger arrived, delivering a letter from the leader of the team of Men who were still searching the area of the Gladden Field for the Ring. The guard who had received the letter brought it to the study. Glancing up, the Istar bade him leave it on the desk. It could wait until he had finished his meal. The leader sent a monthly letter, and the news was always the same: no discoveries had been made, and the Men would carry on with their hunt. He had had generations of agents by now, happy to take his gold and keep working to gain the greater reward promised to the one that discovered the Ring. Saruman sometimes considered abandoning the hunt altogether, but it galled him to admit defeat after he had poured so much energy and resources and time into it. Besides, the slight coolness that had developed between him and Gandalf drove him on, seeking a major breakthrough that would impress the Grey Wizard and perhaps restore their love to its former warmth.

About half an hour later, he summoned a servant to clear the table and moved to open the envelope. At once his boredom vanished, for this letter was much longer than usual. Any expectations that his agents had found what they sought soon fled, for this was extremely bad news. The writer had obviously been in a panic as he composed the message, which told of how he and his work team had encountered a gang of strangers by the River, savage-looking Men who had questioned them about their equipment and activities. The team's leader had stammered out the explanation that Saruman had given them for such a happenstance: that they were mere fisher-folk. The strangers had looked at them suspiciously but dismissed them with a warning that they were not to return to this part of the Anduin again. The letter's author made it clear that he and the others dared not go against this warning, much though they would regret the loss of the money the White Istar had been supplying.

Saruman began to pace, frightened at this sudden news. The Dark Lord must have somehow learned the manner and place of Isildur's death. Clearly the Istar would not be able to go on with his hunt for the Ring, not with teams of Sauron's minions about. Again he considered briefly whether he should simply give up his own search. Locating the Ring would no doubt be a great feat that would raise him in the opinions of the Wise, but was such a thing worth the danger? Obviously not, and yet he still found himself reluctant to abandon the notion. After all, the Enemy was now closer than ever to actually finding the Ring. Protecting Gandalf from any power that Sauron might gain over him was the most important consideration.

Suddenly Saruman stopped pacing and stood staring abstractedly into space. Power over Gandalf. It all became blindingly clear. If he could find the One Ring, he would not turn it over to the Council. He would keep it. Not to use it, as Sauron had, for conquest and for domination over the peoples of Middle-earth. A foolish mortal like Isildur might succumb to its temptation and become corrupt, but surely a Maia could resist. Besides, he would not use it much at all. No, he would be content with carefully probing its powers and finally exploiting whatever control it could give him over the bearer of Narya.

Despite the dangers involved in continuing the search, Saruman felt an odd exhilaration at that thought. The Ring could bring an end to all his yearning and loneliness, his jealousy and envy of his fellow Wizard. But how to get hold of it, with Sauron's teams in the way? His mind found the solution immediately. So far the Ring had not, as he had hoped, revealed itself, despite the Enemy's nearness and long search. Thus there was clearly no benefit in allowing Sauron to remain in Dol Guldur. Now Gandalf's plan of attacking the Tower seemed ideal. With the Dark Lord driven away, the Gladden Fields would again be open to his own renewed search. A smile of genuine delight spread over Saruman's face. He pictured how Gandalf would welcome his sudden proffering of support. His smile broadened.

The White Istar moved to a window and leaned on its sill, looking out toward the East. He pondered how he should go about implementing this new strategy. Clearly he should not act precipitously, simply on the basis of this one letter. He would travel again to the village where the leader of his search team lived and find out more about the Dark Lord's activities. He also had recently neglected some of his duties in regard to Rohan and Gondor. He would journey there as well, learning all that he could of the Enemy's depredations on those lands. The Istar certainly did not want the supply of gold from the Stewards to be cut off. Once Sauron was out of the way, he would need it in order to resume his search-and with luck, reward the finder of the Ring.

Once he had done all this and was sure of how to proceed, he would summon the White Council. They would meet in Lothlórien this time, he thought, whence they could launch the attack upon Dol Guldur. Of course he would conceal from the Council the fact that Sauron had narrowed his search to the Gladden Fields. No, he would have to find something else to explain his own abrupt change of attitude toward the attack. That would be reasonably easy, though. Gandalf would be so pleased at his change of mind that he probably would not inquire too deeply into its causes. Once both Istari were in agreement over moving against the Dark Lord, surely the Elves would approve of the plan. A sour look came into Saruman's face as he anticipated the long travels ahead. It was seldom now that he wandered about the lands and dealt with the privations that such travels entailed. But it could not be avoided. He turned and sat down at his desk, writing Gandalf a letter telling him that the White Istar would not be in Orthanc for some months and that his lover should wait until he received another message before visiting again.

March 15, 2941, Bree

Gandalf sighed with relief as he saw the lights of Bree in the distance, half obscured by the pouring rain that had started over half an hour before. He and the lively little mare that Elrond had loaned him were both cold and tired. The Wizard urged the horse to a trot, and soon he was dismounting in the courtyard of The Prancing Pony inn. A stable-boy ran out to take his horse, and after some admonishments about how the lad should treat her, Gandalf went into the warm front hall to remove his cloak. The innkeeper, Morosco Butterbur, came bustling out to greet him, and in a dizzyingly short time, Gandalf found himself in a cozy bedroom, drying off and looking forward to a hot-and large-meal in the public taproom. He had come up the Greenway to Bree, planning to meet with a small group of Rangers and perhaps travel with one or two of them on a survey trip through the Shire. He felt that he had neglected that little land for too long. Butterbur told him that none of the Rangers had arrived yet, and Gandalf reconciled himself to a solitary dinner. He felt too tired to entertain the Hobbits and Men that mingled in the common room or join in their lively chatter. Certainly if he had to wait a day or two before he could have his meeting and move on, the opportunity to rest would be welcome indeed.

As he walked along the corridor a few minutes later, the Wizard's thoughts reverted to the topic he had pondered all too often recently: the perilous state of the North. Clearly Sauron was already plotting war, though few others of the Wise seemed to see how immediate the danger was. Gandalf believed that the Enemy intended to attack Rivendell as soon as he felt strong enough. If he could seize that major fortified enclave of Elves, what could he not accomplish? The West's downfall would then be swift. The East was teeming with troops readying to do the Dark Lord's bidding. To resist any attempt from that direction to regain the lands of Angmar and the northern passes in the mountains there were now only the Dwarves of the Iron Hills. And beyond them lay the desolation of Smaug. Sauron would surely use the Dragon to terrible effect. How then could the end of Smaug be achieved? Obviously the only people who would be keen to help him in such an effort were the Men of Laketown and the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains. But was that possible? Even united, did they have the power to take on such a foe?

The Wizard entered the bar and was shown to a small booth near the great fireplace. Soon his meal arrived, and he continued to run through various possible schemes as he ate. After all, if he could not accomplish such a limited goal as ridding the North of a Dragon, how could he hope to help achieve much larger tasks?

As the Wizard neared the end of his meal, he realized that someone had stopped by his booth. It was an impressive-looking Dwarf, who said, "Master Gandalf, I know you only by sight, but now I should be glad to speak with you. For you have often come into my thoughts of late, as if I were bidden to seek you. Indeed I should have done so, if I had known where to find you."

Gandalf looked at him with wonder. "That is strange, Thorin Oakenshield," he said. "For I have thought of you also; and though I am on my way to the Shire, it was in my mind that that is the way also to your halls." He gestured for Thorin to sit opposite him and summoned the waiter.

Thorin slid into the seat with a bitter sniff. "Call them so, if you will. They are only poor lodgings in exile. But you would be welcome there, if you would come. For they say that you are wise and know more than any other of what goes on in the world; and I have much on my mind and would be glad of your counsel."

For a moment Gandalf stared at him with a slight, puzzled frown before taking another bite of his food. He could hardly believe that, after all these decades of his badgering the Dwarves-usually with limited success-to pay attention to his advice, one of their leaders was actually asking for it. And the Wizard suspected that he knew why Thorin might be doing so. "I will come," he replied, "for I guess that we share one trouble at least. The Dragon of Erebor is on my mind, and I do not think that he will be forgotten by the grandson of Thrór."

Thorin's eyes lit up with a keen fire as Gandalf mentioned Smaug, and he smiled grimly and nodded, settling back into his seat and watching his companion closely. Gandalf judged that the Dwarf must have just arrived, for his clothes and hair were wet. A waiter appeared beside the booth, and Gandalf offered a drink and meal to Thorin, who accepted gladly. The Wizard took the opportunity to order a refill of ale for himself. The Dwarf stood up to peel off his jacket and hood and hang them near the fire before rejoining Gandalf.

As they waited for their order to be filled, the Istar asked, "Do you mind telling me why you have chosen to ask for my advice at this point? The Dwarves have had many opportunities to do so in the past and have largely shied away from the help that I would have gladly given."

Thorin nodded slightly and clenched his teeth before replying, "I have suffered, as have many of my people, from the belief that Dwarves are self-sufficient, that they cannot trust other races, and that we can work out solutions to our own problems. Yet centuries have gone by, and our situation has only grown worse. It is nearly a hundred years ago since my father set out to return to Moria, and he disappeared without a trace. We have never learned how he met his end-for I assume he is dead by now. That sad anniversary brought the retaking of Erebor to the forefront of my mind. I have done my best as leader of our people, but I have finally realized that I cannot accomplish everything alone. Courage and determination and skill in battle I can supply and inspire, but planning has never been my strength, and as to strategies to use against a Dragon--! Well, that is far beyond my experience and expertise."

As Gandalf listened to this speech, he suddenly realized who the solitary, pitiable Dwarf that he had found in the dungeons of Dol Guldur just over 90 years earlier must have been. He did not say anything to Thorin, however, for grief might make him forget any desire to gain the Wizard's advice. Gandalf resolved to think over the implications of this discovery and to reveal it to the Dwarf when it seemed most appropriate.

Circumstances were finally coming together that might permit a major stroke against the Enemy in the northeast. Even as his hopes soared, however, he warned himself not to count overmuch on this latest development just yet. The Dwarves could be very stubborn, and who knew whether Thorin could be content with taking another's counsel-especially if it went against his own thoughts of what would benefit his people. The Wizard was not about to serve the Dwarves' purposes without considering the effects for all the continent's races. It occurred to him that he had one slight advantage. Gandalf still possessed the objects that Thráin-as it clearly had been-had turned over to him before dying. They might prove helpful in persuading Thorin should he prove resistant to whatever plan the Wizard devised.

The food and drink arrived. As Thorin ate, the pair discussed when the visit might take place. Gandalf said, "I presume that you would want to set out with whatever group of warriors you can put together as soon as possible. It is a very long journey to the Mountain, and a perilous one. Why, within the past eleven years, the Rangers of the North have lost two of their Chieftains. Arador was killed by trolls in the Coldfells, which lies in Wilderland not far north of the road you would have to take, and his successor Arathorn, died in a battle with the orcs of the Misty Mountains, over which you must pass. Both were powerful and skilled warriors, of course, so their fates indicate well the dangers.

"I don't want to discourage you too greatly, however, for I know your people are doughty and strong. Oft great risk is necessary in achieving great deeds. If you are in earnest about this venture, I happen to have some time free now that I could devote at least in part to helping you. We should try to set whatever plan we agree on in motion soon. You do not want to delay setting out until winter is again upon you."

Thorin replied eagerly. "Of course! Could you come with me directly to the Blue Mountains?"

Gandalf thought for a moment. An odd idea was beginning to form at the back of his mind. It had been put there by the map that Thráin had given him. He had not looked at it in years, but he remembered well its contents. He replied, "I could not leave for a day or two, until the people I came to meet arrive here. After that, though, we could travel partway together and talk over some preliminary ideas, but I would like to stop for a short while in the Shire. As I told you, I am on my way there, and I have some business to tend to. You could leave me at Hobbiton and go on. You would use the time best by making arrangements for supplies, weapons, and the like-and in deciding which of your best warriors would be part of the group. I would then join you a week or so later to make more specific plans-"

"The Shire!" Thorin interrupted with a puzzled expression. "What in Middle-earth could you need to do there that is more important than planning to defeat the Dragon? There is nothing those placid, ignorant little fellows could do to aid you in any of your tasks, I would think."

Gandalf frowned at him, reminded of some of the less pleasant attitudes of Dwarves. "You might think that indeed, but nevertheless, I shall stop in Hobbiton on matters not entirely unrelated to my efforts on your behalf. Now, as I was about to say before I was interrupted, you need not raise a great force. Dispatching the Dragon would most likely involve subtlety, skill, and individual bravery, not an outright assault. Besides, if you behave in a friendly and diplomatic fashion-and perhaps offer to share some of your vast treasure-the people of Laketown might well elect to aid you in ejecting Smaug. It is certainly not comfortable for them to have a Dragon for a neighbor!"

"I'm not quite sure what you imply about a small force," Thorin said slowly, ignoring the mention of the Men of the Long Lake. "Do you mean a dozen? A hundred?"

"Oh, closer to a dozen than a hundred, at any rate. After all, if you cannot lure or drive Smaug outside, it will be necessary to use stealth and cunning in the tunnels under the Mountain. Besides, moving a large force would take much longer and would draw unnecessary attention to your group's movements. Pick your companions with much thought."

Thorin nodded. They arranged to meet early the next morning for a breakfast before departing and then retired to their rooms. As Gandalf undressed near the fire and began to wash, he felt more optimistic than he had in decades. This strange meeting had happened at just the right time. The task ahead was enormous, and yet it was something concrete that he could work toward, and it held the distinct promise of advancing their cause in a really significant way after so many defeats, so much decline. His mind flitted back to the death of the White Tree, an event that had shaken him deeply and seemed to imply the possibility of ultimate defeat. But if the Dwarves could be drawn back into a position of power and persuaded to cooperate with other races, it could be just the major step forward that the Wizard had been yearning for.

The idea that had come into his mind was growing. He thought of the dark tunnels under the mountain and the notion of stealth. He thought, too, of the young Hobbits whom he used to take on "adventures" outside their own boundaries. Hobbits were uncannily silent little creatures, used to living underground. Gandalf had not had time for the fostering of their awareness of the outer world in many years now, and yet ... Thorin's dismissive attitude about the Shire's inhabitants had also rankled.

It seemed a silly notion, and yet the Istar was reluctant to brush it aside. In fact, a specific young Hobbit's face came to mind, a young grandson of Gerontius' who used to question him much about the outside world and "adventures." Well, not so young anymore. Bilbo Baggins would be 50 years old by now. Gandalf wondered whether he had retained that eagerness and curiosity. He resolved to find out as soon as possible.

June, 2941, The Fords of Bruinen

Elsewhere it is recorded by the hand of Frodo Baggins how Gandalf later told members of the Fellowship about his visit to the Dwarves in the Blue Mountains. There after much argumentation, he persuaded them that they would have to take Bilbo as a member of their expedition. If not, the Wizard declared, he would cease to help them at all. It took much wrangling, but finally they agreed.

The first portion of the journey eastward had gone fairly well, apart from a moment when the Dwarves got themselves into a fix with three trolls. Gandalf rescued them without any great difficult. But as they traveled through the increasingly desolate lands beyond Bree, they were running out of food and needed some time to rest and prepare for the crossing of the mountain pass. The Istar was relieved when they finally reached the Fords of Bruinen without further adventure.

On the other side the group paused briefly to let their ponies drink. Bilbo stared in awe at the mountain which was now looming in the distance. "Is that The Mountain?" he asked.

Balin turned to him. "Of course not! That is only the beginning of the Misty Mountains, and we have got to get through, or over, or under those somehow, before we can come into Wilderland beyond. And it is a deal of a way even from the other side of them to the Lonely Mountain in the East where Smaug lies on our treasure."

"O!" Bilbo replied softly.

Gandalf looked at the Hobbit with a little frown. Would he never start to show the sort of pluck that the Wizard had assured the Dwarves lay hidden within Bilbo, waiting for a chance to burst forth? He dismissed the thought from his mind. Right now he was faced with something of a dilemma. He had to get the Dwarves and Bilbo to Rivendell. Earlier, during the episode with the trolls, Gandalf had luckily met some Elves bound for the Last Homely House and sent word that the group would soon arrive. Best not to turn up suddenly and unheralded with a group of Dwarves! he thought ruefully.

The Wizard knew the path that led down into the valley from the west perfectly well, but it had occurred to him earlier that day that Elrond would not be at all pleased with him if he showed Dwarves the way into the secret enclave. He resolved to lead them via a convoluted route to the head of the path rather than straight to it-so convoluted a route that they would never be able to find it again on their own.

The Wizard urged his horse forward. "We must not miss the road, or we shall be done for," he said over his shoulder as the others followed. "We need food for one thing, and rest in reasonable safety-also it is very necessary to tackle the Misty Mountains by the proper path, or else you will get lost in them, and have to come back and start at the beginning again (if you ever get back at all)."

Thorin rode up even with him. "Where are you making for then?"

"You are come to the very edge of the Wild, as some of you may know. Hidden somewhere ahead of us is the fair valley of Rivendell where Elrond lives in the Last Homely House. I sent a message by my friends, and we are expected."

It took the better part of the day to get near the area where the entrance to Rivendell lay. Gandalf led the group astray, backtracked, set out in the wrong direction again, and turned repeatedly, until he felt that none of the Dwarves would possibly be able to retrace the path they had followed. Finally he was feeling as if a hearty dinner would be very welcome, and Bilbo looked almost faint with hunger. Safe enough to start down, he thought, and rode to the edge of the valley. "Here it is at last!" he called.

They rode carefully, because the sun had just set and the stars were beginning to show in the twilit sky. It was a long descent to the floor of the valley, but finally they reached an open glade. Suddenly they heard voices singing from up inside the trees around them.

Gandalf rolled his eyes and sighed. "Wretched luck," he said to himself, "to reach Imladris on such a beautiful June night, with half the Elves in the place out here drinking and singing their silly songs. I shouldn't have taken quite such a circuitous route. I can't believe all this celebrating will give Thorin's troupe a very favorable impression of Elves. I just hope this lot doesn't start teasing the Dwarves about their beards!"

Fortunately the Elves chose Bilbo to tease, and he did not seem to mind, staring up into the trees in fascination to see the beautiful creatures that he had previously only heard about in tales. Gandalf dismounted immediately and began talking with some of the Elves. Soon another one came forward and bowed to the Istar and Thorin.

"Welcome to the valley!" he said.

Thorin stayed on his horse and gruffly replied, "Thank you!"

"You are a little out of your way," said the Elf: "that is, if you are making for the only path across the water and to the house beyond. We will set you right, but you had best get on foot, until you are over the bridge. Are you going to stay a bit and sing with us, or will you go straight on? Supper is preparing over there. I can smell the wood-fires for the cooking."

Ignoring Bilbo's wistful look toward the Elves, Gandalf and the Dwarves set out for the house, leading the horse and ponies. Eventually they came to the narrow span of stone over the river that ran through the valley. Gandalf let the others start across before following. Unfortunately, some of the Elves had come with them-apparently having had a little too much wine, Gandalf thought with a sigh.

"Don't dip your beard in the foam, father!" one called to Thorin. "It is long enough without watering it." Gandalf was reminded of some of the less pleasant attitudes of Elves.

Another Elf shouted, "Mind Bilbo doesn't eat all the cakes! He is too fat to get through key-holes yet!"

Exasperated, Gandalf stopped and looked back at them with a daunting frown. "Hush, hush! Good People! And good night!" he said pointedly. "Valleys have ears, and some Elves have over merry tongues. Good night!" He turned and walked quickly across the bridge.

Over merry indeed, Gandalf thought. He only hoped that Elrond had received his message and prepared some rooms and a more dignified welcome for the group once they reached the Last Homely House.

Fortunately when Gandalf, the Dwarves, and Bilbo reached the House, all was prepared for them. Elrond himself came to the great front hall and gave Thorin and the group a polite speech, mentioning that he looked forward to a day when the Dwarves and Elves would work more closely together to combat the evils of their time. "Let this visit be a token of such cooperation," he concluded.

As Elrond spoke, Gandalf moved quietly to the far side of the room, where Erestor was awaiting him with shining eyes. The pair embraced tightly, though they refrained from any further gestures of affection in front of the group. As some of the other Elves led the guests off to relax in their rooms and wash a little before dinner, the Wizard and Erestor turned to follow. They stopped as Elrond moved quickly up behind them and tapped Gandalf's arm.

Elrond glanced at Erestor. "If you can spare Mithrandir for just a little while, I want to tell him the important news that has arrived recently."

Erestor turned to Gandalf. "Important news indeed! Since I already know what Elrond is about to impart to you, let me take your bag and await you in your room."

The Wizard nodded, looking curiously at Elrond. He followed Elrond to the Elf's study. Elrond poured them each a glass of wine, gesturing for the Wizard to sit as he said, "I received a surprising message from Saruman nearly two weeks ago. He has called a meeting of the White Council, to be held at Lothlórien. I presume that since you have been on the road, you don't know about his summons."

Gandalf stared at him for a moment, surprised. "No, I do not. What does he want us to discuss, or does he say?"

"He wants to re-open the debate on the possibility of an attack on Dol Guldur. Apparently he is now in favor of such a move."

Gandalf's eyebrows shot up in astonishment. "How strange! I wonder why he has changed his mind. I can't think of any new development that would motivate him, and he has never mentioned to me that he was having second thoughts about his stance against it. Did he say nothing more specific?" When Elrond shook his head, the Wizard shrugged and smiled. "Well, whatever his reason, this is certainly an encouraging change. When is the meeting to take place?"

Elrond handed him the piece of paper he had received, and as Gandalf scanned it, he went on, "Not until late summer. Saruman realizes that it will take long for the message to reach the Havens and for representatives to travel to the Golden Wood. As you can see, he asks us to try and be there in August. That should give you time for your business with the Dwarves-or will it?"

"I doubt that I shall be able to go as far as Erebor with them in that amount of time, but I never really planned to. With wisdom and courage and luck, they should be able to tackle the Dragon themselves. I am not, after all, in the business of leading people into deeds, only in advising and encouraging them as best I can. And they will have Mr. Baggins' help," he added with a chuckle.

Elrond shook his head and smiled in bemusement. "You and your Hobbits!" he said. "He seems a pleasant enough fellow, but I find it difficult to understand why you have burdened the group with such an ineffectual member."

"Oh, perhaps really as just another of my little lessons in tolerance and cooperation. But Hobbits have some talents that might just come in handy in this case. I must admit that he has not been of much help so far, but he will come through in a pinch," the Wizard said, sounding a good deal more confident than he felt.

"Maybe. So, I take it you will go on east with them for a time and then turn south to join us in the Golden Wood."

"Yes. I think it best that I at least get them over the Mountains. What with the Orcs and Goblins infesting that area these days, they might need some help. After that, though, they are on their own. The other main obstacle is Mirkwood, and I really do not have time to guide them all the way through that and get back for the Council meeting. Well, a toast to our success at Dol Guldur-assuming that an attack really is what Saruman now favors."

They drained their glasses, and Elrond said, "Go ahead now and visit with Erestor. You were barely able to greet him before I dragged you away, and I know you have not been with him in a very long time."

"True! I shall see you at dinner then," Gandalf said happily, putting his glass down and rising.

Elrond assumed a teasing little smile. "That is, if he doesn't request that food be brought to his room the way he did the last time you arrived."

Gandalf blushed slightly. "Well, I was here for such a short time then. Now I believe that we shall stay awhile. We need to rest from our adventures so far and prepare for the arduous trip over the Mountains. And frankly, I don't think it would be a bad thing for your people to play host to a group of Dwarves-and a Hobbit."

Elrond shook his head and replied indulgently, "No, you wouldn't. Despite the fact that Imladris has never welcomed such a large group of Dwarves-and seldom any Dwarves at all--I am happy to break with tradition in this exceptional case. If Thorin's band can rid the North of Smaug, they will render a great service to us all."

Gandalf nodded and left the study, hurrying to his bedroom, for he knew that the bell would soon call the household to the dining hall. The door was ajar when he arrived, and Erestor was pacing slowly in the space between it and the bed. As Gandalf went in and closed the door behind him, the Elf moved to embrace him, their mouths meeting and opening at once as Erestor's fine black hair brushed and clung to the Istar's white mane.

Finally Gandalf pulled back reluctantly. "Don't, my lovely Elf! I fear that we have no time to satisfy our desires after such a long time apart, and our group has been running very short of food on this last part of the journey, and--"

Erestor put the tips of his slender fingers on the Wizard's lips. "I understand. We shall eat and savor the anticipation of joy later this evening. But I wanted to see you alone, if only for a moment or two. I-"

Suddenly a clear bell rang three times, signaling the evening meal. Gandalf chuckled. "Only a moment indeed! But well worth it," he added, nuzzling under the Elf's long hair to brush his lips against his lover's neck before they drew apart and went out to join the group for dinner.

After dinner Gandalf and Erestor went straight to the Istar's bedroom. There was no need for a fire in the balmy weather, and Gandalf lit two lamps, one on either side of the bed. The Elf closed the window and drew the curtains, since distant voices outside suggested that the sounds of their passion might carry far enough to be heard.

The Wizard sighed as he surveyed the bed and turned to Erestor. "I ate far too much at dinner. Probably the result of having had so little to eat on the road-and I must say, Elrond arranged for a magnificent feast to welcome the Dwarves. At any rate, though I greatly wish to make love with you immediately, the idea of such vigorous activity is not as attractive as it usually would be."

Erestor nodded. "I feel a bit heavy and lazy myself. Shall we just lie beside each other for a while? It won't be too long, I'm sure, before we are ready to assuage our desire. I'm assuming that we shall have other nights together as well. You are not rushing off with your troupe in the morning, I gather."

"No, absolutely not. We need rest and preparation to traverse the Misty Mountains. I reckon we might stay about two weeks. You and I need not squeeze all our lovemaking into one or two nights."

"Good! We can take our time, then."

The two undressed each other in a leisurely fashion, refraining from caresses beyond the gentle brushing of fingers over flesh as their garments were gradually removed. When they were naked, they pressed the lengths of their bodies together in a close embrace, savoring the feeling of skin against skin. Despite the results of too large a meal, the contact made their members swell and throb, side by side. Finally they sucked delicately at each other's lips, hearing the tiny, moist sounds and their increasingly deep breathing in the otherwise silent room. Gandalf drew back long enough to murmur, "Such lovely sounds after such a long time apart," before resuming the kisses.

Eventually they drew apart and moved to the bed, reclining side by side but leaving a slight distance between their bodies. Carefully Erestor lifted the Istar's beard, draping it back over his shoulder. He softly ran his hand down the thin, wiry torso, grazing the erection that was now lying along the join of Gandalf's thigh and belly. The Elf moved upward to tease one brown nub into hardness, then pinched and twirled it between finger and thumb, watching the Wizard's eyes slide shut as he gasped with the pleasure that raced instantly to his cock, making it twitch and rise a little more. They both remained almost entirely still except for the tiny gestures of Erestor's fingers as he continued to play with his lover's nipple. His own cock was almost entirely engorged, and he bent one leg to rest his foot flat on the mattress, shifting his hips and making the jutting member bob and sway.

Panting by now, Gandalf opened his eyes and uttered a faint moan upon seeing the Elf's long, slender erection so fully ready. He cupped the side of Erestor's head with one hand, running his fingers into the silky hair and drawing their heads together. The Istar put out his tongue to lick the full, slightly parted lips, slowly at first and then more insistently. Soon the Elf's tongue emerged and flicked teasingly around Gandalf's. Their lips touched only fleetingly as their tongues slid and circled. Both were achingly hard, but they prolonged the lascivious kisses, tantalizing each other deliberately. They delighted in their mutual need, and yet eventually it became so demanding that they moved apart, their eyes glazed and heavy-lidded with passion. Glancing downward, they saw drops of come resting on the slits of their erections. Erestor's began to drop in a thin, silvery thread, and Gandalf reached to catch it on his finger. He brought the finger to his lips and licked it off.

"What would you like?" the Wizard whispered.

"I cannot wait for one of us to prepare the other. I need your mouth on me, and mine on you."

At once Gandalf rose onto his hands and knees, straddling Erestor and bringing his engorged member above the Elf's face. It was so hard that it was nearly up against the Wizard's belly, and Erestor pulled it down and began to pump the shaft slowly as his tongue circled the velvety tip. Gandalf froze for a moment, sucking in his breath at the sudden bliss. Quickly he recovered enough to grasp the Elf's erection at its base, holding it steady and upright as he pushed his tight lips down over the end, laving it thoroughly with his tongue. Soon he pushed slightly forward, withdrew, and pushed again, each time gradually taking more of his lover's length into his mouth.

Erestor ran his tongue over the thick shaft, flicking at the sensitive ridge and tracing the high veins. His hands cupped the Wizard's lean buttocks and pulled downward. Gandalf edged his knees further apart, and Erestor brushed the rampant cock up out of the way so that he could suck on the taut sac, rubbing the balls within. The Wizard's moans vibrated along the hard length in his mouth, and Erestor gasped. Licking his long middle finger, the Elf managed to work his arm up to a position in which he could slip it slowly into Gandalf's tight passage. He lay back and with the other hand pulled the Wizard's throbbing length down again. Immediately he took the tip into his throat, and his tongue writhed against the heated skin.

Their arousal, already intense, soon soared to the point where they could no longer prolong the pleasure. Gandalf began to pump the base of Erestor's erection with his hand, pushing his mouth lower until the upper portion was engulfed in wet heat that gripped and clung. The Wizard's head moved up and down, and he flicked his tongue back and forth over the high veins until Erestor's legs shifted on the bed and his heels dug into the mattress. The Elf's hips quivered, as if he were holding back from thrusting upward.

Erestor's probing finger found the spot it was seeking, and Gandalf jerked and drew his mouth quickly off the Elf's cock to gulp for air and groan. Mastering himself, he took Erestor deep into his throat again, stroking harder than before with his hand. The Elf urged Gandalf to thrust gently, and soon the Wizard's purple member was nearly buried in his mouth, slipping slightly in and out as Gandalf's hips rocked. The finger rubbing the front of his passage pressed harder, and the Wizard erupted into Erestor's throat, flooding it with his seed as his hips and thighs trembled.

Gandalf had withdrawn his mouth as he came, again gasping for air, but his hand continued its movements. As his climax faded to its small, final jolts of pleasure, he took the Elf deep once more and sucked, pumping faster until Erestor stiffened under him and his hip muscles clenched repeatedly as he emptied his balls into the Wizard's mouth.

After a brief pause, they allowed the shrinking members to slip from their mouths. Erestor shifted upward to prop his head on a pillow against the headboard. Gandalf pivoted to sit by his waist, facing him with a grin and exhaling deeply in utter bliss. He grasped Erestor's hand and held it. His grin faded to a slight smile as he gazed at the Elf with half-closed eyes.

Erestor squeezed his hand and put one arm behind his head to prop it up as he returned the Wizard's gaze. At last he asked, "Why are you staring at me like that?"

Gandalf's eyes slowly surveyed his face. "Whenever I return to you, I am dazzled by your beauty. I simply want to enjoy it! And to think about how lucky I am that you would fall in love with an aged fellow like me."

There was a hint of a smile on Erestor's face as he said, "Certainly when I first met you it did not occur to me that I could be attracted by an old Man. But as I got to know you ... well, if I have any wisdom, it is proven by the fact that I eventually realized I would be the lucky one if I could capture your affection."

The Wizard replied, "I suppose we could quarrel all night about which of us is the luckier in all this, but let's just agree that we are both very lucky people." He raised his lover's hand to kiss it, then turned and reclined against Erestor, his back across the chest, his white head tucked under the chin. The Elf's arms reached over Gandalf's shoulders, and his hands lay upon the flat belly.

Up to now, Erestor had not had a chance to speak with his lover about the news that Elrond had imparted. At dinner there had been too many people about, and Gandalf was taken up with making sure that the Dwarves interacted to some extent with the Elves of the house. Afterward the pair's desires and absorption in each other had delayed any conversation. Now, as their bliss slowly drifted into a calm contentment, Erestor felt that he should raise the subject that he almost dreaded to discuss.

"I assume you will be going to the Council meeting in August," he said softly. "It sounds as if it could mark a major step forward in your tasks."

Gandalf sighed and smiled. "Yes, at last! I was very surprised when Elrond informed me of it, but excited as well, of course. If Saruman is more inclined to help me in our tasks and to work in concert with the Council as a whole, it would be a definite improvement in our situation. I am eager to see him again and probe him in conversation as to his precise views on tactics."

Erestor listened quietly. He had long known that the two Wizards had seen less of each other for nearly a century now and that their love was shadowed by a certain coolness. Gandalf had told him of Saruman's increasing secretiveness and of his own worries for their cooperation in their mission. The Elf had tried to stifle the cautious hope he had felt that Gandalf would eventually drift further apart from the other Istar. It was not a sentiment that he felt proud of, for surely the more closely Saruman and Gandalf were able to consult and plan together, the better off the peoples of Middle-earth would be. Yet he could not help but feel jealous at hearing the Grey Istar speak so eagerly of seeing Saruman again.

The Elf had debated with himself ever since Elrond had told him of the next White Council meeting and its purpose. Half of his mind told him that it would be better for Gandalf and Saruman to have a chance to be alone in Lothlórien for a while and to strengthen their bonds once more. The other half told him that he could not bear to watch that happen day by day. His temptation was to travel to Lothlórien for the meeting and to try in some way to keep the two Istari from becoming as passionately devoted to each other as they once had been. An unworthy thought, he told himself, and one that could hurt the cause of the West. Determined not to give in to that temptation, he had already made his decision.

"I shall not be going to the Golden Wood myself," he replied. "Elrond of course will attend such a crucial meeting, and Glorfindel and some of the others will travel with him. I shall stay behind and be the temporary master of Imladris."

Gandalf raised himself to a sitting position and slid back to lean against the headboard beside Erestor and look into the Elf's eyes. "Really? That seems a pity, and yet obviously someone must be in charge here. Rivendell seems so secure and serene, but there are forces that could menace it-especially if the Dwarves fail in their Quest." He stared abstractly across the room.

There was a short silence, and Erestor wondered if perhaps Gandalf was somewhat relieved that he would not have once again to deal with the presence of two of his lovers during the gathering for the Council. It would make sense if he was. With so little jealousy in his own nature, the Wizard clearly found it difficult to deal with that sentiment in those he loved. Erestor sighed. If things went back to being the way they were before the last Council meeting, so be it. The Elf hoped that he would still have the Grey Istar's love, even if he had no choice but to reluctantly share it.

Erestor's gloomy thoughts receded as Gandalf moved against him and stretched to lazily nibble at the Elf's neck. He settled lower so that the Istar could reach him more easily. The Elf was determined to banish the thought of Saruman and to enjoy the two weeks that he and Gandalf would have together. The pair sat kissing for a while, until their hands began to wander over each other's torsos, more actively working to arouse them both for a more leisurely round of lovemaking.

During the early part of their stay at Rivendell, Gandalf felt obliged to be with the Dwarves for much of each day, in case any tension or misunderstanding arose between them and their Elvish hosts. Although there was initially some mutual coolness and suspicion on the part of both groups, the Wizard was relieved to see that the atmosphere soon grew distinctly friendlier.

The evenings in the Hall of Fire proved to be one means by which the members of the two races came to a greater understanding of each other. On the first night, the Elves sang and chanted tales as usual, and their guests listened with pleasure. The next evening at dinner, however, Thorin asked his host if the Dwarves might contribute some entertainment of their own. Elrond readily agreed, and after the meal ended, the Dwarves brought their musical instruments to the Hall. Singing or chanting in the Common Tongue, as they had on the fateful evening at Bag End, they related some of the accomplishments of the Dwarves in past ages and told of their love of the metals and stones that they used in their work. There was a great contrast between the high, clear tones of the Elves and the deep, rhythmic Dwarvish music, and yet each group learned quickly to appreciate the songs and tales of the other.

Once the Dwarves had settled in and been accepted as welcome guests, Gandalf felt free to spend more time with Erestor. By day the couple wandered far through the woods and up into the dells during the fine summer weather, but upon their return they retired to the one or the other of their bedrooms, making love or lying and languidly caressing as they talked quietly.

Erestor managed to conceal his renewed worries about Saruman and to stifle his secret hope that the two Istari would never reconcile enough for their devotion to return to its former intensity. Whenever he was with Gandalf, the Wizard was so affectionate and passionate and devoted that the Elf found it difficult to imagine how Gandalf could possibly love anyone else as much. Their time together was so perfect that, more than ever, Erestor yearned for such intimacy to go on forever, with no rivals for the Istar's love.

At last Midsummer's Eve approached, and Gandalf declared that the group would depart to resume their quest, rested and fully equipped for the next stage of their journey. The Elves had repaired the Dwarves' clothing, as well as Bilbo's. The packs that were set out in the hallway ready for the departure the following morning bulged with food provided by Elrond's household.

In his room after dinner, Gandalf checked over his own baggage. As he lifted his sword out of the cabinet where he kept his few clothes and belongings, he remembered that he had intended to ask Elrond about the beautiful weapons that the group had discovered in the trolls' cave, as well as get the wise Elf's comments on Thorin's map. Carrying the blade in its scabbard, he went to a porch where the Dwarves tended to sit in the evenings if there was no entertainment in the Hall of Fire. By now there were a number of Elves who joined them, and there was quite a crowd talking and laughing together as Gandalf emerged from the house.

As all looked around expectantly at the Wizard, he said, "Thorin, if you'd care to bring your new sword and the map of the Lonely Mountain, we can ask Elrond to give us his opinion of them."

Thorin nodded and went quickly inside fetch the two items from his room. As Gandalf turned toward the door to go back inside, he found Bilbo standing before him.

"May I come, too?" the Hobbit asked eagerly. "I would love to hear what Elrond has to say about the map."

Gandalf knew that Bilbo was fond of maps, and he hoped that the Hobbit's enthusiasm might give Elrond a better impression of the little fellow. "Yes, do," he replied, and Bilbo followed him at a trot as the Wizard walked briskly to their host's study.

Thorin was already there, and he and Gandalf unsheathed their ancient swords and carefully laid them on the desk for Elrond's perusal. Although the Elf gave little sign, Gandalf could tell that he was startled at what he saw and read. Elrond breathed slowly and deeply as he stared at the blades far longer than it would take him simply to read the runes upon them.

At last Elrond mastered his emotions and said with apparent calm, "These are not troll-make. They are old swords, very old swords of the High Elves of the West, my kin. They were made in Gondolin for the Goblin-wars. They must have come from a dragon's hoard or goblin plunder, for dragons and goblins destroyed that city many ages ago. This, Thorin, the runes name Orcrist, the Goblin-cleaver in the ancient tongue of Gondolin; it was a famous blade."

Thorin looked surprised and examined the sword more closely as Elrond turned to Gandalf and continued, "This, Gandalf, was Glamdring, Foe-hammer that the king of Goldolin once wore. Keep them well!"

Gandalf was also moved, for he knew well the tales of those days, early in the First Age, when Gondolin had flourished and finally perished in the great and terrible struggle against Morgoth. This sword had belonged to Turgon, Elrond's great-grandfather, who had lost his life during the final battle for his city. The Wizard had realized from the moment that the swords had been discovered that they were of fine Elvish craftsmanship, and yet he had not dreamed that they were so very significant. He and Elrond stared into each other's eyes for a moment, moved by their mutual knowledge of the sad history behind these blades.

Thorin interrupted their thoughts. "Whence did the trolls get them, I wonder?"

Elrond ran his fingertips slowly along the blades as he replied, "I could not say, but one may guess that your trolls had plundered other plunderers, or come on the remnants of old robberies in some hold in the mountains. I have heard that there are still forgotten treasures of old to be found in the deserted caverns of the mines of Moria, since the dwarf and goblin war."

Gandalf wished for a moment that Elrond had not mentioned Moria, for the Quest of Erebor was quite a large enough task for Thorin to accomplish without his conceiving ambitions to regain the ancient Dwarrowdelve. Fortunately Thorin seemed to react little to that name, merely nodding thoughtfully.

"I will keep this sword in honour. May it soon cleave goblins once again!"

Elrond replied sadly. "A wish that is likely to be granted soon enough in the mountains! But show me now your map!"

The two swords were set aside, and Thorin unrolled the map and pushed it toward the Elf. Elrond examined it closely and sighed. The Wizard suspected that he disapproved of the Dwarves' love of gold, though Elves themselves, he reflected, were happy enough to buy that gold for their own beautiful creations. Fortunately Elrond did not express his thoughts, for he knew as well as anyone what was at stake for them all if Smaug could not be killed or driven far into the north wastes.

After a long examination, Elrond held the map up, and the white light of the crescent moon shone through it. "What is this?" he said. "There are moon-letters here, beside the plain runes which say 'five feet high the door and three may walk abreast.'"

Before Thorin or Gandalf could question him, Bilbo, who had been standing quietly on tiptoe beside the table to peruse the map, chimed in, "What are moon-letters?"

Elrond looked at him with a smile. "Moon-letters are rune-letters, but you cannot see them, not when you look straight at them. They can only be seen when the moon shines behind them, and what is more, with the more cunning sort it must be a moon of the same shape and season as the day when they were written. The Dwarves invented them and wrote them with silver pens, as your friends could tell you. These must have been written on a midsummer's eve in a crescent moon, a long while ago."

Both Gandalf and Thorin knew all this quite well, and they listened impatiently to this speech, eager to find out more. "What do they say?" they both asked together.

Elrond read the runes slowly. "Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks, and the setting sun with the last light of Durin's Day will shine upon the key-hole." He exchanged puzzled looks with Gandalf, since neither of them knew enough about the Dwarves' secret history to interpret the odd statement.

Thorin stared at Elrond in astonishment and said excitedly, "Durin, Durin! He was the father of the fathers of the eldest race of Dwarves, the Longbeards, and my first ancestor; I am his heir."

"Then what is Durin's Day?" asked Elrond.

"The first day of the Dwarves' New Year, is as all should know the first day of the last moon of Autumn on the threshold of Winter. We still call it Durin's Day when the last moon of Autumn and the sun are in the sky together. But this will not help us much, I fear, for its passes our skill in these days to guess when such a time will come again."

"That remains to be seen," Gandalf said. "Is there any more writing?"

Elrond sat back in his chair, pushing the map toward Thorin. "None to be seen by this moon." As Thorin rolled the map up carefully, the Elf went on, "Bilbo, you love Elvish music. You and Thorin should go out now to the riverside, for there will be singing and dancing by moonlight and starlight, to celebrate this midsummer's eve. Gandalf and I shall join you shortly."

As the door closed behind the two, Gandalf picked up Glamdring and walked to the window with it, examining the blade slowly in the faint light. Elrond was sunk in thought. Finally the Wizard turned and said quietly, "By rights this sword should belong to you rather than to me. You are descended in direct line from he who first owned it. I offer it to you now."

Elrond smiled at him fondly. "I am not surprised that you would be so generous, but the sword is best bestowed where it is. Clearly it was meant to come to you, and I bid you keep it."

Gandalf stared at him with a little frown, then shrugged and nodded. "I am amazed that the sword of Turgon should come to me in this fashion. It seems the most improbable of chances-which makes me wonder if, as you say, it was not chance at all. I feel almost as I did when Círdan entrusted Narya to me those many years ago. As if I have been gifted with something powerful and precious to aid me in my task."

"Exactly, and whether chance or no, may it serve you well as you pursue your mission."

Gandalf returned Glamdring to its sheath. Elrond added with a sly smile, "I am surprised, though, that you, with all your learning, were not able to read the runes upon the sword."

The Wizard replied with a touch of asperity, "Well, I have studied many languages and writing systems, but those runes are a very old form, from the First Age itself. I have not learned them ... yet! I hardly expected that there would be a use for them. Still, as this case shows, you never know what will prove important. I shall undertake to learn them once my present journey is over. Of course, my knowledge cannot be complete unless the Dwarves relent and teach me their secret language."

Elrond chuckled. "That seems highly unlikely, even if your aid does allow them to regain their treasure and kingdom under the Mountain."

Gandalf nodded ruefully. "All too true."

"Shall we go out and witness the revels?"

The Wizard grinned. "Yes, let's. I expect to join Erestor there. I doubt that we shall stay long, though."

Elrond shook his head in mock disapproval as they left the study. "Don't forget, you will not have the option of sleeping late tomorrow. You have a troupe of Dwarves to lead onward."

Gandalf replied smugly, "My dear Elrond, you underestimate me."