The Road to Isengard

by Nefertiti

Rating: NC-17

Pairing: (Series) Gandalf/Saruman; individual chapters, Gandalf/Erestor, Gandalf/Legolas, Gandalf/Radagast

Disclaimer: The characters and world of Middle-earth belong to their copyright holders; this series is offered free of charge for the pleasure of fans.

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

Author's note: Book-canon. This chapter takes place during the action of the second half of The Hobbit. Part of Gandalf's speech at the White Council meeting and other aspects of that meeting and of the attack on Dol Guldur come from The Silmarillion.

As always, many thanks to Sarah for her excellent beta work and helpful suggestions.

Chapter Nine

Early August, 2941

Saruman was the first guest to reach Lothlórien for the meeting of the White Council, long before all its members could possibly be convened. The representatives from the Grey Havens had far to come, and even the ones from Rivendell had not yet arrived. The White Istar had allowed plenty of time for certain cumbersome items he had brought with him. Once his arrangements in regard to them had been made, he found himself with several days to enjoy the hospitality of the Lord and Lady of the Galadhrim, as well as the August weather. Ordinarily he would have used those days to make a quick inspection trip to the Gladden Fields, but now that the Enemy's forces were searching for the Ring in that area, his own teams were idle. Instead he found himself with unexpected leisure.

It had been so long, Saruman thought as he wandered under the mallorn trees the morning after his arrival, since he had simply walked outdoors, amidst the beauties of nature. The heat in the clearings was pleasant, and if it became too oppressive, he could step back into the cool shade of the forest. He had been here often since that memorable occasion when he returned to the Golden Wood from his travels in the East and met the Grey Wizard for the first time. By now Saruman knew the woods within an easy walk of Caras Galadhon reasonably well.

Thinking of Gandalf made him wonder whether the little covered wooden platform where he and the Grey Istar had talked and gotten to know each other was still standing. He turned his feet in that direction, and within twenty minutes he was in the same small clearing. He was relieved to see that the platform was there, scarcely changed from that fateful day so long ago. The White Wizard sauntered over to it and mounted the steps, moving out of the hot sun and examining the place more closely.

Saruman sat down on a bench very like the one he had occupied while conversing with his lover. He had not seen the Grey Wizard for several years, and although Gandalf had kept visiting Orthanc occasionally, for about ninety years there had been something missing from their time together. Neither felt the old joy in the other. Gandalf was less cheerful, though he remained as loving and attentive. Too attentive at times, Saruman reflected, for now the Grey Istar occasionally probed him, clearly having seen some indications of the various things that he could not let Gandalf know about. Ever since deciding to seek the One Ring for himself, Saruman had had a greater number of secrets to hide, and as the Grey Istar grew increasingly suspicious and curious, the White one became even more careful in concealing his plans. Every now and then he caught in the other Istar's expression a hint of concern or puzzled curiosity or disappointment. Saruman tried to enjoy his lover's visits as he had in earlier times, but with each one his worries grew, for he sensed them slowly drifting apart. He often found himself feigning a happier attitude than he actually felt, hoping to inspire a genuine happiness in his lover.

For the long run, he had pinned his hopes firmly on finding the Ring and using it to achieve control over Gandalf. For the interim, though, he had been trying to find a way even partially to regain Gandalf's confidence and to make him enjoy their times together more. After all, the Ring might enable him to manipulate the other Istar to a certain extent, but he doubted if it could force Gandalf to love him. In the meantime, Saruman's sudden support of the notion of attacking Dol Guldur would bring them closer together. A sentimental appeal to their happiness in times past could only enhance that process.

Suddenly an idea came to him. How effective and dramatic it would be if Gandalf could arrive in the Golden Wood and first encounter him here, in this spot with such stirring memories for them both! How could it be contrived, though? The clearing was not all that far from the city. If he brought a portable chair and perhaps a small table, he could come here each day to read. Then, when Gandalf arrived, he would be told by the Elves where the White Istar was. Saruman envisioned the reunion, here in this lovely place. Their meeting would be private, too. It wouldn't hurt either, he reflected with a little smile, for Gandalf to have to come and seek him out. He was always pursuing the other Wizard, or so it seemed to him. This time he would be regal, dignified, collected-not fawning over his lover or embracing him passionately as soon as they were together again. Let Gandalf woo him for a change. The more he thought over such a scene, the better he liked it.

From that point on, as long as the weather was pleasant, Saruman spent much of the morning and afternoon at the shelter, reading and occasionally making notes as ideas came to him. After about a week of this routine, the Istar returned to Caras Galadhon for dinner to find that the contingent from Imladris had reached the city. The small group was with their host and hostess for a welcoming glass of wine before going in to eat. Saruman soon joined them, and the first thing he noticed was that Erestor was not among them. The Istar concealed his inner glee when tactful inquiry among the Elves revealed that he had not come at all, remaining instead to supervise the running of the Last Homely House.

Over dinner that evening, Elrond elaborately recounted the visit of the Dwarves, Bilbo, and Gandalf to Rivendell. Some of the anecdotes drew laughter from the Lórien Elves, for the Master of Imladris was an excellent storyteller on those rare occasions when he held forth in this way. Saruman hung on every word, and he learned much that his spies had not been able to tell him about Gandalf's fairly recent activities. Apparently the Grey Istar had finally made a breakthrough in his dealings with the Dwarves. Now that Saruman had resumed actively working against the Dark Lord, such allies could prove useful, he reflected.

At last the tale ended, and a brief silence fell. Celeborn said, "A very entertaining account, my son. Yet beneath your light words lies the fact that Mithrandir and his strange companions were departing on a quest that may well affect us all."

Elrond nodded solemnly. "Indeed they were. The paths crossing and stretching east of the Misty Mountains have grown slowly more perilous in the passing years. I shall be very happy to see Mithrandir arrive here safely, and I hope to find that the journey went well-at least, up to the point when he left the group."

"When might we expect him to arrive?" Saruman asked.

"He was on horseback when he left Imladris. If his estimate was at all accurate, we might expect him in a week or so. Perhaps a little longer, who knows?"

"And do you think there is really any benefit in Mithrandir's having recruited a Halfling to go along with his group?" Saruman added. His amused tone covered his habitual annoyance over Gandalf's persistence in taking such an interest in these creatures.

Elrond shook his head slowly. "It seems very odd to me, but after all, he has long insisted on the benefits of bringing the peoples of Middle-earth together in the struggle against the Enemy. It is an admirable attitude, of course, but it remains to be seen whether it will bear fruit. I must admit that having so many Dwarves in residence at Imladris was far less of a trial than I had expected. Indeed, it proved surprisingly pleasant in some ways. Thorin and his band are bold and determined, and I am cautiously optimistic about their chances for success."

Saruman had to be content with that, since the conversation concentrated on Dwarves for the short remainder of the meal. He did not wish to discuss Halflings, or Hobbits as Gandalf called them, with the other Wizard, and he was glad to hear Elrond's opinion that this Mr. Baggins was not likely to be important in the mission that the Dwarves had undertaken. Just a whim of the Grey Istar's, he thought, some misguided attempt to bring these little people into the great struggle even though they were not at all suited to it. Annoying, but harmless, he decided.

Despite the larger number of the Wise who were now in the Golden Wood, Saruman contrived to keep up his routine of reading by day in the little shelter in the forest. Being so devoted to trees themselves, the Elves saw nothing odd in this desire to seek solitude in the woods. There was plenty of time at breakfast and dinner and into the evening to speak with Elrond and the others on many matters. Meals were subdued affairs, for everyone present knew that the coming Council meeting could lead to serious endeavors that would be dangerous and bring them all into a new stage in their struggles against the Enemy.

In the open air, however, Saruman felt far from such concerns. It was rather like sitting on the roof of Orthanc, cut off from the world for a while. Being surrounded by nothing but trees, though, trees that blocked his view of distant vistas, was less to his liking than the mountain setting that surrounded him so spectacularly at Orthanc. Still, it was very agreeable for a limited period.

A week and then a second went by since the arrival of Elrond's group, and still there was no sign of the Grey Istar. Saruman began to be concerned, but in the middle of one afternoon as he was reading in the usual spot, a movement caught out of the corner of his eye made him look up. There, as he had imagined, was Gandalf. Seeing Saruman, the Grey Wizard walked quickly across the clearing. Saruman wanted desperately to descend the steps and meet him, but he recalled that the point was to make his lover come to him. He contented himself with moving to the top of the short stairway.

Gandalf stopped at the foot of the steps briefly, looking up at him with a faint smile. Then he climbed the stairs, and the two stood facing each other uncertainly. Finally the Grey Istar's smile broadened into a grin. "I have been longing to be with you, ever since I heard the news from Elrond."

At last Saruman could no longer restrain himself and said, "It is so wonderful to see you!" They moved quickly together in a tight embrace. Initially it was simply a hug to express their joy at being together again, especially in this place that held such memories for both of them. Soon, however, their mouths sought each other, and the kiss rapidly became hungry and eager.

Finally they drew apart, panting. "I would love to take you here, now," Saruman said between gasps for air. "But occasionally someone passes through this area. It is too near the city to be really private."

Gandalf nodded. "It would not be particularly comfortable, either. Let us just sit here for a few minutes and then go back. I want to enjoy being with you again, here in this marvelous spot."

They sat side by side on the bench, holding hands, their knees touching.

Saruman examined the other Istar. "You are looking well. But I was beginning to fear for your safety. We expected you several days ago."

"Yes, so Elrond mentioned just now. My sense of when I would get here was based on the fact that I expected to be on horseback. I'm afraid I lost that lovely horse of his almost immediately, during a rather unpleasant encounter with goblins in the mountains. Don't look so worried! We came through reasonably unscathed, though it was touch and go at a few points. I shall tell you and the others about it tonight. Anyway, I had to come all the way from the area just east of the Carrock on foot. Hence the delay. I also had to make detours, for twice I nearly encountered some of Sauron's teams searching the River.

"I must say, when I arrived I was rather disappointed at being told that you were not in Caras Galadhon. Now that I have found you, though, I'm very happy to be with you here. Such wonderful memories!"

Saruman let go of the other Wizard's hand and slid an arm around his shoulders. "Yes. It was the beginning of a new era in both our lives on this continent."

Gandalf leaned on him, rubbing his head slowly against the White Istar's shoulder. After a short time they got up and walked back toward the house, giving themselves enough time to assuage their desires before dinner. Saruman said softly, "I have the same room as when we first made love, too."

Gandalf laughed and replied, "Good! And probably a few days to use it before the entire group has arrived." He waggled his eyebrows at his lover.

Saruman sighed happily. It was going just as he had hoped it would. Their love might be rekindled until it burned as intensely as it had during those heady early weeks when they had first become intimate.

Later that afternoon, Saruman lay limply against a pile of pillows at the headboard of his bed, his eyes closed as he savored the movement of Gandalf's lips across his cheek. How long had it been since he felt this happy? he wondered. He dreaded to think. Eventually he opened his eyes to gaze lazily into his lover's face, so marvelously close to his own.

Gandalf settled his chin on the White Istar's shoulder. "I am so glad that we have met again and reconciled ... well, I don't really mean reconciled, exactly, but ..." he said.

Saruman caressed his white hair. "Yes, I know what you mean. Well, if you will take our political disagreements so personally, such coolness obviously may result. Now, fortunately, we are in accord."

Political disagreements were far from the only thing that had caused their estrangement, but Gandalf saw no point in starting a quarrel now. If it had only been a matter of disagreeing on whether to attack Dol Guldur years earlier, that estrangement would probably never have arisen. The Grey Wizard was able to separate his personal feelings from his opposition to Saruman's opinions on policy. No, that earlier White Council meeting at Rivendell had coincided with an increase in the other Istar's jealousy, his possessiveness-and his secretiveness, which bothered Gandalf most of all. Saruman had become so withdrawn from the rest of the Wise, so isolated in his tower. Those unsettling traits were the core of the problem.

Now, however, the White Istar seemed almost a different person-much closer to the Man Gandalf had fallen in love with. Here, away from Isengard, he was cheerful, entertaining, and playful-more so than Gandalf had seen him in many years. At last the Grey Wizard sensed the possibility of encouraging such behavior and drawing Saruman back into the central role he had once played in their mission. The fact that he was finally willing to support the attack on Dol Guldur suggested a more cooperative attitude.

After a short silence, Gandalf said, "Perhaps, if our strike against Dol Guldur succeeds and if the Dwarves dispose of Smaug, there would come a time when I would not have quite so many pressing duties. We might meet in Minas Tirith, as we used to do. Wouldn't it be splendid to go south and visit the Sea again? We have not done that in so very long."

Saruman thought for a moment before replying, "Those are two very large "if's," but they may both come to pass. Yes, then we could be together more, I trust."

He had not said where they would be together, but Gandalf was determined to lure Saruman away from the tower, at least for some of the times when they managed to meet.

The pair had two days of bliss together before the last of the Wise arrived from the Havens. The Council's meeting was planned for the next morning. At dinner Gandalf regaled the group with tales of the Quest of Erebor as it had proceeded after the stay in Imladris. His account of an underground battle with the Goblins and the group's subsequent peril when trapped in the fir trees was suspenseful, leading up to the climactic rescue by the great Eagles. The tale of how the Wizard had lured Beorn to accept thirteen Dwarves and a Hobbit into his home was more comic and had the group laughing by the end. Finally Gandalf told of leaving the troupe on the western edge of Mirkwood.

Elrond looked at him with a skeptical smile. "And do you think your Mr. Baggins will bring the Dwarves through the dangers of the forest safely?"

Gandalf shrugged. "Fortunately he did seem to be showing a little of the wit and courage that I had hoped for. Certainly that moment when he snuck up on the Dwarves and me after our escape from the Goblins' caves impressed us all. From the start I had stressed his stealth, and there he gave a vivid demonstration of it." Gandalf did not mention his own vague uneasiness about that episode. Clearly Bilbo had found something that had helped him make that startling reappearance among the Dwarves. What that something was, the Wizard had no idea, but he was not happy with the prospect of a magical object in the hands of someone so ill equipped to use it. Gandalf determined to investigate it when he had the chance, but there were far more important matters to be dealt with first.

Elrond nodded, still not entirely convinced. "If Thorin and the others stick to the Elf-path-and they would be foolish not to-they will pass through Thranduil's realm. How do you think he will receive them?"

Gandalf's eyebrows went up, and he sighed. "Well, given the number of times I have stressed the idea of Elves and Dwarves needing to cooperate, I should hope Thranduil's folk would be polite and hospitable, however little they might like it. And one would think that the Dwarves would welcome such hospitality, after their pleasant stay at Imladris. Mr. Baggins of course remains quite fascinated with Elves," he concluded more cheerfully.

No wonder, Saruman thought sourly, if he is a friend of Gandalf's-who remains far too fascinated with two particular Elves.

The Council met the next morning, and the early part of the session was given over to a long debate concerning the lore of the Rings. Saruman contributed much to that discussion, but to his surprise, the Elves were more forthcoming than ever before about the nature and current uses of the Three. No one revealed who held the Elven Rings, but Saruman was sure he knew anyway, and he learned several new facts in the course of the morning. He felt strangely moved at being able once again to participate in one of the Council's meetings in complete honesty. Well, nearly complete, anyway. He was holding things back, but he was not outright lying to the Wise.

It soon became clear that the meeting, though vital, would be shorter than most of the Council's gatherings. They agreed to try and finish before lunch, for all felt that they would have strategies to devise and urgent messages to send. Time was given to each of the Istari to make their pleas to the assembled Elves.

As at the previous meeting about Dol Guldur, Gandalf went first. He did not stand up but sat forward, his elbows upon the arms of his chair, his hands clenched together. He moved his gaze among each of those present in turn, saying earnestly and with a quietly emphatic tone, "I know that you are all familiar with my speeches in favor of action against the Enemy. Most often I am overruled, for many of you think me too impetuous, and you have your own lands to defend and your own people to consider. I have understood your positions, even though I did not always agree with them. But now I beg that you listen to me without assuming that this is just one more speech along the same lines. No, this time I urge you to do what should have been done long ago, for the situation has changed for the worse, and this may be our last chance! We learned 91 years ago that the Enemy was looking for the One Ring-"

Galadriel interrupted, "You learned that for us, Mithrandir, and if we turned aside your earnest advice then, I hope that we will not make the same mistake again."

She did not glance at Saruman, but the White Istar realized with a jolt of anger that she had just called his advice at the Council of 2851 mistaken. He managed to hide any hint of his reaction, however, for now he wanted the same thing that Gandalf and Galadriel-and, with luck, many of the others-did. To attack Dol Guldur. His face remained impassive as Gandalf resumed.

"Thank you, my Lady," Gandalf said quietly, gazing at the floor before looking around again as he resumed, "Some may have been lulled into a feeling of security because it seemed that if Sauron did not find the Ring, he would not gain the advantage. That, I deem, is not true. It is not needed that the Ring should be found, for while it abides on earth and is not unmade, still the power that it holds will live, and Sauron will grow and have hope. The might of the Elves and the Elf-friends is less now than of old. Soon he will be too strong for you, even without the Great Ring; for he rules the Nine, and of the Seven he has recovered three. We must strike," he concluded with great conviction.

Celeborn was frowning in puzzlement. "You say that Sauron has three of the Dwarves' Rings. To the best of my knowledge, that number has always been assumed to be two. Have you new information?"

Gandalf nodded grimly. "Yes. When I visited the Enemy's tower those 91 years ago, an incident occurred which I mentioned only in passing at the time-mainly because I did not recognize its import. I found a dying Dwarf who babbled of 'the last of the Seven' and gave me a map and a key-the map I showed you recently at Rivendell," he added, glancing at Elrond. "He could not tell me who he was, and I only recently realized that he was Thráin, son of Thrór. At the time the Dwarves did not confide in me, of course, but I gather from Thorin that in Thráin's old age greed for gold overthrew his reason, and he set out alone for Moria. The Enemy captured him and took from him the last of the Seven Rings-and the third of them that Sauron now holds. A minor matter in the greater scheme of things, perhaps, yet it is one more tip of the balance of power away from us and to the Dark Lord."

There was a silence, and Saruman steeled himself to playing the part that he knew he must, using his persuasive Voice to the utmost. He stood, and all eyes turned to him. Sincerely and emphatically he declared, "Mithrandir is right. When I assured this group that Sauron would never find the Ring, I thought that allowing him to waste his forces in hunting for it was a fruitful plan. But as my wise colleague says, the Enemy has gathered power to himself in other ways even as he searched. Whether or not the Ring now lies far below the waves of the Sea, as I believe, he is stronger now than at any prior time in the Third Age. Truly, he cannot be permitted to abide in his tower and continue to gain strength until he can attack your enclaves, for they may be less secure than you assume. Let us at last take the counsel of Mithrandir, long proffered and long ignored. We should ourselves attack and preclude the Enemy's offensive against us."

Surveying the group, he could see that they were surprised and impressed by the force of his statements in favor of a position he had previously opposed. He glanced at Gandalf and saw in his eyes a quiet but profound gratitude. For a moment the White Istar envisioned with blinding poignancy what might have been had he cooperated with Gandalf from the start, never deceiving him or striving to bind him to one isolated home that they could share to the exclusion of all these others. He swallowed hard and sought to banish those thoughts of his lost happiness with Gandalf, perhaps traveling together, planning and achieving one modest goal after another. It was too late for that now. He was too far committed to the course he had so long been pursuing, and perhaps that course would finally bring the Grey Istar back to him forever.

Saruman concentrated instead on the final and most dramatic part of his speech. His eyes surveyed all those assembled yet returned most often to Gandalf's face as he said, "I might add that we are not without enhanced power. Thanks to my research at Isengard, I have been able to create some new devices, stratagems, and weapons that I trust will aid our cause."

He paused, noting with pride the surprise and admiration he saw in their eyes-especially Gandalf's. If the White Istar's inventions ended up helping them defeat the Dark Lord, surely the other Wizard would have to admit that his settling in Orthanc was well justified. Saruman did not mention the fact that he had developed these devices out of his studies of Sauron's methods. The White Istar had improved considerably upon some of the machines and techniques developed by the Enemy, and he was reasonably confident that they would help them win in a battle against him.

He resumed, "I left these devices on the eastern fringes of the Golden Wood, well guarded by my escort of soldiers. Some are too large to move conveniently through the forest. It will be difficult enough to convey them to the vicinity of Dol Guldur, and at any rate, why cart them all the way here when we would only need to take them back in the same direction when we march upon the Tower? I invite the Council to travel tomorrow the short distance to where they are arrayed, and you may judge for yourself their efficacy. Then our planning may go forward with everyone here aware of what we might hope to achieve."

He sat down, looking at the floor, as Gandalf often modestly did. He waited with a faint smile as he listened to the babble of comments that were flying back and forth around the room. Clearly the Elven Wise had accepted the two Istari's advice, now that they spoke with a single voice.

Saruman's eyes once more sought his lover's, and Gandalf smiled. That smile held such promise of great joy when they met privately! The White Istar felt a surge of love and wished that he and the Grey Wizard could be alone, even for a mere few minutes, for he longed to embrace Gandalf.

As the room quieted, Saruman asked for further comments. There were only a few, and those were brief, simply supporting the Wizards' advice. Soon Saruman was able to bring the question to a vote. To no one's surprise, the decision was unanimous. Dol Guldur would be attacked as soon as plans incorporating Saruman's new devices could be made and the troops could be readied for the journey.

A week later the troops of Lothlórien set forth, bolstered by the small groups of soldiers that had accompanied the other Elvish emissaries and the one that had come with Saruman. The approach to the vicinity of the Tower was slow, given the necessity to move the White Istar's cumbersome equipment. The few groups of Orcs or Men that they encountered in the dark forest of Mirkwood were easily defeated, though most fled immediately toward the protection of Dol Guldur.

The attack resulted in a great victory. The skilled Elven archers of the Golden Wood, the inventions of Saruman, and the protective power of the three secret Rings combined to overwhelm the defense of the Dark Lord's lair. After a few hours an army of Orcs and Men launched a counter-attack toward the East. It soon became apparent, however, that their orders were to clear a path for the escape of Sauron. He and his officers and advisors retreated so swiftly that there was no possibility of capturing him. With their leader gone, the remaining soldiers of the Enemy broke up and fled into the surrounding woods. By nightfall, Dol Guldur stood empty. Because it had been constructed using the power of the One Ring, there was no way for the forces of the West to destroy the Tower itself. It was searched thoroughly, but this time it contained not even a single taunting missive. Sauron had removed everything during his retreat. Leaving a contingent of soldiers behind to destroy the heavy weapons on the roof of Dol Guldur, the members of the Wise returned to the Golden Wood.

There was much celebrating in Caras Galadhon. Gandalf felt that he should soon travel to Erebor and the Long Lake region to see how the Dwarves and Bilbo were faring, but he agreed to spend a week with Saruman. Their love was as intense as ever, it seemed, and between a few short meetings with the Council, they spent long stretches of time together. Gandalf praised Saruman's ingenious contributions to the weaponry used in the recent battle and conceded that the White Istar's work at Orthanc had borne more fruit than he had expected. Saruman's hopes for luring the other Wizard to spend more time at the tower soared, and already he secretly began to ponder how he might make that prospect more appealing to Gandalf.

At first Saruman's delight in again being so happy with the other Istar shut out all thoughts of Gandalf's other lovers. Gradually, however, as Saruman became surer of the Grey Wizard's renewed devotion, his thoughts returned to Erestor and Legolas. His revulsion at the knowledge that he was sharing the White Istar with them began to shadow their time together.

Late one night Saruman jolted out of a dream which he could not remember well, but he knew it had involved Gandalf and those other lovers together, flaunting their happiness and mocking him. The old jealousy burned in him once more.

Gandalf was sleeping on his side, turned away from his lover. For many minutes Saruman stared at the back of his head and shoulders, faintly glowing white in the starlight. "Erestor must have been the one you fucked more recently. You didn't get far enough east to visit your pretty blond Elf and fuck him," he whispered very softly. He knew that Gandalf didn't like that word, having said early in their relationship that it was too coarse for what they did together. Indeed, Saruman had never thought of that term even to himself in relation to what he did with the Grey Istar. What Gandalf did with those others, though, was definitely fucking. It didn't warrant any higher name. The White Wizard occasionally whispered such things in the dark, when he was sure his lover wouldn't hear them. That helped a little in his struggle to conceal his jealousy from the other Istar.

Saruman ground his teeth and lay still, trying to go back to sleep. For the thousandth time he reminded himself that such jealousy could bring about conversations where he said things that he quickly regretted. He suddenly felt an implacable need to completely possess the Grey Wizard in the most direct way possible, even though that sense of possession would inevitably fade afterwards. He edged forward and pressed the length of his body against Gandalf's and reached around to gently rub one sensitive nipple as his nose and lips nudged through the thick hair and nuzzled across the other Istar's neck.

Gandalf began to squirm and gradually awaken, softly moaning in pleasure. He twisted his head to look over his shoulder, smiling drowsily, and Saruman feathered kisses over his cheek. He longed to see that familiar look of sensual surrender on his lover's face-surrender only to him, for now. He moved away and slid downward as Gandalf rolled onto his back. Saruman brushed the beard aside and flicked the tip of his tongue rapidly back and forth over the hard, dark nubs that formed on the other Wizard's chest, sliding his hand along the flat belly to encounter and tickle the slightly swollen member lying up along the joint of torso and thigh.

Gandalf skimmed his fingertips up and down his lover's spine in the way that he knew the White Istar enjoyed. Saruman smiled up at him briefly before closing his lips over one puckered little bead and sucking it. They stared into each other's eyes for a long time as they caressed sensitive skin. Saruman felt the Grey Istar's length grow long and thick and rigid under his hand. His own cock had become achingly hard, and he suddenly felt a nearly irresistible urge to move above Gandalf and press into him, swiftly and forcefully and deeply. But Gandalf would resent such an act, and besides, he reminded himself, this lovemaking was far from being about simple jealousy or domination. It should remind Gandalf how good the White Istar was at pleasuring him, how clearly they belonged together. Saruman paused until he could hold himself in check and then proceeded slowly, sliding down to lick and kiss his lover's hardening member.

Finally he did move atop Gandalf, but gently. The Grey Istar grinned lasciviously up at him. "Well, you are certainly lively tonight! Quite the lustful Wizard."

Saruman reached for the jar of lubricant they had used earlier that night when he had taken the other Istar so exquisitely. "I don't hear any objections from you," he said with affectionate amusement. He held up the jar. "And you have none now, I assume."

Gandalf hesitated momentarily, looking surprised that his lover wanted to penetrate him again so soon. After a few seconds, however, he nodded happily and bent his legs as Saruman slipped a cushion under his hips. The White Istar coated his fingers and slipped one inside his lover. The puckered entrance was slightly swollen from their earlier lovemaking, and it was still somewhat relaxed. Gandalf grimaced briefly as a second finger entered him, but when Saruman reached his pleasure point and tickled it, all thought of pain fled as the Grey Istar writhed and whimpered for more.

Soon Saruman pressed his cock's tip inside, rocking his hips slowly to push inward. Gandalf's erection shrank slightly as he adjusted to the stretching. Again the slight pain turned suddenly to joy after the White Wizard's member reached a certain depth, and the pair panted, uttering small groans at intervals, as the White Istar gradually buried himself. He pulled Gandalf's body up until the Grey Wizard's buttocks were resting against his thighs and his legs were wrapped around his lover's waist. The increasingly direct pressure on the front of his passage caused Gandalf to mewl with rising desperation.

"How do you want it?" Saruman inquired in a strained voice.

Gandalf clenched his teeth and rolled his head back into the pillow with ecstasy. His heels dug into the other Istar's lower back, forcing himself further onto the stiff flesh filling him. "Mmmm, faster now-and hard! Hard!"

Saruman leaned forward and pinched Gandalf's nipple with one hand as he pumped his shaft with the other. He thrust wildly, as hard as he could manage, concentrating almost more on Gandalf's pleasure than on his own-though that was considerable, as his entire erection was gripped by the clinging heat of the tight passage. He was determined not to come first, but he realized that he need not worry about that as Gandalf's shrill keening gave way to loud groans. Spurts of cream spattered onto both their bellies. Saruman felt the last drops slick his fingers, and he clutched the shaft even tighter to avoid losing his hold on it. The sight of that eruption and of Gandalf's face, twisted in ecstasy and then gradually relaxing into contentment sent him over the edge into his own intense orgasm, his thighs and hips shuddering as they kept trying to push his fully imbedded member even further inside. His head began to spin before the last twitches of pleasure slowed and eased from his loins.

Saruman opened his eyes to find Gandalf grinning up at him, panting. The Grey Istar reached and tossed the cloth that they had used earlier to him, and Saruman wiped them both. Immediately he dropped, trembling with the force of his release, down beside Gandalf. After a pause he murmured with a teasing little smile, "I take it that you did not mind my waking you."

Gandalf chuckled and drew in a deep breath before sighing in contentment. "Of course not! Though after twice in one night, I fear that I shall be sore in the morning!"

From his expression, Saruman could see plainly that he was not particularly regretful about that prospect. "As long as you enjoyed it," he whispered, kissing Gandalf's cheek. His lover nodded, his eyes sagging closed as he began to drift off. Saruman lay watching him, trying not to think about the fact that when they parted, they would again be traveling in opposite directions. Soon he, too, could not keep his eyes open, and he fell asleep with his hand gripping Gandalf's arm.

Although the Elves of Lothlórien did not use horses to travel within the forest, they maintained a limited stable for carrying messengers to other places. Galadriel and Celeborn loaned Gandalf a small, lovely gelding to carry him to the Lonely Mountain. The Grey Istar took leave of Saruman, promising to see him again as soon as possible. He refrained from specifying that he would be returning to Orthanc for that visit, for he still hoped to lure the other Wizard to meet him somewhere else. Even Edoras would be something of a change for them, though Gandalf considered the current King, Fengel, to be an ineffectual ruler, greedy for both food and wealth.

Gandalf took advantage of the relative safety of southern Mirkwood, now that Sauron had been driven away, crossing through the forest at its narrowest point and traveling swiftly up its eastern eaves. When he was still a few days' ride from Erebor, he began to hear rumors from birds that the dragon had been slain. Coming immediately after the defeat of Sauron, the news was mightily encouraging, and as he rode on, Gandalf tried to restrain the soaring optimism that arose from such changes in the situation that had seemed so grim only a few months before.

As he continued on, however, his delight was considerably tempered. The rumors began to be reports, for details were forthcoming. Bard, a man of Laketown, had been the one to kill Smaug, but now there was strife between the Men of the town and the Dwarves of Erebor. News came even of the Elves of Thranduil's realm marching toward the Long Lake area. To Gandalf, the killing of the dragon had been the purpose of the Quest of Erebor, but with such a vast treasure involved, he reflected, conflicting claims were bound to arise. Knowing Thorin, he doubted that such claims would be amicably settled by the time he arrived at the Mountain. Indeed, if a full-scale battle was to be averted, Gandalf would be needed as a neutral party to help in the negotiations. It would be ironic if this great step forward in the mission of the Wise would end in squabbles among Men and Elves and Dwarves over gold and jewels. He asked his horse to hurry onward as quickly as possible without exhausting itself.

Upon the Wizard's arrival, he found a tense situation, with Thranduil's army and Bard's troops both camped in the valleys and plains on the southern side of the Lonely Mountain. Quickly the various leaders told him of Thorin's stubborn refusal to consider sharing the treasure, despite the fact that Bard had killed the Dragon and Laketown now lay in ruins as a result of Smaug's attack. Gandalf also learned of the whole unfortunate incident in which Thranduil had seized and imprisoned the Dwarves. The only consolation there was that Bilbo had apparently shown great cleverness and skill in stealthy planning, allowing him to rescue the whole troupe from that captivity. Still, the Mirkwood Elves, allied with the Men of Laketown, were currently preparing to attack the Dwarves ensconced in the Mountain. Not, Gandalf reflected sourly, the joyous situation he had hoped would result from Smaug's demise.

As one of the leaders of the besieging forces, the Grey Wizard was given a reasonably spacious tent of his own. He settled into it, hoping to devise some means of bringing Thorin to his senses. After all his many years of dealing with Dwarves, however, he realized that Thorin and the others had achieved what they wanted. Having regained Erebor and the treasure, they were no more likely than they had ever been to cooperate with other races-even when common decency demanded that they share just a little portion of their good fortune with their neighbors. Winter was coming on, and the Men and Elves knew well that they could not maintain a lengthy pressure on those within the Mountain.

Gandalf also wondered if other forces were converging on the Lonely Mountain. Thranduil's Elves and the Men of Laketown would not have been the only ones to hear the news of Smaug's demise.

Within a few days, Gandalf began to hear vague rumors from the birds and animals of the area. Dwarves from the Iron Hills were marching toward Erebor, as were Goblins from the mountains to the north. It might well be that a huge battle, far beyond what Thorin expected, would soon take place. But he still could not figure out how to convince the stubborn Dwarf to join with forces who should be his friends but whom he suspected of trying to steal his treasure.

Late one evening Gandalf was returning from dinner to his tent when he was amazed to see Bilbo walking into the camp, accompanied by a small group of Elvish guards. Gandalf frowned in puzzlement, but he quickly ducked inside his tent. He did not want to let Bilbo see him until he found out where the Hobbit stood in the conflict between the Dwarves of Erebor and their neighbors. Bilbo had more than lived up to Gandalf's assertions to the Dwarves on his behalf, saving them in the tight situation in Thranduil's realm and apparently helping them to regain the Mountain. Still, might he have become a little too loyal to them? The Wizard would be sorry to learn that Bilbo had been convinced by Thorin and the others stubbornly to sit on the treasure and defy any who might have a legitimate claim to part of it. But what was Bilbo doing here? Pulling a dark cloak around himself, Gandalf followed the little group toward a capacious tent, in front of which Thranduil and Bard were seated by a large fire.

Even standing far enough from the fire that his cloak made him nearly invisible, Gandalf could hear the conversation clearly. He was astonished when Bilbo brought forth the Arkenstone and offered it to the two leaders as a means of bargaining with Thorin. The Hobbit admitted that he had secretly taken the great jewel, for he did not agree with the Dwarves' stance of defying the Men and Elves who were camped before the Mountain.

Bold little fellow, thought Gandalf with a grin. And lucky as well, for Bilbo must have found the gem before any of the thirteen Dwarves could. The Wizard had never seen the Arkenstone or indeed heard of it until this moment. He stared at it wistfully as Bard held up the marvelous stone. A bit like a Silmaril, Gandalf reflected, though it was smaller and its light was not so radiant.

Bilbo then declared that he would return to join the Dwarves under the Mountain, and as Thranduil and Bard tried to persuade him not to take such a risk, Gandalf turned and went back to his tent. He pulled a stool forward and sat in the doorway, pondering the scene he had just witnessed. The Wizard decided that he would make himself known to Bilbo. Clearly the Hobbit needed to be encouraged in this excellent but perilous strategy to which he had committed himself.

As the Elvish guards escorted Bilbo back toward the Moutain and passed near Gandalf's tent, the Wizard rose and walked forward to intercept them. As they paused to see what he wanted, he lowered the hood of his cloak, saying "Well done! Mr. Baggins!" He clapped the Hobbit on the back. "There is always more about you than anyone expects!"

Gandalf was touched by how very delighted Bilbo was to see him again-especially considering the fact that at times during the journey eastward he had had to be a trifle sharp with the Hobbit. Perhaps, though, some of his admonitions had taken hold and helped Bilbo develop some of the pluck and resourcefulness he was displaying now.

"But how did you-?" Bilbo began.

"All in good time! Things are drawing toward the end now, unless I am mistaken. There is an unpleasant time just in front of you; but keep your heart up! You may come through all right. There is news brewing that even the ravens have not heard. Good night!"

Bilbo frowned at him in puzzlement but grinned and waved as he went on toward the Mountain, accompanied by the guards. Looking after him, Gandalf yawned. It was late, and he decided that a discussion of this new development with Thranduil and Bard could wait until morning. He went back to his tent, tying the flap shut behind him, dousing the candle, and settling down onto his cot for a welcome sleep.

Over the next few days, the forces of Dain of the Iron Hills, five hundred strong, arrived and arrayed themselves to battle the Men of Laketown and the Elves of Thranduil's realm in support of Thorin's claim. Just as the conflict was about to commence, however, the Goblins of the north, led by Bolg, advanced unexpectedly upon the armies. Gandalf called the leaders of Dwarves, Elves, and Men together for a council to plan strategy. Their tactics went well for a time, and it appeared as if their foes were defeated. Yet in a surprise move, a portion of the Goblin troops had climbed the Mountain and descended upon the armies of Elves and Men and Dwarves. For several hours it looked as if they, aided by wolves and Wargs and bats, would achieve an overwhelming victory. Gandalf found himself drawn into the battle, and for the second time, he used Glamdring against the enemies of the West.

Finally, however, as the sun was nearly setting, the startling arrival of the great Eagles of the Misty Mountains and of Beorn in his bear shape turned the tide of battle. Gradually the Elves, Men, and Dwarves-and one Hobbit and one Wizard-carried the day. The hunt for the fleeing enemies began well after nightfall, but Gandalf returned to the camp. He had suffered a wound to his arm and needed to have it cared for. He discovered then that Thorin had been mortally wounded, and the joy of victory was tamped by that and the other great losses of the day. The Wizard sent some soldiers to search for Bilbo, who he was convinced was still alive. Some of them found the Hobbit and brought him back to the camp in time to speak with Thorin, who died in the wee hours of the morning.

It was not until the sun was already up that Gandalf managed to get a simple meal, standing by an open cooking-fire to eat it. He then set out to return to his own tent but paused beside the one that the Hobbit was sharing with some other soldiers. Soft sniffing sounds reached his ear. Glancing around, Gandalf saw that Bilbo's tent-mates were still sitting outdoors eating and washing and had not yet retired to rest. Sticking his head in through the tent's opening, the Wizard saw that Bilbo had just rolled himself up in his blankets. The Hobbit raised himself onto one elbow and smiled wanly at Gandalf. His eyes still were red from long crying. Gandalf squatted beside him.

"You should not take Thorin's passing to heart so," the Istar said. "He died a heroic death and in the process redeemed himself for all his greedy, uncooperative behavior. And he succeeded in his life's goal of regaining his people's ancestral home. Thorin's accomplishments will live on, and he will long be remembered in story and song. Dain will be a worthy successor." He patted the Hobbit's arm gently.

Bilbo nodded. "I suppose you're right. I have been thinking how lucky I am that the soldiers found me when they did and that I had the chance to be reconciled with him." They were silent for a moment before the Hobbit asked, "Where are the Eagles?"

"Some are in the hunt, but most have gone back to the eyries. They would not stay here, and departed with the first light of morning. Dain has crowned their chief with gold, and sworn friendship with them forever."

"I am sorry. I mean, I should have liked to see them again. Perhaps I shall see them on the way home. I suppose I shall be going home soon," Bilbo said drowsily.

"As soon as you like," said Gandalf. He stood and went to the tent's entrance before looking back and adding, "That is, there will be a few things to do here first. Obviously we shall attend Thorin's funeral, and I must take advantage of the opportunity to consult with so many important leaders gathered together in one place-something that has never happened before. And I hope you will wait that long, for I intend to accompany you, if you don't mind."

"Of course!" Bilbo replied, and he smiled more cheerfully as Gandalf turned and went out.

The Wizard had barely entered his own tent and removed his hat when he heard a familiar voice outside say softly, "Mithrandir, are you there?"

"My dear Elf, come in, come in!"

Legolas entered the tent and put down his bow, and the Wizard went on delightedly, "I suppose it was inevitable that you would be involved in the fighting here, but I did not see you during the Battle."

"No, though I saw you from a distance at one point. But it was a huge Battle, and it is not surprising that we fought in different places. But afterward I naturally had to seek out the chief advisor to all the leaders of the victorious Armies and thank him for his help in pulling those Armies together. Due in great part to you, we have won the day!"

"And in even greater part, I must say, to the Eagles and to Beorn. Be that as it may, however, I am delighted to see you safe and sound-and as lovely as ever. Come and give me a kiss, my sweet Legolas."

The Elf moved close to him, and they carefully embraced, rubbing their lips together gently. Soon Legolas pulled away and looked at the Wizard's bandaged arm, held tightly in a sling. "I hope that is not a serious wound."

Gandalf glanced down at it and sighed in exasperation. "Not serious, no, but not exactly minor either. I shall have to wear this for a few weeks, I am told."

Legolas shook his head and grasped the Istar's chin between his thumb and fingers, staring into his eyes and saying accusingly, "Perhaps you have finally realized that you are vulnerable yourself and should not take such risks as you do. Not just in battles like this but in sneaking into the Dark Lord's very dwelling and things of that sort. Many of us do worry about you, you know."

Gandalf fidgeted, pulling away from Legolas' grasp, and said with an annoyed frown, "I am perfectly aware that I am vulnerable. Believe me, I have felt so quite keenly a number of times! After all, I don't fling myself into danger's path for my own amusement."

Legolas stroked the top of the Wizard's head and smiled fondly at him. "No, I don't suppose that you do. Now, this morning would you like to demonstrate your expertise in strategy more simply, by managing to make love with your arm in that sling?"

Gandalf grinned contentedly as he examined the Elf's luminous face. "Now that is the sort of challenge I relish."

Legolas drew back slightly and glanced again at the bandage and sling. "Are you sure it wouldn't hurt your wound too much?"

"It hurts a little, but it would do that whether I stayed still or moved about. I must say, I was feeling very tired after such a long and eventful day and night, but seeing you and having you in my arms-well, one arm, at any rate-seems to have revived me." His free hand played over the Elf's back until Legolas began to hum softly with delight. Gandalf grinned and said, "Please do stay here with me for a while. Not surprisingly, tents are at a premium in this camp. And if we have to share this very small cot, I'm sure we'll manage to make the best of it. I would certainly not mind falling asleep in the embrace of a lovely, lovely Elf."

Legolas leaned down to press his cheek against the Wizard's. "Good! I shall go off in search of something for both of us to eat, shall I? You, as the invalid, can await me here. Then we can have a short time of privacy and peace-and pleasure."

"Mmmm, pleasure, yes," Gandalf replied, his fingers skimming over the front of the Elf's shirt and tickling at the sensitive buds beneath it.

Legolas' body twisted with the exquisite sensations, but he pulled away from the Istar's groping hand with a gentle laugh. "Pleasure, of course, but food first, yes? And perhaps some wine, if I can find it."

Gandalf stared at the Elf's body unashamedly. "I did have a belated supper earlier, as it happens, but I would not mind a little dessert." He chuckled. "Not just you, but something sweet to eat. I hear that the bakers and women of Laketown have been working hard to provide bread and pastries for the armies. If you could procure something of that sort ..." He seemed to forget what he was saying and cupped Legolas' buttocks with his one free hand, pulling the Elf's swollen crotch against his own and trying to bring his mouth up to Legolas' neck.

The Elf squirmed free. "Well, I have not had any supper at all, nor any lunch yesterday-and now it is past time for breakfast! I shall find some food, and a dessert for you, if possible." He brushed his lips tantalizingly over the Wizard's ear and whispered into it, "Then you may do absolutely anything with me that you can, given that wounded arm."

Gandalf uttered a faint moan in response to that challenge and tried to embrace the Elf again, but Legolas pushed him away, grinning, and went out in search of food. The Wizard's erection throbbed insistently, and he struggled out of his clothes as quickly as he could, though he could not slide his shirt down over the bandage and sling. He found himself naked with the shirt hanging from his right shoulder. Shrugging in frustration, he carefully arranged the blankets on the cot and sat down on it.

About twenty minutes later Legolas returned with a makeshift tray consisting of a shield. It contained a small joint of slightly charred meat, some rolls, and a reasonably fresh though somewhat squashed fruit tart. The Elf paused and laughed as he saw Gandalf waiting for him, clearly more interested in love than food.

"Very impressive," he murmured, glancing at the Wizard's member, still half-erect despite the long interval since Legolas had left. "But I would satisfy one appetite before another." He placed the shield on the ground and carefully pulled the sling off, removing Gandalf's shirt before replacing the sling. He sat beside the Istar on the cot, devouring the meat and a roll as Gandalf divided the tart in half and ate his portion. His erection shrank slightly during all this, but by the end of the meal he was pressing up against Legolas and had regained nearly his full tumescence.

Handing the other half of the tart to Legolas, the Wizard turned so that he could reach across with his good hand and caress the Elf's torso as his mouth sought his neck. Legolas ate the pastry, chuckling and sucking in sudden breaths as Gandalf touched and tantalized him. At one point the Elf remarked, "If both your hands were free, I don't think I would have been able to eat a thing." The Wizard's fingers slipped between the buttons of his shirt, undoing them and stroking the smooth skin inside. Soon Legolas' chest was bared, and Gandalf clutched at it, pinching and rolling the pink nipples as his open mouth roved over the Elf's neck and ears. The Wizard's lips and hands soon spread the grease from the pastry over the silky skin, until the Elf's chest and neck and face had shiny patches.

Soon Legolas finished eating, and he reached to pinch Gandalf's nipples with one hand as he undid his own trouser-laces with the other. The Wizard's hand brushed Legolas' aside, stroking the swelling member through the cloth and then pulling the laces loose and tugging the bunched fabric open. It delved inside, and Gandalf moaned as he found and stroked the Elf's hard, hot, moist erection.

Gandalf tried to maneuver the Elf down onto the cot and himself above his lover, but the sling encumbered him, and he grunted softly in frustration and grasped Legolas with his healthy arm, maneuvering his body in a vain attempt to find a way to do what he desperately yearned to. He came close to rolling off the cot, and he had to settle down on his side. His rigid member thrust ineffectually across the Elf's belly as he hissed in frustration.

At last Legolas drew back slightly. "Let me take you, if you wish. I doubt with your arm injured thus you could do what you obviously want to. Lie back now, and accept the pleasure I long to give you."

With a groan of surrender, Gandalf relaxed down onto the cot, opening his legs to accommodate the Elf as he rose and moved over his lover's body. Immediately Legolas' fingers, slick from the grease of the meal, thrust insistently into the Wizard's passage. Gandalf gasped in desperation, bending his knees further and pushing his cleft upward. "Deeper, yes," he begged.

Legolas delved into him, scissoring his fingers and moaning gently as he imagined himself buried in that tight channel.

Gandalf rocked his hips to bring his hidden, sensitive point into contact with those invading fingers. At once their tips touched the small gland that drove him to great pleasure. He trembled, begging, "Yes, there," as he twisted and sought to force the fingers onto that spot again. Legolas understood and pushed his fingers more firmly against the little rise, making the Wizard writhe and whimper with growing desperation. "Enough! Inside, now," Gandalf finally growled, prudently brushing his long beard off to one side.

Legolas withdrew his fingers and placed the tip of his long, slender, iron-hard cock against the narrow, puckered entrance. He thrust once, hard, and buried the bulbous crown inside. It went just deep enough to stroke Gandalf's pleasure center, and the Wizard bucked under him. "Yes, yes, yes," Gandalf urged over and over, and Legolas began to ride him hard, going deeper with each invasion and drawing forth an eager keening from the Wizard.

At last Gandalf's body was heaving up and down on the narrow cot, and Legolas was buried entirely. His head was thrown back, and as he heard the Wizard's keening grow more shrill and urgent, he grasped Gandalf's length and pumped it, clenching his hips to thrust relentlessly. Dimly he heard the Wizard's sudden grunt and his hoarse moans of ecstasy as his come erupted so forcefully that it spattered initially onto his own face, diminishing to fall onto his chest and finally his belly. The last dribbling spasms coated Legolas' hand as it continued to stroke the shaft. The Elf felt Gandalf's passage grip him fiercely, and he jerked repeatedly as his ecstasy hit him. His balls contracted and sent spurt after spurt of hot seed deep inside his lover's body.

Legolas relaxed heavily down onto the Wizard, and they both lay panting for long minutes. At last the Elf groped for the napkin that lay on the tray, wiping himself and his lover as he withdrew. Gandalf shifted carefully over toward the right side of the cot, lowering the Elf onto his left arm and cradling him there. He wished he could embrace Legolas more closely, but his bandaged right arm lay helpless across the side of his chest.

The Wizard's eyes surveyed the beautiful Elf lying beside him, dazed with bliss. At last his left arm showed signs of falling asleep under Legolas, and Gandalf extracted it, shifting into a slightly more comfortable position. The sag in the middle of the cot held their bodies pressed against each other, and the pair drifted into a peaceful slumber after the horrors of the Battle of Five Armies.

As the aftermath of the Battle was dealt with and the participants started leaving to return to their homes, Gandalf pondered what he should do next. His hope had been enormously bolstered by the achievements of the past year: Sauron driven from Dol Guldur, Smaug disposed of, and the Dwarves seemingly receptive to his aid and advice. The long centuries of decline and frustration had ended, at least for now. He had even, he thought with a smile, managed to be with all three of his lovers within the space of a few months, something that had seldom happened before. He had quickly become quite adept at one-armed lovemaking.

He had promised Saruman that they would reunite soon, and yet the Wizard decided that he would take the time to escort Bilbo all the way back to Hobbiton, not simply as far as some safe, familiar spot like Bree. True, the Hobbit had gained vastly in experience and courage, and yet the route home was long and still dangerous. There was something more to the Istar's decision, though. As he packed his few belongings in preparation for setting out, Gandalf ruminated on the strange twists and turns that the Quest of Erebor had taken. Although it was undoubtedly a definitive step forward in the West's great struggle, in he suspected that one of its oddest aspects had nothing to do with killing the Dragon and regaining the treasure.

Shortly after the Battle was over, Bilbo had confessed to Gandalf that many of his feats of stealth had been accomplished thanks to a magical golden Ring. (He had had to tell the Dwarves about it when he rescued them from the giant spiders of Mirkwood.) The Hobbit had obtained the Ring from a creature named Gollum living in a deep cave below the Goblins' lair. Gollum, he said, had surrendered the Ring to him as a result of having lost a riddling game. Gandalf sensed a hesitance in the Hobbit's telling of the story and wondered what had really happened.

From that moment the Ring had stayed at the back of the Wizard's mind, for it clearly was more significant than Bilbo could possibly guess. It was a Ring of Power, unless Gandalf was much mistaken. But of what sort? Many such Rings had been made over the years, long ago, and in some cases their histories had been lost. And how in Arda had Gollum come into possession of it?

Yes, the Quest of Erebor had left this one possibly important mystery unresolved. There was no point in mentioning the Ring to any others among the Wise at this juncture, he thought. What was there to tell, really? It might turn out to be a minor matter. But Gandalf resolved to try and learn something of this Ring's origins. He had a suspicion that it could be powerful enough to use in the struggle against the Enemy. If so, at first glance the obvious person to wield it would be the White Istar.

That thought, however, made Gandalf strangely uneasy. True, he had regained much of his intimate relationship to Saruman during the lovely time in the Golden Wood. Yet the Ring that Bilbo had found reminded Gandalf of the White Wizard's persistent efforts to make a Ring of Power for himself. To Gandalf, that goal had long since come to seem pointless and even dangerous. He wondered if Saruman had by now renounced his desire to make a Ring, and yet he realized that the other Istar had never said such a thing. Little though Gandalf liked the idea of returning to Orthanc, he would probably have to do so in order to probe just how far Saruman had really returned to their mission. Reluctantly he had to admit to himself that the cloud over his relationship with the White Wizard might not have been dispelled as much as he had believed during their sojourn in Lothlórien.