Thrice Returned, Part 11AU: The Wizard and the King

by Nefertiti

Rating: NC-17

Pairing: Gandalf/Frodo

Summary: After the Ring is destroyed, Aragorn tells Gandalf what has happened on the other side of the Anduin as the Quest progressed, and the wizard realizes that his troubles are not over.

Disclaimer: No rights, no income.

Warning: A character important to both the film and the book dies (not Gandalf or Frodo!). On the other hand, some characters that die in the book and film survive here.

Author's note: Book-canon. To the extent that this chapter has a parallel in the novel, it covers part of the time in "The Field of Cormallen." Much of it, though, deals with the AU version of events in Books III and V of LotR. The description of Aragorn's coronation is an abridged and slightly altered version of the one in the novel.

Part 11AU: The Wizard and the King

Gandalf opened his eyes and wondered what he was doing in Ithilien. He had expected that after the cataclysmic destruction of the Ring, his next conscious moment would find him back in Valinor. He was definitely in Ithilien, though. Throughout his time in Middle-earth he had always had a perfect internal sense of time and place-and he did now, despite feeling light-headed and weak. And he still had the beard, he noted ruefully. Frodo. He raised himself onto his elbows and sighed with relief as he saw both hobbits asleep in cots to his left. They were very thin, but their skin was clean and had regained a bit of healthy color. Their breathing was deep and normal. He stared at Frodo's beautiful face for a while before further surveying his surroundings.

They were under the trees of the lovely forest, though a high canvas wall had been set up around them to form a sort of roofless tent for their sickroom, also furnished with chairs and a table. He saw a carafe of water on the table, but it was too far away for him to reach it. He cleared his throat slightly, and at once a young man appeared. Seeing the wizard's glance at the caraffe, the fellow poured him a glass of water. After waiting to make sure that Gandalf was strong enough to hold it for himself, the man whispered, "I shall inform Lord Aragorn that you are awake."

The wizard quickly drained the glass. "So, Aragorn has survived as well," he thought with a little smile, and he settled back down onto the pillow.

Aragorn soon entered and quickly crossed to stand beside the wizard's cot, grinning down at him. Gandalf realized that it was the sort of grin that he had very much feared could never appear on anyone's face in Middle-earth again. After glancing at the two hobbits, the Man took the empty glass and set it back on the table. He said softly, "Well, my dear friend, you have returned to crown me, I see."

Gandalf nodded, with a hint of a smile playing about his lips. "Yes, well, there was no one else who could do it, according to you." He shrugged slightly. "So here I am."

"How do you feel? Well enough to be hugged?"

"Yes, I think so."

Aragorn leaned down over the cot and embraced the wizard, trying not to squeeze the weakened body too hard. "You did it. You destroyed the Ring."

As the man straightened up, Gandalf nodded to indicate the two sleeping hobbits. "We destroyed the Ring."

"I meant that in the plural: 'you,' the three of you, destroyed the Ring. But now really, how do you feel?" He sat down next to the cot.

"Never mind that for a moment. I am desperately curious. How are the other members of the Fellowship?"

Aragorn grinned more broadly. "All well. That is to say, all alive. Boromir and Merry were injured during the battle at Minas Tirith, but they have been recovering."

Gandalf stared at him in relief, and an answering grin slowly spread across his face, though there was a hint of tears in his eyes. He reached over and rested his hand on Aragorn's knee. "Remarkable. Truly remarkable. You have done as well as ever I could have hoped, my dear friend. I take it that Frodo and Sam are also recovering. They look so much better than when I last saw them! Has either been awake yet?"

"Not yet, but yes, they are indeed recovering. They were not as strong as you to begin with, but being hobbits they are hardy little fellows. Even now, though, they don't look ready to wake up anytime soon. Shall we go elsewhere so that we don't have to whisper? If either wakes up, the attendant will come and tell us."

"Well, I am incredibly hungry. If I can walk, and I think that I can, let us go where you can feed me and tell me everything that I have missed."

"Everything! That would take several meals to describe."

"Yes, well, I feel as if I could eat several meals right now. Just lead me to them."

Aragorn stood up and watched, ready to offer assistance, as Gandalf gingerly rose and paused for a moment. He was wearing a soft nightshirt, but he noted that his washed clothes were neatly folded and stacked on the table. After standing for a moment he said, "A bit unsteady, perhaps. If you will lend me your shoulder ..."

"Of course." Once Gandalf had dressed, with some help from the Man, the two slowly made their way into Aragorn's large tent nearby. The wizard sat at a small table. Aragorn sat opposite him and ordered some food to be brought. He poured Gandalf another glass of water, which he drank gratefully. Soon the servant reappeared with tableware, a bowl of fruit, some rolls, butter, honey, and jam. "Some cooked food will be ready soon," he assured the wizard, who was already hastily loading his plate.

"Including eggs, I hope. Lots of eggs. And sausages, and--"

"Just bring some of everything," Aragorn directed with a chuckle, and the servant hurried out.

"Not tea!" Gandalf shouted after the departing figure. "Dreadful stuff," he added in a softer tone.

"Luckily we have been receiving daily supplies from Minas Tirith." Aragorn watched the wizard attacking the food and said in mock alarm, "Though I begin to fear that they have not sent nearly enough!"

After swallowing several mouthfuls of food ravenously, Gandalf paused to remark, "Don't tell Galadriel, but I don't think I could ever bear to eat lembas again."

"It will be our secret."

"It is so good to have real food again!"

"Oh, yes? I could hardly tell. Please, don't hold back."

Gandalf frowned at him but was chewing and unable to speak for a moment. "You would be better employed in telling me what happened after our departure above Rauros than in teasing a feeble-and starving-old man."

"Feeble," Aragorn muttered under his breath with a fond smile, then said more loudly, "You hardly look in danger of starving now. But yes, there is much to tell. I gather that even across the water you noticed the noises of approaching attackers. Well, it turned out to be a band of Uruk-Hai warriors. I didn't realize it at the time, but they had been sent by Saruman."

"I'm not at all surprised to hear it."

"No. Well, it was touch and go. One of my great failures occurred in the course of that fight-though fortunately it turned out well in the end. Some of them managed to sneak behind us and get hold of Pippin and Merry. They carried them off while we were in the thick of the battle."

Gandalf looked at him briefly in alarm before recalling that Aragorn had said that all the Fellowship members had survived. His alarm turned to puzzlement. "Odd. Well, I suppose that Saruman somehow knew that there were hobbits in our band and suspected that one was the Ringbearer. How did you manage to get those two back?"

"It's rather complicated. The other four of us came through the fight relatively unharmed-partly, I suppose, because the remaining attackers turned and ran once they calculated that the other Uruks had taken the hobbits far enough away. After we had had time to look around and grasp what had happened, we quickly conferred. We decided that I should go with Legolas and Gimli in pursuit. Boromir's mission to remove the palantir from his father's possession seemed so important that I sent him on alone to Minas Tirith. He succeeded, by the way, and has played a noble part in all the subsequent strategies and fighting."

"I am very pleased to hear it! Despite that one failing, he has always struck me as basically a sound fellow. Of course you and I shall keep his secret, for he has redeemed himself. Frodo is the only other one who knows of it, and I shall warn him not to say anything."

Aragorn nodded and went on. "I must say, during the first part of our chase after the Uruk-Hai I was nearly in despair. I kept picturing what might happen to our two friends in the hands of those butchers, and we were not catching up to our quarry, despite our enormous efforts. We proved remarkably lucky, though, in some ways. The chase led us directly toward Fangorn Forest, where of course I had been planning to go anyway."

"Did you find Treebeard?"

"Don't make me jump ahead! There is more that happened before we had a chance to look for him. Ah, here are your eggs. Well, the cooks took you seriously! Can you really eat all that?" He quickly held up his hand. "Don't bother to answer that! Anyway, we had a long and wearying chase across the plains of Rohan, and in the course of it we encountered the young man you had recommended to me: Eomer, Third Marshall of Riddermark."

Gandalf quickly swallowed a mouthful of eggs and exclaimed, "Really!?"

"Yes, it turned out that his troops had just done our work for us and slaughtered the entire band of Uruk-Hai. At first we feared that the hobbits had been killed as well, but it turned out that they had managed to escape during the battle. I tracked them quite a way into Fangorn, and then their footprints simply disappeared. I was very glad that you had mentioned that ents leave such distinctive tracks, for in the same place I found some large marks that definitely fit your description. Ordinarily they would have baffled me. All this suggested that the ent had picked up the hobbits and carried them away."

"And so you managed to find Treebeard?"

"Yes, though he walked so quickly and had gone so far that it took us rather a long time to follow him to his home. Sure enough, he had Merry and Pip there, largely recovered from their ordeal. To their credit, they had already halfway convinced the old ent that he should attack Saruman at Isengard. Naturally they were feeling quite resentful toward the White Wizard by that point! Once Treebeard heard of our plans and of your and Galadriel's requests that he join in, he promised to summon the other ents to a ... what did he call it?"

"An entmoot?"

"Yes, that was it."

"I hope you did not stay for it. I once had the dubious privilege of attending one-or at least part of one, for I soon gave it up. They are maddeningly lengthy and slow affairs."

"No, I was of course in a hurry and decided to trust in Treebeard to convince the other ents. Legolas and Gimli and I left, after we had had some time to rest and eat. We had been given two horses by the Rohirrim, so we were able to make good time to Edoras."

"Wait, two questions. Where were Merry and Pip at this point, and in what combination were the three of you distributed across two horses?"

"Merry and Pip begged me to let them stay and help Treebeard persuade the other ents. I heard from them later about the length of the entmoot, by the way. The hobbits were very keen on seeing the attack as well. That suited my plans, for two horses might carry three, but loading them with five, even with two of them being that small, would slow us down. I agreed to travel to Isengard later to collect them, assuming that the conflict in Rohan went well. Obviously I would need to find out whether the attack on Isengard had indeed gone forward and what its result was---and if all went as planned, to thank Treebeard for his help in the Rohan conflict. I must say, I also suspected that the hobbits would be safer with the ents than following us through some of the dangers we faced. Oh, and Legolas and Gimli shared one of the horses."

"Good for them! I thought that during our stay in Lórien I saw distinct signs of those two becoming friends. Possibly more than friends. If only others of their respective kinds would do the same! Well, so far so good, then. Did the ents successfully attack Isengard?"

"Well, that's jumping ahead again, but I'll tell you. Yes, they did. And Treebeard sent his huorns to Rohan-which is probably why you see me sitting here today. Without their help, I think that there would have been a massacre at Helm's Deep."

"Ah, so you did get Theoden to send his troops there."

"Not exactly. Will you let me tell this tale in some coherent order?"

Gandalf helped himself to more bread and fruit and said, "If you would get me another plate of eggs, it would help me refrain from asking questions. Oh, and more sausages."

Aragorn clicked his tongue and shook his head with a grin, but he called out to the servant to bring the wizard a second helping.

Gandalf noticed his teasing look. "Well, I have barely eaten in weeks!"

"I know, I know, and you can have all that you want, believe me! Now. Rohan. We reached Meduseld and found Theoden in the low state you had described. I tried my best, but that wretch Grima had amazing control over the old fellow. He had even persuaded him to imprison Eomer-despite his having successfully attacked the Uruk-Hai!"

"Idiocy! What in Arda did you do?"

"Well, I sensed that most of the soldiers were quite unhappy with that situation. They liked what had happened to Theoden no better than Eomer did, and they were very loyal to their young commander. I especially sensed that the king's niece, Eowyn, was longing to rid the kingdom of Grima, and that she might be a strong ally."

"A good perception. Yes, I mentioned to you that I have always thought her a remarkable young lady, thwarted in her ambitions both by her sex and lately by the parlous state of the court at Edoras."

"Indeed, so I discovered. I also ... well, I believed that she ... she might have other reasons for wanting to help me."

Gandalf paused in the act of bringing a piece of bread to his mouth. He frowned in puzzlement, then stared at Aragorn in dawning realization.

"She fell in love with you, do you think? Hmm. That complicates matters. All right, what did you do?"

"With her help, I identified some of the officers who might be inclined to disobey Theoden and help to free Eomer. In short, we ended by fomenting a bit of a rebellion among the troops. Fortunately the soldiers loyal to Theoden were apparently not devoted enough to put up much resistance. Once we were able to free Eomer from his prison, he took charge and rallied most of the troops to go to Helm's Deep. Oh, and you'll be delighted to know that he expelled Grima from the kingdom. I imagine that he fled to Isengard, though I did not see him when I was there. Eowyn led the women and children to the refuge at Dunharrow."

"Rather a desperate strategy, stirring up rebellion, but obviously it worked. And the battle went well, I gather?"

"Eventually, yes. Initially it was touch and go. Saruman had invented some sort of blasting powder and blew up a large section of the Deeping wall."

Gandalf grinned smugly. "So Saruman has finally discovered blasting powder. I'm glad I never was tempted to share my secrets with him. I've been using it for centuries to make my fireworks."

Aragorn looked at him with a bemused smile. "I suppose you have. I never really understood how they worked. Well, you might have told us about that. Having some could have helped our side in the battle."

Gandalf began to devour the new helping of eggs and sausages that had just arrived. "Oh, I don't make it in great quantities. I don't believe the stuff should be used as a weapon. It would be a barbaric way of fighting, and at any rate, it is a danger to its users. I assure you, I handle it very carefully, even now when I am quite experienced with it."

"Fortunately it turned out that we did not need it. Still, if it had not been for the arrival of the huorns, we would surely have lost the battle."

"Yes, that was definitely a good idea that Galadriel had. I am delighted that I shall now have the chance to thank her in person. Which reminds me, is it you that I have to thank for saving the three of us? If so, how did you manage it?"

"You're quite welcome, I assure you. I dispatched Gwaihir and some of the other eagles to bring you out. That's jumping far ahead, though. To get back to my report, Eomer accompanied me to Isengard. The ents had done their work well. They had used the nearby river to flood it, and it was a standing pool by that point. Merry and Pip had come through unscathed and even were able to serve us a most welcome meal from Saruman's storerooms." He hesitated and stared at Gandalf to gauge his reaction to his next revelation. "We were just preparing to go when something completely unexpected happened. Saruman came out and surrendered to me."

Gandalf froze, staring back at him and seeming for once utterly speechless. Aragorn went on, "Yes, it turns out that he also had a palantir, which he handed over to me. A palantir which, like the one in Minas Tirith, was strongly linked to the one in Sauron's possession. I had to exert considerable will power to wrench it away from his control-later on when I used it, that is."

Gandalf nodded, thinking back swiftly and realizing that the possession of a palantir linked to the Dark Lord explained much of what had puzzled him about Saruman.

"He also gave me the keys of Orthanc and, at my demand, his staff. He was quite humble and conciliatory. I could not think what else to do, so I took him under our protection as he requested, as a prisoner of war."

"Do you mean that you did not leave him in Orthanc? Where is he now?"

"In Minas Tirith. I certainly did not want him wandering around loose. I felt I had no other option."

Gandalf stared at him, appalled. "No option! Why did you not lock him in Orthanc and leave him under the guard of Treebeard and the ents?"

Aragorn pressed his lips together and sighed. "I didn't think of it. I suppose it was because I know Treebeard so little, and it did not occur to me to ask him for another great favor when he had already helped us so much. I wish you had been there to make the decision-but neither of us could be everywhere at once! I hope no harm may come of it. At the time, I just thought that I should behave in accordance with standard military practice. He had surrendered, and I felt obliged to take him with me-under close guard, of course."

"All right, well, it can't be helped. Is he imprisoned?"

"At first he was kept locked in his room, but he has actually been so repentant that we have gradually allowed him a few freedoms. He is always under surveillance when he leaves his room, though."

Gandalf stared down at the table, at a loss. Finally he said, "I cannot believe that you would take such risks with him. If he is a prisoner of war, he should at least be constantly under lock and key. Saruman, repentant?! It cannot be genuine!"

"You don't understand. He has been most helpful to us. In the Houses of Healing, for example, during the battle, he lent his expertise tirelessly and saved several lives. Truly, he has accomplished much good."

Gandalf shook his head, still dazed by the news. "Well, you must immediately send word that until we arrive he is once more to be kept locked in his room. No, really, Aragorn, I insist! You will, won't you? All right. Later you must tell me all that you can about this matter. Now, did you go straight to the White City from Isengard?"

"No, something changed our plans. Elrohir and Elladan journeyed south with thirty of the northern Rangers. They found us as we were traveling from Isengard and brought me a message from Elrond. He urged me to take the Paths of the Dead and make use of the army of oath-breakers that dwell within the mountain-or at least they dwelt there at that time."

"That was a dangerous road indeed. Some sort of foresight must have been on Elrond for him to suggest it."

"I suppose so. Eomer agreed to take the Rohirrim on the more direct route to Minas Tirith as soon as he was able to muster more troops. I went with a smaller group through the mountain and was able to convince the Army of the Dead to fulfill their oaths at last. By the way, that was another instance of Saruman being quite helpful to us."

"Don't tell me that he went with you! Why did you not leave him to be brought under guard to Minas Tirith at the van of the Rohirrim troops?"

"He insisted that he wanted to go with me in case he could be of any assistance. He actually did make a plea to the Army, helping me to persuade them to go with us."

Gandalf shook his head and muttered, "Yes, Saruman is nothing if not persuasive."

"Well, frankly, I was quite glad that I had allowed him to accompany us. I think his bravery helped to steady some of those with me, and he was able to assist in many little ways during the journey. After all, he is more familiar with southern Gondor than I am myself. And frankly, I thought that he was probably relatively harmless because he was completely astray in his beliefs about our strategies. From remarks he dropped during the journey, I gathered that he had jumped to the conclusion that you had seized the Ring! I suppose that is the real reason why he had surrendered: he believed that all his schemes were hopeless.

"At any rate, with the aid of the Dead we captured the corsair fleet at Pelargir and were able to sail with many soldiers from that area up to the aid of Minas Tirith. Just in time, too. The gate had been breached and parts of the City set alight. The Witch King had actually got into the City, despite a valiant stand by Boromir inside the Gate. The Witch King caused some panic and death, but as I learned afterward, he soon withdrew to the battlefield when the Rohirrim arrived."

"Oh, so they did arrive."

"Yes, some time before we did. Between us, we were enough to turn the tide. You will be astonished to hear what happened to the Witch King," he said with a grin.


"Eowyn killed him-with some vital help from Merry."

Gandalf gaped at him, and his eyebrows shot up. "Was she killed?"

Aragorn shook his head. "Badly injured, but she, too, is recovering."

Slowly a grin spread across the wizard's face. "'Not by the hand of man shall he fall!' Glorfindel will be glad to know the answer to the riddle his prophecy posed us. I suppose that it should astonish me, but somehow, knowing Eowyn, it doesn't, not all that much. And Merry, you said, also injured and recovering. Well, well! Between that and the storming of Isengard, I shall have to gloat to Elrond a bit over having helped persuade him to allow the two young hobbits to come along."

Aragorn chuckled. "I have no doubt that you will! Yes, Merry has recovered so well that he was able to journey here and join us yesterday. Eowyn and Boromir are still, as far as I know, in the Houses of Healing. Well, would you like a third helping?"

"No, thank you, I am quite content now. Let's see if I grasp all this. Wait, you skipped one thing. Or maybe you just haven't got to it yet. The timing of all this is so far somewhat unclear in my mind. You mentioned that you looked into the palantir at some point. As I had hoped, Sauron emptied Mordor of his troops quite cooperatively. It took a while, but that was just as well. It was while we were waiting for that to happen that I realized how I could deal with the Ring. Of course, the retreating troops moved back into Mordor before we could take advantage of their departure. Well, that tale can wait. Tell me more."

"Yes, since Saruman gave me his palantir, I was able to use that one, challenging Sauron while we were still near the Mouths of Anduin. He struck swiftly indeed. We barely had time to counter him. Once we had won the battle and tended to the wounded, Elrohir and Elladan presented Elrond's strategy to us: that we should march against the Black Gate, striving to keep Sauron's eye away from his own land. We did that, and hence we came to be in a pitched battle outside the Gate when the Ring went into the fire."

Gandalf stared at him, touched. "If it had taken us much longer to reach the Cracks of Doom, you all could easily have been killed."

Aragorn smiled. "Quite possibly. But it didn't, and here we are. I believe that you would have done the same thing, had you been in my position."

"Yes, I probably would. It certainly made a great deal of difference to us-almost certainly the difference between success and failure. And somehow you managed to contact Gwaihir."

"Oh, I should have mentioned it. There is so much to tell! I never did find out how they came to know about it, but he and the other eagles arrived in the midst of the battle. They were most helpful in keeping the Nazgul away from us. Then, when the Black Gate fell, I could see that Mordor was being so riven by earthquakes that it would be impossible to ride in on horseback to rescue you. It was very lucky that Gwaihir arrived when he did."

Gandalf shook his head in amazement. "Lucky indeed! I little realized what a good friend I made that night that he rescued me from Orthanc. Let's see, what have you left out? I should ask what became of Theoden."

"He was still in a bad way when we left, but the expulsion of Grima from Edoras would presumably at least halt his deterioration. Perhaps the news of our victory will be a tonic to him-and perhaps you can do something to help him as well."

"Oh! That reminds me. Did you happen to hear anything of Shadowfax when you were in Rohan? I have wondered from time to time whether he got back safely."

Aragorn laughed. "You have made quite a friend there! Eomer told me that Shadowfax did indeed return safely-but while he had been fairly manageable before you borrowed him, now he is quite wild and will let no one near him. He misses you, apparently."

Gandalf smirked. "He shows more sense than his owner did, turning me out so summarily! Well, I shall look forward to seeing Shadowfax again-and then maybe he will calm down a bit. And what of Denethor? Did he put up any resistance when you arrived, or did he welcome you as the rightful king?"

Aragorn's face grew grim, and he looked down. "I never saw him. He committed suicide before I arrived--burned himself to death."

The wizard frowned at him. "Out of fear of Sauron? Using the palantir might have had that effect on him."

"I gathered that it was a combination of despair over the coming war and grief over the loss of his other son."

Gandalf blanched as he stared at Aragorn. "You mean Faramir? Is he dead?"

"Yes, I'm sorry to say that he was killed by a Nazgul on the retreat from Osgiliath. It's a great loss. I liked him very much the few times I saw him in Ithilien. I gathered at the time that you knew him well."

Gandalf was breathing deeply and slowly, and his face worked as he tried unsuccessfully to hold back tears. He was silent for a moment. "Yes. Yes, quite well in fact. Quite well."

Seeing how affected Gandalf was, Aragorn laid his hand over the wizard's on the table. "I am sorry that you have lost someone who was obviously dear to you. So many fine young men perished in those black days."

"None finer than he, I suspect. He was truly exceptional." Gandalf picked up the napkin he had been using and wiped away the tears that were beginning to roll down his cheeks, then managed to bring his emotions somewhat under control. "There is so much to be thankful for, and yet I am afraid that this victory is shadowed for me now. You would have come to like and admire him as much as I did, I am sure, and he could have been such a help to you in repairing the ravages that Sauron wrought upon Gondor."

"He must have been exceptional indeed. I much regret that I had so few chances to talk with him."

"Regret. Yes," Gandalf murmured, dabbing at his eyes again. After a brief silence he stood up. "I gather that I have heard all the main news. We shall have much more to talk about, of course, but right now I would like to go back and see Frodo. I'll take some food for him and Sam, in case they are too weak to come in here."

The two hobbits were still asleep when Gandalf returned to the sickroom. He placed a chair between their cots and sat down. He stared sadly at Frodo, trying to think of something other than Faramir's death. The only topic that distracted him, however, was his worry over Saruman. He was deeply disturbed that Aragorn not only had let the other Istar out of Orthanc but that to some extent he believed that Saruman was truly repentant-and even apparently placed some trust in him. He would have hoped that Aragorn could resist the wizard's persuasive arguments better than that, but he supposed that he could not really blame the Man too much. Upon hearing how successfully Aragorn had carried through all their other plans, Gandalf had assumed that all his own worries were over. Now he was faced with this new challenge. It also occurred to him to wonder how Frodo would behave toward him after their conflicts over the Ring. He had seemed to shake off the Ring's influence after its destruction, to some extent at least. Gandalf was hardly optimistic enough to believe, though, that everything could be as it had before been between them, at least not immediately. And even if the hobbit fully trusted him once again, he might well have fears and memories that the Ring's disappearance could not undo.

Fortunately the wizard was soon interrupted in these bitter reflections. Frodo stirred and opened his eyes, and Gandalf was enormously relieved to see a radiant, welcoming smile spread quickly across the hobbit's face at he looked up at him. Gandalf rose and fetched a glass of water for Frodo, then returned to the cot. Frodo was looking in fond relief at Sam, but he turned and took the water eagerly as Gandalf sat down once more. Once the hobbit had emptied the glass, Gandalf leaned over until his face was near Frodo's, looking lovingly into the beautiful eyes, then kissing his cheek gently. Frodo whispered, "What happened, Gandalf? Where are we?"

"We are back in Ithilien, my dear, sweet hobbit. The various plans that Aragorn had to carry through have been achieved ..." He paused and went on uncertainly, wondering how Frodo would react to what he was going to say. He smiled encouragingly at the hobbit. "And ... with considerable help from Sam, you and I managed to destroy the Ring. You remember that happening, don't you, Frodo?"

Frodo nodded, but the smile faded from his face. Sadly and quietly he said, "I took the Ring. After all we went through to destroy it, I said that it was mine."

"Yes, but then you gave it to me. That took such strength and courage, my darling Frodo!" He managed a tiny chuckle. "It also took quite a bit of persuasion-but then so did it with Bilbo seventeen and a half years ago. Like him, you gave it freely at the end. I cannot tell you how terrified I was that I would have to take it from you."

"I think that the way I was then, I should have gone mad."

"Very likely. Even after you gave it up, I feared that when I threw the Ring into the fire, you would indeed go mad and hate me. I told myself that it didn't make any difference, since we would all soon be dead anyway, but I still dreaded having to do it. Thankfully, it didn't come to that. After the Ring was destroyed, its hold on your mind began to fade almost immediately, it seemed to me." He hesitated. "How do you feel about the Ring now? Can you accept that it is gone?"

Frodo thought for a long time. Finally he replied, "It feels like something huge that was a part of me is gone ... Oh, don't look so worried, please! It's not that I long for it horribly, but ... somehow it's ... it's as if I have lost something important and I can't remember what it is. Which is strange, because I do remember, it was the Ring. It's just, when I try to think of other things, my mind goes back to it as if I'm trying to remember what I lost. Does that make any sense?"

Gandalf was frowning, but he gave a reluctant little laugh. "Somewhat, I suppose ... but not very much! Perhaps it is just that you are still a bit dazed by what happened. I only hope that your confusion fades with time. Whatever I need to do to help you, Frodo, you know I will do gladly, eagerly. Just tell me, anytime."

"I shall. Right now you could kiss me-and then give me some of the food that I see on that table. I am starving!"

Gandalf grinned. "I know exactly how you feel, my dear hobbit!"

He leaned down and kissed Frodo lingeringly. He was delighted at the strength in the arm that went tightly around his neck. Despite his hunger, Frodo did not seem to want Gandalf's mouth to leave his, and they went on kissing until someone nearby cleared his throat loudly. They drew quickly apart and turned to see Sam grinning weakly at them.

"Not that I'm embarrassed, mind you, but I would like some of that food-and water--as well, please. I'll skip the kiss, though, if you don't mind," he said hoarsely to Gandalf.

The wizard chuckled and replied, "Not at all. I think I know where I can get more when I want them." He smiled fondly at Frodo, then quickly rose and went over to fetch water and a heaping plate for each of them.

Gandalf sat between them again after fetching a third plate, distinctly less full than theirs, for himself. He was delighted to see that Frodo's dazed air was fast giving way to eagerness as he attacked his food. He turned back to Sam. "Yes, you're definitely a far bolder hobbit than when we set out from Rivendell. Getting a bit cheeky, in fact. Still, probably not bad enough to warrant that spotted-toad spell," he added, glancing at Frodo as if for confirmation of this.

Frodo pretended to consider carefully, then finally shook his head. The three laughed, more at the joy of being safe and together again than at the little joke. As the hobbits ate, Gandalf briefly filled them in on the doings of the other Fellowship members and the outcomes of the various battles.

After Sam and Frodo had finally eaten their fill-an achievement involving another tray of food brought to them by the attendant-Sam said with a smile, "I reckon you two wouldn't mind a little time together. I think I'll go and see if I can find any of the other Fellowship members. Do you know if Pip and Merry are here, Gandalf?"

"Yes, all the others should be here-except Boromir, who I gather is still in the Houses of Healing. We shall join you shortly, but you're right, I would appreciate some private conversation with Frodo. Thank you, Sam. You might start by trying Aragorn's tent. It's the large white one you'll see to your right as you go out."

Once Sam had departed, Gandalf pulled Frodo onto his lap and held him closely. After the cheerful conversation with the hobbits, his grief over Faramir's death came back to him, making him even more grateful that he still had his lover. Frodo heard him sigh and drew back to look up into his melancholy face. "What's wrong, Gandalf?"

"I ... There is so much more to tell you, Frodo, most of it joyous news that Aragorn imparted to me while you slept. Yet ... we have suffered one grievous loss that pains me a great deal. Faramir was killed during the fighting. Killed by a Nazgul."

Frodo stared at him, appalled. The wizard struggled once again to control his feelings. Frodo nodded sympathetically. "I could tell when we met him that you knew him very well ... But you weren't ... you weren't lovers, though, were you? Somehow when we met him, I sensed that you hadn't been."

"No, we were never lovers, Frodo, though I must admit that there was a time when we might have been, had not serious obstacles stood between us. I came to know him when he was but a lad, when I used to go fairly frequently to Minas Tirith to use the archives. Once he grew up, I struggled to love him only as I would a son, but there was always an attraction between us. He had so many fine qualities. I suppose that in some ways he was a bit like you." Suddenly he gasped and closed his eyes, beginning to weep again. Frodo hugged the wizard tightly, his own eyes becoming misty as he sought to comfort his lover. After Gandalf's tears finally diminished and ended, they sat silently, unmoving, for a long time before going out to be reunited with their friends.

During the next few weeks, the troops of Gondor and Rohan continued to bring order and safety to Ithilien and to make sure that the surrendered troops from far to the south made their way back toward their homes. Most were more than happy to be released from their forced servitude to the Dark Lord, but the orcs, born and bred in Mordor, were less tractable, and pockets of resistance remained for some time.

Gandalf, Frodo, and Sam spent much of their time either eating or listening to their friends' detailed accounts of events on the west side of the river-or both. Messages came frequently, giving news of other battles to the north: of how Bard II and Thorin III Stonehelm had drive the enemy from Dale; of how Lórien had with difficulty repelled three assaults on its borders; of how Celeborn led his troops and took Dol Guldur, with Galadriel destroying the Dark Lord's lesser dwelling; and of pitched battles under the trees of Mirkwood that ended in the victory of Thranduil's people.

Through all this Gandalf strove to maintain a cheerful demeanor, despite news of losses in the northern battles, his grief over Faramir's death, and his lingering worries concerning Frodo and Saruman. As he had promised, Aragorn sent word that the White Wizard was once more to stay locked in his quarters, and Gandalf was content to delay the moment when he would have to deal with his treacherous colleague.

He and Frodo decided to refrain from lovemaking until they reached the house that they were to occupy in Minas Tirith. Initially they were both too weak, and, as Gandalf pointed out, the bustling, crowded camp afforded little real privacy. "I do not want to sneak off for a quick little roll on the ground somewhere in the woods. Too close to that pathetic little session in Mordor!"

Frodo protested, "That wasn't pathetic to me! It was wonderful."

"Well, naturally I'm delighted that you enjoyed it. I enjoyed it myself, in that I was able to give you a bit of pleasure in a grim situation. Still, I think I'd prefer to wait until we can be, as you would say, in a real bed.

As Frodo recovered, he began to ask the wizard more questions about the future, and Gandalf realized that now that the Ring had been destroyed, he could tell his lover

something about his true nature and his mission to Middle-earth. He would have to do so sooner or later, and now that the Ring was gone, the requirement for secrecy was not as great. Should he tell the other members of the Fellowship as well? he wondered. Aragorn knew Gandalf's background, though only sketchily. The wizard had wondered at times if Legolas did not suspect, though the elf had never asked him any probing questions about it. He did not want his tale to be spread casually, but these people had contributed enormously to their struggle and had become his friends. Surely he could add them to the select group in Middle-earth who knew him to be the Maia Olorin.

One afternoon he assembled the members of the Fellowship in the sunny clearing beside Aragorn's tent. Once they were all seated on stools in a semi-circle, Gandalf smiled. "We have traveled far and taken many strange routes. So seldom have we simply sat together like this, in safety and companionship! Only at the Council of Elrond and when we arrived in the great hall at Caras Galadhon. Now, however, we seek neither counsel nor protection. I have asked you to join together once more and to learn something of the larger significance of what we accomplished together." Then Gandalf revealed to them something of his true nature as a Maia and of how he had been sent, along with the other Istari, to aid in the struggle against Sauron. All listened in fascination and in growing awe. Aragorn was as riveted as the others, as his long desire to know more about his friend was satisfied. Gandalf noticed that a little smile played occasionally about Legolas' lips, as if he was glad to have his suspicions confirmed. Once the wizard fell silent, the others peppered him with questions, but Gandalf held up his hands to ward these off. "My dear friends, I have told you what I may. I shall say, however, that I could not have accomplished my mission without your help, and the help of many brave people of all races who put aside their differences and banded together against our common enemy." They fell silent at that, looking at each other and nodding, some fighting tears. On common impulse all stood, and one by one they embraced Gandalf and wandered away, talking in small groups as they went, until only the wizard and Frodo were left in the clearing.

Frodo took Gandalf's hand. "So that's what you meant when you said that you would remember and love me forever. You really meant forever. That an immortal being could feel that way about me ... a little hobbit." His eyes were brimming.

"I meant it literally, Frodo. You are hardly an ordinary hobbit, you know."

Frodo looked uncertainly up at his lover. "Could ... could I ask at least a few more questions? You said in Lórien that I have a great deal of influence with you. I'd like to use it now, to find out just a little more about the man I love ... and thought I knew so well."

Gandalf smiled down at him. "I think you might persuade me to tell just a bit more. Let us go for a leisurely stroll in this fine weather." They wandered off into the beautiful forest of Ithilien and spoke long together.

At first Gandalf was somewhat worried about the effect of this news on Frodo, who was already struggling with the mental effects of the Quest. He was pleased to find that learning who Gandalf really was seemed to lead Frodo away from his gloomier thoughts, though he naturally seemed a bit dazed by the whole thing. Gradually, however, the hobbit seemed to adjust to the idea. A few days later the hobbit remarked suddenly, "I hope you don't expect me to start calling you 'Olorin.' I don't think I could ever get used to it."

Gandalf chuckled. "I don't expect anything of the sort, if you don't want to. In fact, 'Olorin' is just what the elves took to calling me very long ago. Like 'Gandalf,' it is really only a sort of nickname."

"All right, then what is your real name?"

The wizard shrugged slightly. "I don't have one."

Frodo gave a startled little gasp of laughter and looked skeptically at the wizard. "Everyone has a name. You must have one."

"No. In my Maiarime form, I am not embodied, and when we communicate among ourselves or with the gods, we do so directly from mind to mind. We do not have to address each other by name, and hence we do not need them. Don't look so baffled, my darling hobbit! It is nothing that you have to worry about. You may go on calling me 'Gandalf' for all your life. After two thousand years, I assure you, I am quite used to that name."

One morning near the end of their stay in Ithilien, Aragorn came to the tent where Gandalf, Frodo, and Sam were having breakfast together. He grinned. "I see that our two heroic hobbits are working hard-and indeed making progress-toward putting a bit of natural plumpness back on themselves. Even you are looking less thin, Gandalf."

The three chuckled, and Aragorn went on, "I have decided that I would like to check personally on Minas Morgul and see that it has been thoroughly rid of the great evil that dwelt there so long. I also might get some notion as to how we should go about reclaiming it and turning it once more into a watchful presence to prevent evil from re-entering Mordor. Perhaps the idea of approaching even that close to the Black Land again does not appeal to any of you, but you are certainly welcome to come along if you wish."

Gandalf looked doubtfully at the two hobbits. "I for one would be glad to accompany you. It is certainly not too soon to start making such plans for future vigilance. Seeing the beginning of Mordor's healing would please me very much. Sam, Frodo, as you may have realized, Aragorn is proposing to take the route by which Gollum wished to lead us into the Black Land. You must decide for yourselves whether you would be curious enough to come along and see that. It will be far from pleasant, even now."

Both hobbits exchanged whispers and seemed very uncertain, but at last both decided to go along on Aragorn's little scouting trip. Gandalf explained that it would have taken them two days on foot, but on horseback they reached the crossroads that Gollum had described late that afternoon. They camped well outside the beginning of the valley that contained the dead city and entered the place the next morning.

Despite being emptied of their enemies, the city and the entire area around it retained a miasma of dread that affected them all. Gandalf held both hobbits by the hand as they walked slowly around the fields outside the gate, viewing the city from a distance. After a few hours, Aragorn and his troops returned, reporting that the city and the tower of Cirith Ungol beyond were indeed completely empty. One Gondorean officer reported that they had discovered a huge spider in a tunnel near the tower. With considerable difficulty and at the cost of several injuries, they had managed to kill the hideous creature. Gandalf was most interested in this news and insisted upon visiting the spot and viewing the giant corpse. The officer guided him and Aragorn to the tunnel, and the hobbits, after some hesitation, followed them.

Even with Gandalf's staff lit up, the tunnel was dark and filled with the stench of the spider and its prey, which they could smell long before they finally reached the enormous corpse. Numerous slashes on the body and a few of the spider's severed legs lying about testified to the ferocity of the battle and the heroism of the troops of Gondor. Frodo, Sam, and Aragorn stood staring with appalled fascination at the remains of the spider. Gandalf, however, walked curiously around the creature, examining it closely. Finally he turned back to the others.

"I have not seen a spider this size in eons. Whole hordes of them plagued the coastal areas of Eldamar in ages past." He sighed sadly. "It was a spider very much like this one that aided in the destruction of the White and Golden Trees. I do not believe that anyone outside Mordor-except Gollum, of course-knew that any spiders close to this size still survived anywhere in the world." He looked at the two hobbits with a little smile. "I'm sure that Bilbo has told his tale-probably several times!--of the large spiders that he dealt with in Mirkwood years ago. Those spiders were nothing like as big as this one-though certainly Bilbo had to summon considerable courage and resourcefulness to deal with them. Yes, the lingering effects of ancient evils like the Balrog and this spider are difficult indeed to eradicate. I am glad to see another of Morgoth's creatures taken from this world. It was worth the trip, Aragorn, just for this one deed, and your soldiers are to be commended."

After another thoughtful pause, he turned again to the two hobbits. "I wonder if we might not be looking at Gollum's last great hope for obtaining the Ring. Remember, he wanted us to come by some path that would presumably take us very near here-perhaps even through the tunnel itself. Yes, that would be very clever, and as I told you, Gollum was very clever where the Ring was concerned. He would have an ally who would be most interested in disposing of us for him, but who would care nothing about the Ring. He might simply be able to find the prize he sought still hanging around the neck of a lifeless hobbit." Seeing Frodo's frown of disgust, Gandalf ruffled his lover's curls. "Cheer up! Such a thing did not come even remotely close to happening."

Frodo looked up at him with a touch of exasperation. "Well, at least you are refraining from saying, 'I told you so'-out loud, anyway. And now, can we get out of here?"

Gandalf's smile disappeared. "I'm sorry, my darling hobbit. Maybe I should have discouraged you from coming. Sometimes it is best to confront dangers once they have passed, but I hope this has not been too much-"

"Oh, I didn't mean that! I'm glad to see Mordor in the control of Aragorn's troops, and I suppose I am glad in a way to have seen what we escaped encountering. Still, enough is enough! It smells dreadful in here!" He grabbed the wizard's hand, kissed it, and dragged him toward the exit from the tunnel.

At last the areas around Mordor had been secured, and the group traveled to the White City. And there in the midst of the fields they set up their pavilions and awaited the morning; for it was the Eve of May, and the King would enter his gates with the rising of the Sun.

All night lights were burning as men watched for the dawn. And when the sun rose in the clear morning above the mountains in the East, upon which shadows lay no more, then all the bells rang, and all the banners broke and flowed in the wind; and upon the White Tower of the citadel the standard of the Stewards, bright argent like snow in the sun, bearing no charge nor device, was raised over Gondor for the last time.

Now the Captains of the West led their host towards the City, advancing in line upon line, flashing and glinting in the sunrise and rippling like silver. And so they came before the Gateway and halted a furlong from the walls. As yet no gates had been set up, and there stood men at arms in silver and black with long swords drawn. Before the barrier stood Boromir the Steward, and Húrin Warden of the Keys, and other captains of Gondor, and the Lady Éowyn of Rohan with Elfhelm the Marshal and many knights of the Mark; and upon either side of the Gate was a great press of fair people in raiment of many colours and garlands of flowers.

A hush fell upon all as out from the host stepped the Dunedain in silver and grey; and before them came walking slowly the Lord Aragorn. He was clad in black mail girt with silver, and he wore a long mantle of pure white clasped at the throat with a great jewel of green that shone from afar; but his head was bare save for a star upon his forehead bound by a slender fillet of silver. With him were Éomer of Rohan, and the Prince Imrahil, and Gandalf robed all in grey, and four small figures that many men marveled to see.

Boromir met Aragorn in the midst of those there assembled, and he knelt and said: "The last Steward of Gondor begs leave to surrender his office." And he held out a white rod; but Aragorn took the rod and gave it back, saying: "That office is not ended, and it shall be thine and thy heirs as long as my line shall last. Do now thy office!"

Then Boromir stood up and spoke in a clear voice: "Men of Gondor, hear now the Steward of this Realm! Aragorn, son of Arathorn, has come to claim the kingship. Shall he be king and enter into the City and dwell there?"

And all the host and all the people cried yea with one voice.

Boromir spoke again. "Men of Gondor, long ago, in the days of the kings, it was the custom that the king would receive the crown from his father; or if his father died before giving it to him, that he should visit the tomb where his father lay and take it from his hands. That is not possible now, and as the Steward, I have taken the responsibility of bringing it hither from Rath Dinen, where long it had been held by Eärnur, the last king."

Then the guards stepped forward, and Boromir opened the casket, and he held up an ancient crown. It was shaped like the helms of the Guards of the Citadel, save that it was loftier, and it was all white, and the wings at either side were wrought of pearl and silver in the likeness of the wings of a sea-bird, for it was the emblem of kings who came over the Sea. Then Aragorn took the crown and held it up and said: Et Eärello Endorenna utúlien. Sinome maruvan ar Hildinyar tenn' Ambar-metta!

And those were the words that Elendil spoke when he came up out of the Sea on the wings of the wind: "Out of the Great Sea to Middle-earth I am come. In this place will I abide, and my heirs, unto the ending of the world."

Then to the wonder of many Aragorn gave the crown back to Boromir and said: "By the labor and valor of many I have come into my inheritance. In token of this I would have the Ring-bearer bring the crown to me, and let Mithrandir set it upon my head, if he will; for he has been the mover of all that has been accomplished, and this is his victory."

Then the hobbit came forward and took the crown from Boromir and bore it to Gandalf. The wizard was greatly moved by the depths of pride and love that he saw in Frodo's eyes as he held it up, and he hoped that the hobbit could read those same feelings in his own face as he took it. Then Aragorn knelt, and Gandalf set the White Crown upon his head, and said: "Now come the days of the King, and may they be blessed while the thrones of the Valar endure!"

But when Aragorn rose all that beheld him gazed in silence, for it seemed to them that he was revealed to them now for the first time. Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; and wisdom sat upon his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands, and a light was about him. And then Boromir cried: "Behold the King!"

And in that moment all the trumpets were blown, and the King Elessar went forth and came to the barrier, and Húrin of the Keys thrust it back; and amid the music of harp and of viol and of flute and the singing of clear voices the King passed through the flower-laden streets, and came to the Citadel, and entered in; and the banner of the Tree and the Stars was unfurled upon the topmost tower, and the reign of King Elessar began, of which many songs have told.

After the ceremony and the unfurling of the banner, Gandalf, Legolas, Gimli, and the hobbits were shown to the house that they would live in for the next few months. Frodo was a little worried about having some privacy with the wizard, but once he saw the large and airy house, he realized that it would be quite possible for him and the wizard to retreat quietly to their own room whenever they wished.

Even before they had time to examine their temporary home thoroughly, a summons came for them to join the King in the palace for a celebratory lunch. Although the dining hall was huge, the long table had been laid only at one end, and besides the King there were only the members of the Fellowship and a few others, such as Prince Imrahil and Éomer and Éowyn of Rohan. Now that the formalities were over, Boromir embraced each of the Fellowship members in turn, praising their actions and receiving praise in turn for his own contributions to the War of the Rings. All this while the Lady Éowyn stayed close to Boromir, and once the initial greetings were over, the Steward blushed and announced to the group that they were to be married.

As a loud babble of congratulatory exclamations went up, Gandalf sidled up to Aragorn and said softly, "Well, it appears that you have been getting a bit of a swelled head as the prospect of becoming king approached. It looks as though the lady's sole motive for helping you in Rohan was to serve her King and country."

Aragorn frowned in puzzlement. "I could have sworn ..." He shrugged. "Oh, well! All the better. They make a perfect match. Now, let us have some lunch."

After the meal, the group lingered at the table, and Aragorn stood up to propose a toast to the engaged couple. All raised their glasses and murmured their congratulations before sipping some of the fine local wine. Gandalf said, "Hearing of this engagement is a pleasant surprise. Aragorn had told me that both of you had been seriously wounded in the battle, and yet now we find you both looking remarkably fit and happy. I know how you received your injuries, Eowyn. Together you and Merry performed perhaps the single most heroic act of the day. Now tell me, Boromir, how did you come to be hurt?"

Boromir smiled ruefully. "I think it was because I had an overweening sense of my own power on the battlefield. I dared to confront the Witch King as he tried to enter the City after the gate was shattered. It did little good, as he knocked me off my horse with one swipe of his mace, and I knew nothing until I woke up in the Houses of Healing, with King Elessar standing over me."

Eowyn smiled at Aragorn. "Yes, we must both thank King Elessar for our healing."

Aragorn gave a little smile in return. "I have some gifts as a healer, it is true. They are part of my royal inheritance. You see, Gandalf, Eowyn's arm was broken in her battle with the Witch King, and Boromir was badly bruised when he was swept from his horse. Both suffered most, however, from the Black Breath. Merry, too, although he received no physical wound, was laid low by it. With the help of some athelas and good tending, they gradually recovered."

Eowyn nodded. "And it was during that time that we came to know each other. But our mending was also aided by Saruman. Yes, Gandalf, I know that is a surprising thing to hear. I must say, when he first came to my room to change my bandage, I was unaware of who he was. He was so gentle and concerned that what he was doing should not hurt me. When he finally told me who he was, I was astounded-and disturbed, of course! Here was the one who had put Grima up to his horrible lies and treachery to Rohan! Even when he apologized for all that humbly, I was very skeptical. But he sat long by me over the next days, giving news of the war and of the progress of the others in recovery. He was quite a pleasant companion, I must say. And he treated Boromir in the same way, so I am doubly grateful to him. I am surprised that he was not at the coronation and has not joined us here to celebrate the return of the King." She looked inquiringly at Aragorn.

Aragorn looked doubtfully at Gandalf. "He ... he is in confinement in his room ... at Gandalf's insistence."

The faces of most of the people at the table turned to Gandalf with puzzled little frowns. Gandalf tried not to betray the worry that he felt. "Naturally I insisted. After all, Eowyn, he attacked your people in Rohan, he had plotted to obtain the One Ring. He is a prisoner of war, as Aragorn had told me, and we can hardly risk letting him wander about the city. Who knows what powers he still may retain?" He turned to Merry. "You for one must have been horrified to see Saruman at liberty in the Houses of Healing."

Merry hesitated before replying. "Well, at first I was. I tried to warn Aragorn, but he kept insisting that Saruman had been extremely helpful to him in many ways. I was still frightened of him and wouldn't let him near me. But then Pip saw how kind he was to the other injured people in the Houses, changing their bandages, distracting them from their pain with conversation, giving them medications, and so on. Once I could get up and walk about, I watched him working, and he did seem completely patient and generous. I could hardly believe that he was the same one who had locked you up, Gandalf, and who later had us kidnapped. Later I dared to speak to him, and he was so pleasant! I don't understand, but he ... he must have repented. Maybe it was when the ents destroyed all his works at Isengard. Maybe that shocked him enough to make him realize that he had gone wrong."

Gandalf stared at the hobbit skeptically. Merry and Pippin might have suffered at the hands of Saruman's minions, but they were also the youngest and most vulnerable to the White Wizard's wiles. Yet Saruman seemed to have convinced virtually everyone of his genuine rejection of his traitorous ways. Boromir, Eowyn, and Pippin all nodded with little approving smiles as Merry described Saruman's behavior in the Houses of Healing. Aragorn seemed to be watching Gandalf in the hope that he would accept this description as the truth.

Gimli chimed in, "Yes, and it was not just in the Houses. I was very impressed with his courage and determination during our passage through the Paths of the Dead and our journey up the River to the City. He was considerably less frightened than I initially was, I must admit-or so he seemed. It inspired a sense of confidence, I thought, to have him with us."

Legolas nodded. "Yes, he lent his wisdom in difficult situations. Naturally I too was very skeptical at first. Here, after all, was the man responsible for killing so many trees and even ents of Fangorn! You will believe me when I say that I watched him closely indeed for a long time after he joined us. I never saw even the tiniest sign that he was anything but devoted to our cause and anxious to help in any way he could."

Gandalf sighed as they all stared earnestly at him, but he did not want to turn the joyous occasion into an argument. Besides, he felt that he had little hope of changing the minds of so many who seemed convinced of what they said. Saruman's manner and especially his voice had charmed them, he realized with a little thrill of worry. The other wizard had such endless guile that he had won them all over. Only Frodo and Sam, who had never met the White Wizard, now seemed to share his own skepticism and mistrust. Frodo was watching Gandalf's face with a worried little look, and Sam glanced uncomfortably around the group. The most sensible thing to do, the wizard rapidly decided, was to speak with Saruman himself, in private and asses the other Istar's attitude for himself.. It seemed unbelievable that the treacherous Istar could have changed so much. It could not be the destruction of the Ring that caused that to happen, for this admirable behavior on the White Wizard's part had begun long before that. It must be a ruse. At least Aragorn had made no attempt to give the other Istar back his limited freedoms. He thrust aside his worries for the moment, trying to join in the cheerful conversation.

Eventually they rose from the table. As the others were slowly drifting out of the room in smaller groups, Gandalf detained Boromir and said quietly, "I finally have a chance to thank you for your aid during this dreadful time. And to offer my condolences. You have suffered two terrible losses in such a short period. As you know, I was very fond of your brother. Although your father and I did not always see eye to eye, before he fell under Sauron's influence he was a brave and powerful ruler. I hope that you do not attribute his death to my having asked you to take the palantir away from him."

Boromir shook his head sadly. "No, Gandalf, I do not. When I arrived here, I could see that during the time I had been gone, he had slipped further into melancholy and despair. From what you told me of the palantir, I understood that it had brought him to that state. He was angry with me for taking it, of course, but that action did not drive him to utter hopelessness. That came only when we saw Faramir's body carried into the City."

Gandalf clenched his teeth and looked away for a moment. Finally he went on, "Boromir, I cannot tell you how glad I am that you were able to shake off the spell that the Enemy's great weapon had cast over you-and that you have found someone so fair and brave who will console you for your losses. I know that you will continue to be an enormous help to Aragorn. Of course neither he nor I shall ever speak of what happened that morning."

Boromir stared solemnly at the floor during this, then looked up at the wizard again. "We all have reason to be grateful that you and he were the leaders of the Fellowship, but I in especial do. Thank you for both your forgiveness and your faith in me."

The wizard simply nodded and watched as Boromir went out through the door. He was struck by how similar the man was to his younger brother, and he stood in sad reflection. Soon, however, he looked through the open door and saw Frodo, talking and laughing with the other hobbits as they waited for him. With a little smile, Gandalf went out to join them.

There was continued celebration in the streets all day, and Frodo and Gandalf walked together through the crowds, enjoying the merrymaking. Finally both were tired, however, and at last they returned to the house and went to their room to be alone for the first time that day. The quiet was welcome by that point, and the wizard moved to the window and gazed out over the peaks of the White Mountains. Gradually worries resurfaced in his mind. By now he was quite recovered from the physical hardships of the Quest, and being alone with Frodo made him very aware of the keen need his body felt for the hobbit. He thought, however, that he should do something about Saruman. He had to admit to himself that he was reluctant-very reluctant-to come face to face with the fallen Istar again. He silently berated himself for dithering on the matter, but he also realized that he had not the faintest idea what to do about the situation with Saruman. He tried to reassure himself that he had no reason to fear the White Wizard now that he had lost everything-yet he could not suppress a feeling that Saruman might have some hidden power still held in reserve.

With a sigh, he turned and saw Frodo lying on the bed with sad eyes and a vacant expression. It must be a reaction after all this celebrating and excitement, the wizard thought. The hobbit had experienced fewer of these lapses into thoughts of the vanished Ring than Gandalf had feared, but once he fell into such a mood, it sometimes proved disturbingly difficult to coax him out of it. When Frodo fell prey to such thoughts, the wizard worried that the hobbit's suspicions and resentment of him during the journey in Mordor might also have resurfaced. He recalled with a pang of sorrow a moment a few days earlier, when he had knelt by Frodo's cot because the hobbit seemed to be having a nightmare. Frodo had jerked away and shrunk back from him, panting and staring with frightened eyes. Gandalf had gazed at him, stricken, but tried to conceal his perturbation. Gradually the hobbit had relaxed and allowed Gandalf to take his hand.

Frodo had looked up at him sadly. "I'm sorry, Gandalf. It was just a dream."

"A dream about the Ring?"

"Yes. I don't remember much about it, except that everyone seemed to be trying to take the Ring from me."

"Including me?"

"Don't be upset, Gandalf, but ... well, yes."

"I'm not upset with you, my lovely hobbit. How could I be? It is not your fault. Such thoughts and dreams will fade with time, I sincerely hope." Privately the wizard had been more disturbed than he let on. Since that moment, he had pondered the fact that he had no real way of knowing to what extent the Ring had left permanent effects on Frodo's mind. Perhaps, he thought, it was finally time to probe Frodo a little more deeply than he had so far and ask the questions that had been hovering in his mind since they had woken in Ithilien. If the hobbit proved reluctant to talk about the past or the state of their relationship, the wizard might be able to distract him with a bit of lovemaking.

As he crossed to the bed, Gandalf thought, "Perhaps I'm just using this as an excuse to put off dealing with Saruman. Certainly 'distracting' Frodo would be much more pleasant than a conversation with the old villain. Well, so be it. It's an excuse, and I'm going to take it."

The wizard sat on the edge of the bed. He was pleased to see Frodo smile wanly and reach his hand up to stroke the bushy beard. Gandalf slid his hands under Frodo's arms and pulled the hobbit up into a sitting position, then cupped his long fingers over the curly head. "Despite everything that has happened, you are still dazzlingly beautiful and attractive, my dearest hobbit," he whispered. Tears came to Frodo's eyes, and they stared at each other in silence for a long time. At last the wizard forced himself to ask, "Frodo, I know we love each other, but ... do you think that we can truly put the Quest behind us? Can we go back to the Shire and have our lives revert to the way they were in those halcyon days before the Ring? Will you ever trust me and love me as fully as before?"

Frodo pressed his lips together tightly before replying. "Why not?" he said softly. "We saw the best and worst of each other in Mordor-and I think the worst went into the Fire with the Ring. I do not blame you for anything that happened-and I know without asking that you do not blame me. We can never start over as new lovers, as if all of this had never happened. We shall always have horrible memories. Still, I don't think we could have done what we did if we were not utterly in love with each other."

Gandalf had tears in his eyes by the time Frodo fell silent. Privately he congratulated himself at having decided to talk with Frodo rather than confronting Saruman right away. The immense reassurance that this little speech had given him seemed well worth a delay in facing up to that unpleasant duty. He enveloped the hobbit in his arms and rested his chin on the curly head. "You are right, my sweet Frodo. Already as we talk I feel more confident." He thought for a moment and smiled. "Do you know, Galadriel told me that I would come to love you for your insight and intelligence as well as for all your other wonderful qualities. I discover that she was right. You have grown, Frodo. You are a wiser and more reflective hobbit than when we set out on our Quest."

Frodo pondered this for a moment, then pulled away to lean back on his hands and laughed. "So, you no longer love me only for my beauty, as you said on our first day together."

Gandalf grinned. "It was never only for your beauty, you silly hobbit." He stopped and frowned, surveying Frodo's face intently, tilting his own head slightly from side to side. "Though that was a powerful motivating force, I must say." He nuzzled his face against the hobbit's chest. "And it still is. Yes, insight and intelligence are all very well, but ..." He unbuttoned Frodo's shirt and spread it wide, staring with blissful anticipation at each smooth pink nipple in turn. Frodo grinned and twisted his torso slightly to bring one of them close to the wizard's mouth. With a delighted sigh Gandalf began to tickle at it with the tip of his tongue, moaning softly as he felt the little nub harden and heard Frodo's breath catch and then expel with a shudder. He paused, pinching the wet nipple and licking the fingers of his other hand to do the same. He watched the pleasure send brief, flinching frowns across the hobbit's rapt face. "Yes, I shall thoroughly enjoy your insight and intelligence another time. For now ..." He leaned in to tongue Frodo's smooth throat eagerly as the hobbit's head lolled back and his mouth dropped open.

Frodo sighed happily. "I remember feeling your mouth against my throat that first time we made love."

Gandalf raised his head with a little gasp of amusement. "Naturally! I imagine that I do this most times we make love."

"Yes, but ... then it was ... well, reassuring."

The wizard's eyebrows slid up inquiringly.

"When we first exchanged 'birthday presents'-those kisses-I couldn't quite tell how serious you were-whether you really wanted me. And then when you said you shouldn't be doing such things with me ... I thought that it was hopeless and I had plucked up my courage all for nothing. But then ... when I suddenly felt your mouth on my neck, so hot and wet and eager, I knew you wanted me as much as I wanted you."

Gandalf smiled at the memory. "Yes, you have proven your courage in many ways," he murmured, sucking and tonguing the smooth flesh avidly again as Frodo buried his fingers in the thick white hair. Immensely aroused, the wizard shifted, pushing Frodo gently down onto his back and moving above him, unlacing both their trouser-fronts as quickly as he could while continuing to leave damp trails across his lover's quivering skin, moving his mouth down onto his torso. Panting, he paused to strip the open shirt and trousers off the squirming hobbit, who pulled on Gandalf's neck until the wizard was on top of him again, their mouths open and pressed together hungrily. The wizard's heavy member slipped from his loosened trousers, and he slid it rhythmically between Frodo's knees and down against the blanket. His hands moved over the hobbit's skin, stroking and clutching. "I want to touch you everywhere at once," he whispered into Frodo's ear, the little gusts of his breathy chuckle making the hobbit gasp and arch up against the wizard's chest. "You've excited me so much!" He nibbled at the lobe. "May I go inside you, my sweet hobbit? Would you like that, or is it too much for our first time together again?"

Frodo panted between phrases as he replied, "Mmmm, I would love it. You've made me so hard! If you're careful and gentle about it, I think it would be all right. Of course, I also love it when you're more vigorous, but we can look forward to that another time. So, if you think you can restrain the beast inside you this time, let's try it, my darling wizard."

"All right, no beast ... at least ... well, a tame one."

The wizard's cock felt anything but tame as he grasped it and positioned the tip at Frodo's tiny entrance. Murmuring his brief spell, he slowly pushed the crown of his erection inside, then gritted his teeth and paused, struggling to suppress both his incipient climax and an overwhelming impulse to thrust hard and relieve his aching need immediately. He thrust gently until Frodo tensed and jerked as he slid over the pleasure point and paused again, rubbing gently and repeatedly over it as he struggled to avoid coming.

Once he had regained control, Gandalf pumped slowly and carefully. Even so, the pleasure nearly defeated him. He drew in deep breaths, held them briefly, and expelled them in great shuddering gasps as he moved very slightly further with each stroke. Frodo whimpered softly and constantly. His legs wrapped around the wizard's hips and rode the hard rod impaling him.

They hovered in a perfect equilibrium of suspended bliss, knowing that any increase would send them over the edge. Yet each was content to delay that moment until the other signaled need beyond endurance. "Oh, Frodo ... this is... this is ..." Gandalf murmured, then drifted beyond speech as he sank over and over into the exquisite heat that seized him and pulled away with such a tight grip. At last he sensed that he was moving faster without having willed it, and his panting became rapid and shallow. Frodo's heels dug into the backs of the wizard's thighs as he savored the mounting pleasure. The hobbit's body was so tightly pressed against his own that Gandalf had to force his hand between their lower bellies to find Frodo's member and pump it as best he could, rubbing his thumb over its tip to massage the thick, warm liquid that erupted from it down over the shaft. Frodo's squeaks and groans of ecstasy, combined with his hips' jerking movement, drew Gandalf's come from him, and he arched his body up and away from the hobbit's, growling deep in his throat as he emptied his balls forcefully.

Gandalf rested his fists on the mattress on either side of Frodo's torso, his straight arms supporting his body as for a long while he panted and fought the giddiness that had struck him. Frodo uttered contented little moans and lowered his legs, causing him to pull off the wizard's shrinking cock. At last Gandalf opened his eyes and looked down at his delighted lover, then lay beside him. He ran his flat hand slowly up and down Frodo's torso.

"Was that too vigorous for you, my darling hobbit? Was the beast tame enough?" he asked teasingly.

"Mmmmm. Now that it's over, I don't think 'tame' is the word you should have used. Maybe 'trapped,' or 'caged,' or 'leashed' ... but not 'tame.' Yes, it was wonderful, and you know it. You're looking very smug."

Gandalf pressed his sharp nose against Frodo's neck, making the hobbit giggle as the beard dragged slightly against his belly. "Smug? What old chap wouldn't be smug at having such a beautiful young lover as you-and being able to make him cry out in ecstasy the way you were doing just now."

Frodo twisted his head to kiss the wizard's cheek. "Yes, I'd say you deserve to be smug, old fellow."

Gandalf stared happily into the beautiful eyes. "Well, so do you, young fellow. You are the most marvelously arousing little creature!"

"Better than beautiful elves?"

"Much better than beautiful elves, in my opinion."

"Mmmmm. Now you've made me smug ... and tired ... blissfully tired." He yawned. "Yes, plenty of time to enjoy all my insight and intelligence later."

Gandalf watched tenderly as the hobbit drifted off into a nap, then rolled onto his back, still enjoying the soft, lovely tingle of satiation in his loins as drowsiness overtook him. "Speaking of caged beasts, I still have to deal with Saruman," was his last waking thought.

TBC and concluded in "Chapter 12: The Scouring of Minas Tirith"

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