Thrice Returned, Part 10AU: Where the Shadows Lie

by Nefertiti

Rating: NC-17

Pairing: Gandalf/Frodo

Disclaimer: No rights, no income.

Author's note: Book-canon. The action is roughly the equivalent of what happens in the chapters "The Land of Shadow" and "Mount Doom" in The Return of the King. The description of the results of the destruction of the Ring is taken nearly word-for-word from a passage near the end of "Mount Doom." Gandalf's description of how he would tyrannize Middle-earth if he had the Ring was inspired by a remarkable passage in one of Tolkien's letters, where he says that Gandalf would be a worse Dark Lord than Sauron because he would make good and evil indistinguishable. A neat trick, and I've offered one suggestion as to how he might do that.

Thanks to beta supreme Elanor, and to Sarah and Kristina for wonderful comments.

Part 10AU: Where the Shadows Lie

"I have camped out in many miserable places and situations and weathers ... but this is without doubt the worst!"

Gandalf looked up at the dark drizzle that was falling, leaving a film of minute, sodden ash particles over everything. The two hobbits were sitting miserably side by side, occasionally exchanging a word. Gollum had been gone for hours. He was having great difficulty finding anything to eat and spent nearly every waking hour in foraging.

They had been stuck in this gully for two full days now. The food that Faramir had given them was nearly gone, and they were now living mostly off their supply of lembas. The nearby trickle of a stream gave them oily, unappealing water in tiny quantities. They were not starving, but they were always hungry. The hobbits had long since ceased to be at all plump, and Gandalf was even thinner than usual. Despite not traveling, they were tired, worn down by the boredom of waiting and the fear of discovery. On the second day of hiding, they had watched apprehensively as smoke billowing from Mt. Doom had spread slowly over the entire sky, flowing westward until all was dark as night. "Part of Sauron's preparations for his attack on Gondor, no doubt," Gandalf had said. "Seeking to sow doubt and despair in the hearts of its defenders. For us I suppose it is a hopeful sign. Perhaps he will soon send his troops forth and the path to the mountain will be open to us."

As if in reply to the wizard, only an hour or so later they heard the distant, discordant blast of a trumpet, followed by another and another, from various parts of the plain. Gandalf climbed cautiously up the side of the gully until he could peer out over the top. He could see the camps nearest them breaking up, the fires being doused, the weapons shouldered, the men and orcs lined up. Even as he watched, some formations began moving toward the entrance to the Udun. After watching for about an hour, Gandalf returned to the hobbits, who were looking very eager to hear his news. He squatted to face them, a delighted smile on his face.

"Something important is happening off to the west-in Gondor, where our friends are," he added, since Sam had little sense of the geography of this part of the world. "Something that has disturbed the plans of the Dark Lord. I very much hope that Aragorn has challenged Sauron to launch his attack on Gondor prematurely, as I asked him to do. We still have enough food to get to the mountain, I think, if we can move straight toward it, quickly, without having continually to detour and to hide." The hobbits nodded eagerly, for the wizard's excitement was contagious, and both longed to leave this dreary spot and progress toward their tantalizingly nearby goal.

Sam asked enthusiastically, "When can we set out? Shall I fill the water bottles?"

"Well, there are huge numbers of troops to march out, and I am afraid that it would take days to vacate such a large area. We shall just have to wait and see-but at least things are much more hopeful now."

They both nodded, but their smiles were fainter upon hearing that they could not take action for days yet. They all ate a bit of lembas and then crept up to watch the troop movements for a while. Eventually Sam tapped Frodo on the shoulder and pointed out that Gollum had reappeared below. The hobbit crept down and tried to explain the situation to the creature, emphasizing that he must not go far from them or stay away for long stretches, lest they leave without him. Gollum nodded earnestly, clearly appalled at the thought of losing contact with Frodo and that which he was bearing.

All the next day, Gandalf sat at the top of the gully. The initial elation he had felt at seeing the troops moving had dulled as the time dragged by. Still, if Aragorn had indeed challenged Sauron through the palantir of Minas Tirith, that must mean that against all odds, the Ranger had succeeded in Rohan and had reached the White City-and in a remarkably short time. He did not believe that Sauron had simply finished his preparations, since until a short time before the trumpets had been blown, troops had still been entering the Black Land-and he sensed a confusion and haste in the movements that now took them outward. His greatest fear had been that Sauron would leave some of them-even a few dozen would be enough-to guard the Mountain. Their chances would be nil in that case. He suspected, however, that Sauron was not capable of imagining that anyone would seek to destroy the Ring, let alone successfully enter Mordor.

As the next two days dragged by, Gandalf's hopes waned somewhat. Although the troops that had camped at the foot of Mt. Doom had long since departed, more of the Dark Lord's soldiers kept streaming northward from beyond the Mountain, and large columns of them were moving between them and their goal. Sauron might be emptying his land, but it was taking a discouragingly long time. The Dark Lord's power and resources were immense beyond what he could have imagined. He also realized sadly that Sauron must be dispatching forces against other targets as well-Lórien, perhaps Erebor, and other realms to the north.

At first Gandalf and Frodo's reconciliation after the wizard's attempt to take the Ring had brought their relationship back to a semblance of normalcy. Trapped there with nothing to do and little inclination to talk, and with the gloom constantly oppressing them, however, tensions concerning the Ring had crept back. Gandalf found himself thinking about it more and more as he became increasingly desperate to make some sort of progress toward their goal. The troops continued to flow out of Mordor, and the plains between them and Mt. Doom were as crowded as ever with moving orcs and men. With the Ring, he could command them all to do whatever he wanted. Perhaps he could take the Ring, order them aside, and go quickly to the mountain, destroying the Ring before it gained complete control over him. He repeatedly thrust such reflections away, and repeatedly they seeped back into his thoughts. Frodo seemed to sense this, for now he frequently stared sullenly at the wizard.

In the middle of the afternoon of the fifth day, Gandalf jerked awake from a doze. He stared at Frodo's chest without realizing it. Then he glanced up and saw the hobbit's eyes regarding him accusingly.

"You want the Ring again, don't you?"

The wizard replied wearily, "It is tempting me to take it. I cannot deny that, Frodo, but I do not intend to let that happen."

"But you think about taking it, don't you, more and more?"

Gandalf paused for a long time. "Yes, I now think about it a great deal. Believe me, the Ring won't let me ignore it for long! I have been resisting it for months now, and all I can do is assure you that, just as I have resisted it, I shall go on resisting it."

Frodo did not respond with a nod or a murmured agreement, as Gandalf had hoped he would. The wizard resumed, "I believe that that moment on the road was... well, it came when I was feeling very frightened and tired. But that moment passed, you know that, and in the days since, I have not done anything of the sort, have I?"

The hobbit thought for a moment, then said coldly, "You'll be far more frightened and tired than that before all this is over."

Gandalf's eyes widened slightly, but he could think of no response.

Frodo stared at him for awhile and asked, "How often do you think about the Ring now?"

The wizard sighed unhappily. "To be frank, I am constantly aware of it."

Frodo's eyes widened in surprise. "Constantly aware?"

"Not to the same degree all the time, but yes, try as I may, it never entirely leaves my thoughts."

Frodo clenched his teeth. "That is just how I feel about it myself."

Gandalf tried to distract him by getting out a lembas cake and sharing small pieces around the group, but for hours after that he found Frodo's wary eyes on him every time he looked at the hobbit.

Sam was quick to notice all this, and he occasionally glanced miserably back and forth between the two. Finally Gandalf gestured for Sam to come closer to him and whispered, "I shall take the first watch tonight, Sam. I want to think for a while. I'd appreciate it if you could sleep fairly close to Frodo, to give him some confidence that I would not be able to steal the Ring from him in the night. I'll try to get a little sleep toward morning, and we can let Frodo take that watch. I hope that will reassure him." Sam nodded glumly and crawled back to Frodo to propose that arrangement. Gandalf was happy to see Frodo move away a short distance to settle down beside Sam. He was no longer staring at the wizard but only casting a quick look his way now and then. Fortunately he was exhausted and fell asleep quickly.

Gandalf wrapped himself in his blanket and stared up into the dark, billowing clouds above, reflecting the sullen red of the Mountain's fiery crater. The wizard had been candid in telling the hobbit that he thought constantly about the Ring, but what he had not revealed to Frodo was that a puzzling change had taken place earlier that day. To Gandalf's utter surprise the visions that the Ring was holding out to tempt him had changed abruptly and radically. No longer did he picture himself a benevolent ruler, empowered to help one and all among the weak and oppressed of the continent. Suddenly he was experiencing grandiose visions of power of a different sort: vast armies, prisons, workshops. Luxuries beyond imagining, the tribute of many nations flowing into his coffers and storerooms. He had never aspired to such things. Why was the Ring holding out such blandishments to him? They would be more appropriate to Sauron or Saruman, Gandalf thought in confusion. As he struggled to thrust these hallucinations out of his mind, he felt an alien control fighting him more strongly than ever before. The Ring was sending forth all its power to make these images of wealth and control attractive to him. This, it seemed to suggest, was what he should aspire to.

Into the midst of these visions came Frodo, and he winced. These were the most disturbing temptations of all those that the Ring offered him, the ones most difficult to banish from his mind. Sometimes he again saw the hobbit as a prisoner of Sauron, suffering horribly. At other times the Ring led him to think of how thin and exhausted and frightened Frodo was-and how it was largely his fault. He realized that if he seized the Ring, he could have his beautiful hobbit again. He could heal him of his bruised and weakened state and make him healthy and dazzlingly lovely again. He could even guarantee that Frodo would live forever. He would make a luxurious home for himself and the hobbit in Barad-Dur-or wherever he chose to. The many countries under his control would render up beautiful, exotic foods and objects for him to offer his darling Frodo. Over and over he was induced to picture them together, in a bed making love. The Ring endowed him with tremendous desire and potency, and the Frodo of this dream was insatiably eager for his touch, always ready to pleasure him in every possible way. The contrast between the lovely, seductive hobbit in his mind and the thin, hostile one lying near him in reality was rending his heart, and he drew his knees up to his chest and hugged his bent legs as he strove to think rationally.

He drifted into a doze that led to a dream. He was back at Orthanc, but this time he had the Ring. He tormented his former jailer by flaunting the Ring, now firmly on his own finger. The White Wizard's earlier jealousy of Gandalf had been nothing compared to the helpless rage Saruman's face showed, seeing his rival in possession of the thing he wanted so much for himself. But that was only the beginning. Gandalf had Frodo with him, and he asked the adoring hobbit to pleasure him, right there in front of Saruman, revenging himself and his lover for all the taunts and threats the other wizard had made against them during that dreadful night on top of the tower. Saruman watched, seething but unable to tear his eyes away from Gandalf's blissful face.

Waking in confusion, the wizard tried to sort out which were his own desires and which were the ones forced upon him by the Ring. If he could no longer distinguish between them, he thought with a pang of despair, he might well lose his fight against the Ring's increasing pull. Despite all that Saruman had done to him, he did not want to revenge himself on the other wizard, especially by exploiting his darling hobbit. Yet, if the Ring finally seized his mind, he would probably become corrupt enough to do such things. Gandalf stood up and paced, trying to clear his head. He realized that despite the cold, he was covered with sweat. As he walked, he sought to concentrate as closely as possible on his senses and his surroundings: the familiar dark grey rocks, the crags above, the black sky tinged with an uneven red glow, the dead brush, the two hobbits asleep in their blankets. Gradually this outward focus banished the visions and he began to think clearly for the first time in what seemed like hours.

Why would the Ring suddenly switch tactics on him? Why would it try and convince him to aspire to become like Sauron when that was the last thing in the world he wanted? The Ring seduced people by suggesting that it would give them the power to accomplish what they had most desired to do, on a grandiose scale, more successfully than they could possibly have dreamed in their most wildly optimistic moments. Gandalf had never wished to be a tyrant.

The wizard had been hungry and idle for so long that even pacing became too great an effort. Eventually he sat on a stony shelf, running the fingers of one hand over the rough surface beside his thigh and twisting his beard with the other hand, seeking to keep his senses engaged and thus to prevent the Ring from invading his mind still further. He struggled to focus on the issue at hand. Thinking, that was what he did best. That, if anything, could protect him against the Ring. All right, the Ring wanted him to be a tyrant, even though it knew that he was not inclined by nature in that direction. Why bother? Its master was a tyrant of unspeakable malice and cruelty. All it had to do is get back to Sauron-a goal that it as all too likely to reach, given their present situation. It was almost as if the Ring sought to replace Sauron with the Istar.

At that thought, Gandalf caught his breath and stared up into the clouds with unseeing eyes. That must be it! Momentous and impossible as it seemed, the Ring no longer wanted to return to Sauron. It had opted for Gandalf-presumably because it perceived the wizard as potentially more powerful and effective than Sauron as its master. The Ring was innately evil, for at its creation it had been filled with Sauron's cruelty and malice. It could not change its nature to suit that of the wizard, and so it had to persuade him to become more like its original Master. The Ring wanted Gandalf more than he wanted it. He laughed quietly and raggedly as he contemplated that idea, and the effort caused him to cough slightly. His throat was so dry. He did not know whether to be elated or terrified. Did the change give the Ring greater power over him or him greater power over the Ring? After he calmed down a little, he decided that it probably gave him some advantage over the Ring. He could not manipulate the Ring's desire to return to Sauron, but a personal struggle between him and the gold band would be simple and direct-and maybe more controllable.

He thought further and realized that the Ring was afraid. There were only three possible outcomes to all this. Most simply, Gandalf and the hobbits would succeed in destroying it. If, however, Sauron learned of their plans and tried to take the Ring back, Gandalf would be forced to use it to defeat the Dark Lord and protect himself and his companions-and then try to destroy the Ring before it gained utter control of him. Finally, the Ring could successfully lure Gandalf into seizing it for himself and becoming the new Dark Lord. That would be the outcome that would give the Ring the greatest chance of survival, and it knew that.

The wizard sat pondering this discovery for about an hour, unable to come to any further conclusions. Suddenly he noticed that Sam's eyes were open. The hobbit got up and quickly moved to stand before Gandalf, staring at him with a puzzled frown.

"What's wrong, Gandalf?" he asked urgently.

Gandalf gazed back at him for a moment. "What's wrong?"

"Yes, you look as if you're in pain."

Gandalf realized that his face was still contracted in the remains of a tense grimace. With an effort he relaxed it, panting slightly. "No, I'm not in pain." He managed to smile at the worried hobbit. "As always, I'm glad you're with us, Sam. It is very good to be able to see the face of one who is not struggling against the temptation of the Ring." He stopped abruptly, his smile fading. "Or perhaps I am assuming wrongly. Perhaps you do feel its lure. In fact, I suppose it would be surprising if you felt no pull at all from it."

Sam blushed and looked away. "Sometimes I do. Oh, not nearly as much as Frodo does, and, well, you too. It didn't start right away. At first I wondered why you made such a to-do about the temptation of the Ring. Then, after we crossed the River, I started to feel it a bit now and then."

"How does it tempt you, if you don't mind telling me?"

Sam hesitated, but then looked Gandalf in the face again. "Mostly I see myself wearing it, suddenly strong, carrying Frodo out of here, back maybe to Faramir's cave, healing all his scrapes and bruises, cooking wonderful meals to fatten him up. I see it all as clear as I see you now-clearer, because in my dream the sun is shining, the weather is beautiful. And then we get back to the Shire, and Frodo is greeted as a hero ... and I am too. And ... I get married and all that sort of thing."

Gandalf grinned. "Rosie Cotton, eh? You shouldn't look so surprised, Sam. It was the gossip of the village during those months I spent at Bag End last year. Don't think I didn't pay close attention to the rumors-otherwise I might have been a little jealous and not at all eager to have a potential rival go along with Frodo and me." They both chuckled softly, but Gandalf sobered at once. "It's not strange that you and I are similar in some of our wishes. How do you manage to resist the Ring's enticement, Sam? I have never seen any sign of it."

"I just try to be sensible. I know I couldn't really do those things. The Ring doesn't help its owner to do good things like that. And usually I remind myself that Frodo doesn't need me to save him once the Ring is destroyed. We'll have you with us, and you'll get us out of Mordor."

Gandalf stared at him for a moment, then looked away into the distance. He tried to keep his voice matter-of-fact. "I hope so, Sam." Secretly he simply hoped that the mountain would erupt in a great explosion when the Ring melted to nothingness. It would be an easy death compared to being slowly roasted and then burned, surrounded by creeping rivers of molten rock-or his having to stab all of them to death to spare them that fate. He sighed. Seeing that Frodo was still asleep, Gandalf asked Sam to take a turn on guard and lay down at a distance from Frodo to get a few hours of sleep himself, though his mind was in such a turmoil that it took him a long time to drift off.

The wizard slept only for a couple of hours, though he could hardly tell if he was dreaming or waking to new visions induced by the Ring. He sent Sam to get a little more sleep and sat struggling in vain to rid his mind of the unwelcome images. Again the temptation was to power and luxury and tyranny and a healthy, desirable Frodo. He sat up and shook his head wearily, but the visions swept over him more vividly than ever: how he could force the free peoples of the world to unite, to create a single great army to crush all opposition. Ridiculous! he thought suddenly, with a little snort. Just the way to cause resentment and rebellious thoughts. Exactly why the Dark Lord had lost the Ring in the first place. Exactly why he was now at risk-if he and Frodo and Sam succeeded in their goal-of losing everything he had accomplished. Far better to divide the peoples of Middle-earth and make them resent and fear each other. Really, that would be quite easy.

He froze and sat staring into space. Finally his eyes shifted to Frodo as he lay sleeping. He watched the gentle rise and fall of his chest, where the Ring lay concealed. He had realized that suddenly he no longer felt the slightest desire to seize it. He found himself instead thinking of the Ring with contempt. He was smarter than it was. He pressed his lips together in a rather dazed little smile, closing his eyes and savoring the freedom of his mind. He felt relaxed, and yet he was not sleepy. The change was too thrilling to let him sleep, and he sat for a long while.

Finally he realized that it was dawn, and his quiet, happy mood gave way to exhilaration. He went over to the hobbits and woke them, ignoring Frodo's little start and his suspicious stare. "Frodo, Sam, I have something to tell you." He paced, feeling more energetic than he had in a long time. The hobbits sat watching him with puzzled frowns. He paused briefly and grinned down at them. "I have had a realization that seems to have eliminated any desire for the Ring-and I am fairly sure that its inability to tempt me will be permanent."

Sam smiled in surprise, but Frodo looked up at Gandalf doubtfully, as if he thought this might be some new and devious tactic on the part of the wizard to trick him and to seize the Ring for himself. As Gandalf went on, though, the wizard's jubilation was so obviously genuine that Frodo's dubious frown gradually disappeared .

Gandalf launched into his explanation. "The Ring ... well, essentially it has lost me ... lost in its effort to lure me. I have realized that I can think of better ways to tyrannize Middle-earth than it or its Master ever could. You see, all I would have to do is behave in exactly the opposite way to what I have been doing all this time-and I could rule forever, literally forever, unopposed. The various peoples basically don't want to cooperate with each other, alas! It has taken me two thousand years to get to the point where even a rough sort of union against Sauron has been forged. Encouraging races to distrust each other would be so simple." He paused with a rueful little smile and shook his head.

"Yes, I can see it all. I would encourage the various free peoples-men, dwarves, the lesser elves, and so on-to withdraw into their little enclaves, as they have so long tended to do. I would plant the idea in each that all the others were alien, threatening, and dangerous-something that they halfway believe already, most of them. I would offer friendship, protection. I could create great stretches of wilderness between these enclaves-hardly difficult, for to a considerable extent such wilderness exists already, thanks to Sauron. Well, you saw what Eriador is like now. Would you ever cross it if you didn't have to? My troops would patrol these desolate lands, ostensibly to protect each isolated country-but in reality to assure that their inhabitants never traveled far, never made accidental contacts. I would establish regular diplomatic relations with each leader. Many of them already trust me and would not question whatever I told them. My ambassadors would spread rumors of dark terrors in the wilderness, and no one would dare to go there-or if they did, they would certainly never return to their homes to tell the tale. My guards would see to that. I could skim off the finest products of each culture for my own use, as tribute for my help in protecting all of them from the mythical threat posed by all their distant neighbors. And they would give all this gratefully. Yet I would not drain them of everything. I would leave them enough wealth to be content. I would control them all, yet all would believe me a benevolent ally. I could bring evil upon them and yet make it seem like good. If people cannot recognize that evil oppresses them, can they rebel? Will they? Of course not!

"Sauron was a fool. He made enemies of all the free peoples, and even those populations that serve him do so only under duress. They all wish to rebel. If I were the Dark Lord, there would never be a rebellion or even the desire for one. If the gods were to send another group of Istari to encourage the so-called free peoples to unite and oppose me, those peoples would initially view them with suspicion, then doubt and incredulity, and finally downright hostility. They would be driven back over the Sea in abject failure. The very peoples whom I oppressed would defend me, thinking that they did it for their own sakes. Unless the gods wished personally to intervene-and I cannot believe that they would violate the world's order to that extent-I would be invincible."

As he spoke, Sam's and Frodo's smiles faded. Even though they knew that Gandalf's ebullience resulted from his escape from the Ring's temptation, it was chilling to hear him speak in such confident, cheerful tones about such a plan-and to realize that he would probably be all too likely to succeed in it if he had the power of the Ring. What he said was all too true.

Not noticing the hobbits' slightly shocked expressions, Gandalf went on, "Sauron simply never thought of that. Imposing one's own evil upon people is so unwise in the long run. He should have sought it out where it already existed and then exploited it! Yes, making people distrust each other fanatically would not be a challenge at all. I suppose that's one reason why it has never interested me. Persuading the races to cooperate-now that's a challenge!"

Both hobbits grinned up at him. That was the Gandalf they knew, and their shock at hearing of his hypothetical plan faded. The wizard beamed as he sat on a rock opposite them. Quickly Frodo rose and moved to stand between Gandalf's spread knees and hug him tightly. Sam watched happily as the two quietly embraced for a long time.

On the fifth day after the troops had begun to move, Gandalf was resting quietly near the hobbits. His initial jubilation over his freedom from the Ring had faded, but he still found it much easier to deal with the boredom and fear of their enforced wait than he previously had. Certainly Frodo now trusted him again, though the hobbit was obviously feeling the Ring's lure himself more strongly than ever. Suddenly the wizard realized that the scene was brighter than he would have expected. He turned and looked up, then stared in wonder. The western sky just above the peaks of the jagged, dark mountains was clearing, though the fumes and clouds still hung above Mordor. Sam noticed Gandalf's expression and looked up himself. Frodo was sitting sunk in gloom, but Sam turned and shook his arm. "Look at it, Frodo!" he cried. "Look at it! The wind's changing. Something's happening. He's not having it all his own way. His darkness is breaking up out in the world there. I wish I could see what is going on! Do you know, Gandalf?"

Gandalf noted that a slight look of hope came into Frodo's eyes as he gazed upward. "No, I don't, Sam. But those troops have been going forth to battle, and I suspect that the forces of Gondor have somehow managed to beat them back." He thought for a minute. "In a way, that may be bad for us." Abruptly he stood and climbed back up to his observation spot at the top of the gully. His heart sank. As he had feared, the remaining troops were no longer moving outward. They had stopped, and the wizard sensed irresolution among their leaders. Messengers were moving hastily back and forth. He ducked down as he saw the fell beasts of two Nazgul in the distance, flying toward the Dark Tower.

Once again Gandalf sat watching the troop movements for hours, until his worst fears were confirmed. He climbed down once more to the hobbits and tried to smile. "Well, our friends have succeeded only too well. Not only have Sauron's forces ceased to move out of Mordor, but those in retreat have begun to arrive. There are far fewer troops between here and Mt. Doom than there were, but certainly enough to prevent our going forward-and their numbers will increase as more return from the battle." The hobbits stared at him, appalled, and their faces fell. The wizard thought briefly and went on, "I don't think we can stay here any longer. It is intolerable to sit doing nothing as precious time passes. I believe that we should go mad if we remained idle. It may not help much, but if we move further west and travel along the Morgai-that is that row of lower mountains stretching south within the higher range-we could try and come level with Mt. Doom on its western side. The troops are still concentrated in the north, and we might at least reach an area where there are fewer of them."

Frodo was looking glum and hopeless, but Sam asked, "Won't the troops move south again and spread out over the plain, as they did when they first arrived?"

"Yes, probably." He lowered his voice, though Frodo seemed to be paying no attention to the conversation. "But frankly, Sam, I think it would be better for all of us-" he glanced toward Frodo significantly, "-if we were at least moving, making some progress. And the distance between the outer ring of mountains and Mt. Doom is somewhat shorter on the west. It might help a little." Sam nodded, trying to look determined. "Fine," Gandalf concluded, "We shall set out tomorrow, then."

Late that afternoon, Gandalf climbed up once more and saw that indeed the troops were moving south, spreading out over the plain as before. He wondered what Aragorn would do now. If indeed he had been victorious, he must realize that the surviving troops would flow back into Mordor, making the situation of the Ringbearer's group desperate. The Man could not goad Sauron into attacking a second time, not this soon at any rate. The only option that could possibly help them would be if Aragorn led his own army forth to attack Mordor. It would mostly likely be a suicide mission, though, and he wondered whether, if the Man did conceive such an attack, he could persuade the other leaders to implement it. And how soon could it be carried through if Aragon succeeded in that? Their food was running woefully short by now, and they would need to eat more if they were walking all day. He still felt, however, that moving on, getting at least an illusion of progress, would be better for Frodo. After the hobbit's earlier joy at the outward movement of Sauron's troops, he had slipped back into melancholy and abstraction.

Gandalf went down to the campsite. Gollum was asleep, presumably preparing his strength for the rigors of the journey to come. Sam was nowhere to be seen, but a glance showed the wizard that the water bottles were all missing, and he presumed that the hobbit had gone to fill them. Frodo was sitting, leaning against a rock, his eyes staring and listless. His hand was clutching the Ring through his shirt and cloak. Gandalf sighed and pressed his lips together, then went slowly to sit by the hobbit. Frodo glanced up at him, but his expression remained unresponsive. Gandalf put his arm around the hobbit's thin shoulders and pulled him gently against himself. After a little while Sam returned, and he looked worriedly at the Ringbearer as he set the full bottles down.

Gandalf got up and went over to him, saying quietly, "Sam, I would like to take Frodo someplace nearby, just up this gully a bit, where we can have some privacy. I thought maybe a bit of 'romance'-if he will accept it--might draw him out of his dark thoughts. You understand, I presume?"

Sam betrayed no sign of embarrassment but glanced sympathetically at Frodo and nodded.

Gandalf sighed. "There are few sources of pleasure in this desolate place, to be sure, but I still may be able to supply one. Thank you, Sam. We won't go far-not beyond hearing if you need to raise an alarm. Or if we do, for that matter."

Sam nodded again and glanced at Frodo. "I hope you can bring him a little joy. I doubt anyone else could."

Gandalf went over and touched Frodo's arm. To his relief, this time the hobbit looked up at him with the ghost of a smile. "Frodo, would you like to go someplace where we can be alone?" He leaned down and kissed Frodo fleetingly on the lips. The hobbit's face registered surprise and then, as he stared up into the wizard's eyes, a dawning delight. They grasped each other's hands and wandered along the meandering gully until three curves lay between them and the others. Gandalf struggled to keep a cheerful demeanor, though he reflected that this would probably be their last time alone together before the final push-and almost certain death.

The wizard found a relatively smooth boulder, sitting and cradling the hobbit on his lap with the curly head resting on his shoulder. Frodo seemed lost in thought, but he closed his eyes and pressed up against the wizard when Gandalf began to kiss and caress him. Gandalf soon unlaced the hobbit's trousers and slipped his hand gently inside the loosened front. Frodo's penis was completely flaccid and shrunken, so that the wizard's stiff, roughened fingers could barely find it. Once they did, Gandalf carefully took it between finger and thumb to stroke it. For a while Frodo seemed not to be responding at all. He lay slumped with closed eyes, and his labored breathing could have resulted from arousal-or simply from the acrid fumes that enveloped them. After a little while, the wizard began to think with dismay that the Ring's effects on Frodo had robbed them of even this intimate contact, but eventually he detected a slow swelling in the slender shaft.

"Doesn't that feel good, Frodo?" he whispered. "Concentrate on my fingers and what they're doing."

Frodo sighed. "Don't stop. It feels marvelous."

Gandalf breathed a sigh of relief and went on stroking and moving his warm, dry lips over Frodo's neck and cheek. "Think of the sitting-room at Bag End, Frodo, and how we used to stay there late into the night, kissing and talking."

"Yes, and sometimes we'd make love on the rug in front of the fire," Frodo replied hoarsely, smiling and opening his eyes to look up into Gandalf's. The dazzling blue of those eyes looked so incongruous staring at him from that dirty, pale, thin face that Gandalf gritted his teeth.

"I remember that, too. Those long, lovely winter evenings in the Shire."

Frodo just nodded and closed his eyes again, rubbing his head against Gandalf's shoulder. The wizard increased his rate of caressing now that Frodo's erection was almost fully engorged. Since he was supporting the hobbit's body with his other arm, he could not reach inside the mithril coat to touch the sensitive nipples, but he tickled Frodo's ear with his tongue. The hobbit's cock at last was fully rampant, and Gandalf pumped it harder and faster. "Come for me, Frodo, my sweet hobbit," he said softly, trying to keep this from sounding too much like a desperate plea. Frodo's breathing became ragged, and several times he gasped and tensed as if he were about to tip over into ecstasy, only to relax suddenly with a little groan of frustration. Gandalf was getting increasingly worried that the hobbit would become exhausted without coming, and he worked diligently to drive Frodo to climax.

"Touch yourself, Frodo," he whispered. "Can you reach your nipples? Play with them, my pet."

Awkwardly Frodo reached up under the mithril shirt. It rode up just enough for him to find one nipple. As he pinched and rolled it, Gandalf drew his ear entirely into his mouth and tongued it avidly. With something between a grunt and a moan the hobbit finally slid over into bliss, and Gandalf felt little gushes of warm liquid slick Frodo's cock as he pulled and squeezed it. Frodo twitched in his arms with each spasm of pleasure until at last he lay back contentedly and opened his eyes. His tired but joyful grin took Gandalf back across the months and miles to his room at Bag End, and he was near weeping to think that he and Frodo would almost certainly never lie together in the guest bed-or indeed in any bed-again. With a great effort he returned the hobbit's smile.

"I love you, Gandalf," Frodo whispered.

Still fighting tears, Gandalf hugged the hobbit against his body so that Frodo could bury his face in the thick beard as he so often used to do. "My darling hobbit! I love you too. I am so sorry that I had to bring you to this place. You of all people!

Frodo raised his face to smile up at him again. "Remember, I was 'meant' to do this. Or so you said. Don't you believe it any more?"

Gandalf looked up and stared for a moment at the distant clear, blue sky in the west, fading now as darkness fell. He sighed. "Yes. It is amazing that we have brought the Ring this far. You have been wonderfully brave and strong. Few others could have done as much. Probably no one. We are so close to our goal." They sat silently for a while, and then the wizard laughed softly. "I remember that in Moria I said that the worst sex we could have together was still marvelous. I did not reckon on there being far worse situations for making love. Still, I trust that this was enjoyable."

"It was, more than I expected anything ever to be for me again. But don't you want me to try and do the same for you?"

"You look as if you would collapse in the effort. Save your strength, my beautiful Frodo. I just wanted to take your mind off your troubles for a while."

"You certainly did that," Frodo murmured.

Gandalf did not trust his voice to reply steadily, and he simply held Frodo against himself. Finally the hobbit whispered in his ear, "Shall we ever return to the Shire, Gandalf? Shall we ever eat supper in the kitchen at Bag End or go down to smoke a pipe with the patrons of the Green Dragon or lie together in the big guest-room bed?"

"I doubt it, Frodo. I have never deceived you, and I cannot do so now. I think there is little chance of it. But we can hope, can't we? And we have made a little bit of your beautiful home come back to us in our memories as we hold each other in this little corner of the Black Land." He chuckled sadly. "Such joy cannot be common in Mordor, to say the least. Not freely given love between real lovers. Love of the kind we share does not otherwise exist here."

Frodo's eyelids were drooping. Gandalf gently sucked at the hobbit's neck, not to arouse his lover but just to feel him. He wished that he could take some greater pleasure with Frodo, but there was really no possibility of that. The weakened hobbit was nearly asleep, his body easily satiated now. So different from that lively young fellow that had teased him for napping after the first time they had made love! Gandalf wanted to feel the silky skin under his lips a little longer. He grew aware of the rustle of his own and Frodo's garments as he hugged and caressed the hobbit, of the tiny, moist sounds of his lips and tongue moving over Frodo's flesh. He lifted his head and brought his hand to his face, sniffing at Frodo's semen on his fingers and finally licking it slowly off them. The taste brought back so many memories! Collecting himself, he noticed that Frodo was increasingly heavy and limp in his arms. The wizard rose and with a considerable effort carried him back to the spot where Sam was keeping vigil.

There Gandalf gently lowered Frodo to the ground, where he sat drowsily and gazed adoringly up at his lover. Sam grinned when he saw Frodo's happy face, then looked up at Gandalf and glanced away quickly. As Frodo lay back and drifted off to sleep, Gandalf covered him and moved to sit by the other hobbit. "Well, Sam, we have been reduced to quite an elemental existence here, haven't we? I hope you're not embarrassed. I told you that you should not be."

Sam shook his head. "Maybe just a trifle, but not really. I'm glad you could do something good for Frodo in all this misery and gloom."

After Frodo had napped for a while, they set out, following the gullies and moving west and then south through the bleak, rocky country until they reached the boulders and ridges of the Morgai. Frodo spotted a road that ran along the slopes a bit higher up, and he looked hopefully at Gandalf. The wizard shook his head. "No, Frodo. I know that it looks deserted, but patrols must pass by occasionally, and we cannot risk it. It is rough going through this country, and we will make only slow progress, but we have no real choice.

For grim, weary days they trudged southward, sometimes in a day managing only a few miles of real progress, since they often had to go far out of their way to avoid deep fissures. Occasionally the sound of a patrol on the road above could be heard, and then they stopped and lay hidden until it had passed. They tried to eat as little as possible, but the supply of lembas was shrinking, and Gandalf suspected that they would have none left for the last, most difficult stretch of the journey. He and Sam watched Frodo anxiously. The hobbit walked as if in a dream, barely speaking even when they tried to talk to him. The vacant look in his eyes frightened the wizard, but there increasingly seemed to be no way to draw him from his black reveries. Whenever they stopped to rest, Frodo sat with his head between his knees, his arms hanging wearily to the ground, where his hands lay feebly twitching. Sam seemed to draw upon some reserve of strength hidden deep within him, and as he tried to help Frodo in any little way he could, Gandalf felt fervently grateful that the other hobbit had insisted on coming along with them. The wizard's own wiry physique could stand up fairly well under grueling conditions, but the lack of food and water was beginning to tell on him as well. Gandalf had always had a slight stoop in his posture, but he had walked with vigor and ease. Now he found himself stumbling occasionally and having by the end of the day to concentrate on forcing his legs to take each step. Gollum managed to keep up with them, although he was looking more haggard and desperate by the day. Gandalf considered having Sam tie him and control him with the rope, but he could not bring himself to do it.

The hideous journey consumed a week. They reached a point due west of the mountain. Emerging from the shelter of the Morgai, they saw that Mt. Doom was now distinctly closer. It was also once more surrounded by the camps of many troops-though not so many as there had been before, Gandalf noted with grim satisfaction.

The four found a small depression on a slope down toward the plain of Gorgoroth, and there they lay down and rested. There was no food left, and although they had replenished their water bottles at a foul little stream along the way, there was barely more than a mouthful left for each.

Frodo curled up on his side, clutching the Ring through his shirt, as he now did much of the time when they were not moving. Gandalf reached out to stroke his back soothingly, but the hobbit twisted away from his hand. Gandalf sighed and exchanged glances with Sam. There did not seem to be anything to say. The wizard decided that if the situation remained the same the next day, they would simply have to set out for the Mountain and take their chances among the enemy camps. They would soon be dead otherwise. The whole group fell into an exhausted sleep, not bothering to set a watch. There seemed to be little point any more.

The next morning Gandalf walked up to the lip of the depression and stared out. His breath came more quickly as he realized that Sauron's troops were again on the move. Indeed, the plain between them and Mt. Doom was nearly empty now, as the marching forces headed once more northward toward the Udun and the Black Gate. The wizard gazed upward, noting that the clear sky had spread northward. He fought to hold back tears, thinking of how much trust he had put in Aragorn and how well the man was apparently living up to his heavy responsibilities. There seemed to be no other explanation for these new developments.

Gandalf quickly returned to the others and said, "Our path to the Mountain is clearing. I am happy to say that coming this far south has helped us, for they will pass away from us long before they would have otherwise. We should be able to set out within an hour, I think. There is nothing to prepare but ourselves. How are you holding up, Sam?"

Sam pressed his lips together and simply nodded. Gandalf was surprised to see that Frodo was looking at him more alertly than usual. The wizard stroked his cheek slowly and was rewarded with the tiniest hint of a smile. They moved slowly to the top of the sloping side of the depression and watched as the last soldiers marched off to their left. Taking a deep breath, Gandalf stood and stepped forward. He tripped and caught himself, then tried to focus on walking steadily. Glancing back, he saw that the others were managing to follow, and he moved on slowly. The elven cloaks made them nearly invisible in the grim, featureless landscape, especially in the semi-darkness created by the clouds overhead, and they trudged along determinedly on the last phase of their journey.

They had to walk for another two agonizing days to reach the Sammath Naur, the entrance to the Cracks of Doom. They were traveling faster now, despite their weakness, for Gandalf realized that they simply could not keep going for much longer. At times Frodo staggered and even fell, and the wizard and Sam took it in turns to carry him for a stretch after each time this happened. When they got close enough for Gandalf to see the slopes of Mt. Doom clearly, he realized that the Sammath Naur must be on the side opposite them. It made sense. He could see a road in the distance, leading toward the Mountain, presumably from Barad-Dur, though he could no longer distinguish the Dark Tower through the fumes belched out by Mt. Doom. He sighed and walked on, followed by the others.

Hours later they found and followed a long, sloping causeway that led up to the great opening in the side of the Mountain. Once they reached the door, Gandalf paused and spoke quietly to Sam, "I shall take care of Frodo, Sam. I want you to deal with Gollum. He must soon comprehend what we are doing, and he will undoubtedly lose all fear of me and try to take the Ring before Frodo can destroy it. Let us tie him now, and then you keep a tight hold on that rope! I think that you should come inside the cavern with us. I may need your help again here at the end, given the state into which Frodo has sunk." Sam nodded unhappily.

Despite Gollum's protests, between them they managed to get the rope supplied by Faramir around Gollum's torso, knotted tightly at the back just beneath the arms, where he could not reach it. Gandalf took a deep breath and, holding Frodo's hand, stepped into the heat and noise of the huge cavern. It glowed red with the light of the molten rock below, and they could see the stretch of flat rock leading to a precipice. Gandalf looked down doubtfully at Frodo, who was staring with wide eyes at the edge of the cliff. The wizard led him partway to the edge, then squatted and turned the hobbit to face him.

"Now, Frodo. Throw the Ring in, quickly! Don't take time to think about it, just do it. There is need of great haste, for the Dark Lord may somehow discover that we are here."

Frodo stared at him for a moment, then nodded and pulled away from Gandalf's hands, but there was a strange look, almost of cunning, in his eyes. He drew the chain with the Ring up over his head, and the gold band slid out of his shirt. The wizard watched him worriedly as he backed away. Frodo shook his head. "I have come, but I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!"

He moved to put it on his finger, but the wizard was too swift for him. Gandalf launched himself forward from his squatting position. Awkwardly he swung his staff down to support himself while with one hand he grabbed the hobbit's arm in time to keep the extended finger away from the Ring. Frodo tensed and closed his other hand tightly around the Ring, staring angrily at Gandalf.

Still holding Frodo's arm, firmly but as gently as he could, Gandalf knelt and gazed earnestly into Frodo's eyes. "Frodo, I understand. You cannot bring yourself to destroy the Ring. There was always a danger of that. Give it to me, then! I know that I can throw it into the Fire. Trust me, please! I do not wish to keep it for myself, I promise you. I love you, and I know that you love me! Now, finally, I can take the burden from you and rid the world of it. Let me do that. Remember how it has tormented you. Don't you long to be rid of it?"

Frodo stared at him in horror and took one step back from him, wrenching his arm from the wizard's grasp with the strength of desperation. "Is that why you love me? Or why you claim you love me? You want the Ring! You wanted it all along, didn't you? When you made love to me, you just wanted to get me to trust you, so I'd give it to you."

Gandalf was so shocked by this speech and the look on the hobbit's face that he could not respond immediately. Much though Frodo had deteriorated, he had never expected this from him. He made no effort to seize Frodo's arm again, though his hand hovered, ready to grab if the hobbit made another attempt to put on the Ring. Finally he said, trying to keep his tone even and calm, "But, you silly hobbit, I told you that I loved you before I learned about the Ring, long before. Don't you remember, that dreary time when I could not come back to you for nine whole years? How we missed each other? And how I found out then about the Ring. Please, remember, Frodo!"

Frodo watched his face closely, as if struggling to understand what the wizard was saying, but he shook his head doubtfully. "Maybe you knew-from the start. You were out to trick me, to lull my suspicions."

Gandalf paused for a moment, struggling to gather his thoughts. If Frodo truly believed that, then he had no hope of convincing the hobbit to hand him the Ring. Again he tried to make his voice calm. "Frodo, if I wanted the Ring then, I could have taken it when you offered it to me. Don't you remember that either, that day in Bag End by the fire? It was a lovely April morning, and Sam was working in your garden. Weren't you, Sam?" he asked, glancing for a moment over his shoulder.

Sam was nearby, holding Gollum's rope tightly. He also tried to keep any sign of agitation out of his reply. "He's right, Frodo. That's how it was. And Gandalf caught me eavesdropping." He strove to smile. "And that's why I'm here now and not back tending that garden."

Gandalf nodded and resumed, "Yes, that morning you offered me the Ring, and I refused. You overheard us, Sam. Didn't I refuse the Ring?"

"Yes, Frodo, it's true! He did!"

Gandalf looked into the wild eyes and realized that he could not force Frodo to give him the Ring without the hobbit's mind snapping. He would hate Gandalf. Still, if he did not hand it over voluntarily, the wizard would have to take it by force-even if he had to push Frodo into the abyss. And he would probably have to do that if the hobbit tried to put the Ring on. If he did that, the whole plan, everything they were trying to do, would instantly be revealed to Sauron, and they would be lost. Middle-earth would be lost, he reminded himself. That was more important even than Frodo. The hobbit had said that Gandalf should choose Middle-earth over him if it came to such a decision-and he knew that he would.

Gandalf was aware that he could not spend much more time trying to convince Frodo. The longer they stayed here, the more likely it was that Sauron would somehow realize what was happening and send his fell messengers to prevent the destruction of the Ring. He spoke firmly but calmly in the midst of the roaring and wildly flickering light. "Don't you remember our times together, Frodo? How we first learned that we loved each other? We were in the guest room of Bag End-that wonderful room that I have always longed to see again, where I could be with you." His mind sought desperately for memories of things that seemed now very remote. He recalled a silly incident. "Oh, and walking in the woods, Frodo. Remember that time that I talked to a squirrel and you were so amazed at first? Then you insisted that I was just pretending to talk to it-until I asked it to jump onto your shoulder and it did. Remember?"

Frodo kept looking at him and then away, as if he were trying unsuccessfully to focus on what Gandalf was saying. After what seemed like an eternity, he nodded slightly. Gandalf gasped. "If you remember such things, then give me the Ring, Frodo. We came here to save the Shire, didn't we? We've made it, we're here! We can save the Shire and all of Middle-earth if you'll just hand it to me."

He thought he saw a hint of sanity in Frodo's eyes and cautiously held out his open palm, inwardly begging the hobbit to drop the Ring there. At once Frodo's eyes narrowed in angry, determined refusal, like a great iron door clanging shut in a traveler's face on a dark, wet night. Gandalf was near despair. He lowered his hand. "Frodo, try to think back. Bilbo's birthday party, the fireworks, how we made love the next morning."

Frodo stood looking down grimly. He darted suspicious glances at the wizard. He was clutching the Ring so tightly that his knuckles were white and his nails dug into his palm. Finally he whispered, "Yes, I remember. That's when Bilbo gave me the Ring. It's mine. He gave it to me."

Gandalf glanced around, panting and thinking frantically. Suddenly his face betrayed a hint of hope, and he stared at Frodo so intently that the hobbit looked back at him, startled enough to make his stony, defiant expression fade slightly. The wizard resumed, "Do you remember Lórien, Frodo? That glorious day on the flet?" He tried to laugh, though there were tears standing in his eyes. "How we carried all those heavy things far out into the mallorn groves just so that we could spend a day making love away from anyone else in the world? We wanted it to go on forever. Remember the blowing leaves, the lovely food, and above all that beautiful yellow light that played over our bodies and fed our desires. I treasure the memory of that light and every little word and gesture that we exchanged that day. Think back-how we touched each other for hours that passed unperceived. You were my darling golden hobbit, and you still are. You are infinitely more precious to me than that scrap of real gold in your hand. If the thought of that day and indeed of our shared lives still means anything to you, Frodo, please, give me the Ring!"

There was a breathless pause, and just when he was steeling himself to grab the hobbit and force his hand open, he saw a flicker deep in Frodo's eyes. Moving very slowly so as not to threaten his lover, Gandalf reached up and stroked his cheek. He extended his open hand again. "Gandalf," Frodo whispered at last. He pressed his lips together and opened his hand, dropping the Ring on its chain into the wizard's cupped palm. Gandalf exhaled slowly, gazing into Frodo's face rather than at his own hand, and closed his fingers over the glowing golden band. "Thank you, Frodo," he said softly.

The wizard rose slowly, again seeking not to disturb or surprise Frodo in any way. He tousled the hobbit's hair with the hand that was not holding the Ring, then turned and walked toward the precipice. Suddenly waves of visions hit him, and he froze in place briefly. All the dreams and desires, both of kindness and cruelty, that the Ring had ever shown him were popping into his mind, as if he had set off a whole cartload of his fireworks at once. Quickly he mastered himself. He murmured toward his hand, "You're terrified, aren't you? That's why you're doing this to me." That thought caused the visions to blur and fade. He stepped closer to the brink and with a quick jerk of his arm tossed the Ring far out over the cavernous depths.

As he watched the glittering speck and the chain snaking about it tumble and disappear into the glowing hell below, he allowed himself a second or two to draw a deep breath and feel a sense of overwhelming joy and triumph wash over him. Suddenly there was a roar and a great confusion of noise. Fires leaped up and licked the roof. Even above the tumult, behind him and slightly to the left he heard an anguished screech. He glanced back to see Gollum straining against the rope holding him. With a supreme effort the creature pulled the rope through Sam's hands, and the hobbit grimaced as it burned and scraped his palms. Gollum dashed toward the edge of the abyss. Gandalf tried to grab his arm as he went by, but the creature twisted deftly aside to avoid the wizard's hand and rushed straight for the edge, flinging himself out into space without an instant's hesitation. A brief distant shriek was nearly drowned out by the roar that filled the huge cave as the mountain began to erupt.

Gandalf gave a brief sigh of frustration and regret, but he had no time to worry about Gollum. They would all of them be dead soon anyway. He turned and transferred all his attention to Frodo. The hobbit was sitting back on his heels, staring blankly at the spot where he had last seen the Ring, spinning out and down. Gandalf approached Frodo cautiously. The hobbit had given the Ring up voluntarily at the end, but would its destruction still snap something in his mind? He knelt facing Frodo. Shouting over the increasingly loud tumult of the destruction of Mordor, the wizard said, "I did it, Frodo. I did exactly what I told you I would. You see, I did not take it for myself. This was what we came here to do. You brought the Ring here, through such terrible hardships. How could I allow you to fail at the end?"

To his distress, Frodo slumped to lie on the rocky floor, weeping, heedless of the danger around them. Gandalf glanced into Sam's eyes and held out his staff. The other hobbit darted over to them, took the staff, and watched anxiously as Gandalf picked Frodo up with considerable difficulty. He had not realized how much that final effort to destroy the Ring had exhausted him, and he staggered slightly as he turned and carried the sobbing hobbit out through the door, closely followed by Sam.

A brief vision they had of swirling cloud, and in the midst of it towers and battlements, tall as hills, founded upon a mighty mountain-throne above immeasurable pits; great courts and dungeons, eyeless prisons sheer as cliffs, and gaping gates of steel and adamant: and then all passed. Towers fell and mountains slid; walls crumbled and melted, crashing down; vast spires of smoke and spouting steams went billowing up, up, until they toppled like an overwhelming wave, and its wild crest curled and came foaming down upon the land. And then at last over the miles between there came a rumble, rising to a deafening crash and roar; the earth shook, the plain heaved and cracked, and Orodruin reeled. Fire belched from its riven summit. The skies burst into thunder seared with lightning. Down like lashing whips fell a torrent of black rain. And into the heart of the storm, with a cry that pierced all other sounds, tearing the clouds asunder, the Nazgul came, shooting like flaming bolts, as caught in the fiery ruin of sky they crackled, withered, and went out.

Blinking back tears of awe and desperation, Gandalf surveyed the area around the foot of the mountain, hoping to spot an area free of the lava flows that were crisscrossing the slopes and beginning to enter the plain like some hellish, expanding spider-web. In vain he sought for an unobstructed path. As he had feared, there was no way out. For a moment he wondered if they should go back and simply throw themselves after the Ring and Gollum and spare themselves this agony. Again he contemplated using Sting or Glamdring to accomplish the same thing. Hope was ingrained deep in his nature, however, and he simply could not bring himself to make those supreme gestures of despair-at least, not yet. Instead he sat down, lowering the hobbit gently onto a rock beside him. Sam sat on Frodo's other side.

"Well, this is the end," Frodo said softly. Sam and Gandalf looked into his face, startled, and there was Frodo, pale and worn, and yet himself again; and in his eyes there was peace now, neither strain of will, nor madness, nor any fear. His burden was taken away. His two companions glanced at each other over his head, and each put an arm around Frodo's shoulders and sat pressed closely against him as the world around them continued to writhe in an agony of destruction.

The heat was intense and increasing by the moment. Gandalf felt what little water remained in his body emerging onto his skin and evaporating quickly, and, already parched, he soon experienced a raging thirst. Both hobbits were beet red, and he imagined that he was himself. They were all beginning to feel lightheaded, and their eyelids drooped as they gasped for what little air there was in the stinging fumes about them. Gandalf hugged Frodo to himself with one arm and with the other reached across his body to grip Sam's hand tightly. "I shall remember and love you forever," he murmured hoarsely to Frodo. The hobbit looked up at him, puzzled. Forever did not seem to mean very much at that point, and yet he dimly realized that Gandalf was trying to tell him something important, something that meant a great deal to the wizard. He simply nodded and leaned his head against Gandalf's chest. Within minutes all three were unconscious.

TBC in Chapter 11: The Wizard and the King

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