DISCLAIMER: I do not own any of Tolkien's characters or the world he created. The only character of mine (Jorryn) has decided to take a holiday in Tolkien's Middle-earth. No copyright infringement on any of J. R. R. Tolkien's works is intended.

AUTHOR'S NOTE (updated November 2009): I would have never imagined it, but even after almost ten years, people are still reading TWT. It was just a silly summer project when I started, and I wrote it a bit sloppily with the enthusiasm of a devoted fangirl, but I'm so glad that readers are still enjoying it. Thank you so much!

We meet some familiar hobbits…

PROLOGUE

It was not a sense of fear, or duty, or a demanding urgency that drove Frodo Baggins through the thick woods of Hobbiton's Overhill. There was nothing more to the young hobbit's gaze than intense and unvaried concentration, focused piercingly on the uneven ground just before him.

The ordered piece of forested land he was running in, which grew on a hill behind Frodo's rich home at Bag End, was tame and well-kept, watered by a slender brook that laced itself through the bending, grey trees. Bag End itself could be seen from the top of the Hill, snugly tucked into the ground, light ashen smoke puffing from a short chimney.

Panting gently, Frodo was jumping nimbly from one patch of earth to the next, winding around trees and rocks with a surprising swiftness. A secretive smile was forming on his strong-jawed face, a mischievous glint in his clear eyes. His large, bare feet made no noise on the rough forest terrain. Sweat dripping on his brow, the hobbit allowed his smile to widen. No — it wasn't fear or a pressing need pulsing through Frodo, but the simple, tickling sensation of glee and merriment.

Frodo was still considered a child of the hobbit community, however quickly his coming of age was approaching. He would be thirty-three years old in a matter of months, on September 22nd. His older cousin, Bilbo Baggins, had a birthday on the same day as Frodo, but the senior Baggins exceeded his adopted heir Frodo by many seasons. Bilbo, who was approaching one hundred and eleven years of age, had been carefully planning a large and expensive party for the two of them, to which over a hundred hobbits were to be invited, but Frodo was beginning to grow suspicious. As was the case with most of Bilbo's schemes, Frodo felt that there was more to it than his older relative liked to admit.

Unwilling to think about the Party then, the hobbit suddenly slowed his sprint and paused behind a short hedge, not having to bend very low to hide his petite form. His thin summer cloak swept about his muscled shoulders as he peered out into a clearing, where one of his friends was waiting. Sunlight was just beginning to brighten the forest with a morning light that shaded the landscape with vivid gold. The woodland seemed to be ignoring a solitary figure that crouched in the tall, waving grass near the clearing's edge.

Frodo recognized the shape and posture of the figure at once. "Meriadoc!" he murmured. Though it was only a whisper, Frodo's voice came ominously from the shrub, and it echoed into the meadow from several places at once.

The hobbit, Meriadoc Brandybuck, looked up, his reddish-blonde hair tangled about his face. Slowly, he stood from where he had been kneeling. "Pippin?" he called uncertainly, glancing into the trees and bushes surrounding him. "Frodo?

In his hiding place, Frodo fought to stifle his laughter, grinning broadly. "Merry!" he hissed again, using his friend's nickname.

Merry's sharp gaze immediately shot to the shrub that was Frodo's place of concealment. Frodo ducked quickly out of sight just as Merry started jogging toward him — but at the same moment, Frodo was tackled from behind without warning.

With another hobbit suddenly on his back, Frodo lurched forward, crying out, and broke through the branches of his hiding-hedge. The two adolescents tumbled down into the clearing in a tangle of arms and legs, rolling to a stop at Merry's feet. Leaves and twigs clung to their capes and matted hair, and for a second the three stared at each other, breathing heavily.

"Well, there's a miracle, if I ever saw one!" cried Merry, a lopsided smile breaking his square-jawed face. "Beaten at your own game, Master Baggins!"

Frodo's successful attacker leapt up triumphantly and then offered his friend a hand, pulling Frodo up. "You didn't even hear me, did you, Frodo?" the golden-haired hobbit exclaimed, his green eyes shining with delight.

Dusting the grass off himself, Frodo pierced the winner of the game with a meaningful look. "Peregrin Took, you shall always be the slyest hobbit I've ever known."

Peregrin, who was called Pippin by his companions, pursed his thin lips. "Slyness is not a bad characteristic to have, especially when one has to deal with hobbits such as yourself, Frodo Baggins."

Frodo and Merry laughed, and together the three hobbits began to walk back into the forest to Bag End. Hobbiton was waking up to a new day, and small forms could be seen moving below, walking slowly among the narrow, well-kept dirt streets of the village.

Strolling at a leisurely pace, the trio came to the main road descending toward their valley. Frodo idly gathered pebbles and started to toss them at random targets along the way, saying nothing during their hike downhill.

"We should get Sam to join our little game sometime!" Pippin suggested after a few minutes, still delighted at the thought of his victory.

"Only to have him seized and battered by an overeager player," Frodo snorted. Lifting an eyebrow at Pippin, he rubbed a sore spot on his neck. Samwise Gamgee was Frodo's loyal servant and gardener, and one of his closest companions.

Merry produced a curved wooden smoking pipe from somewhere inside his jacket, and he began to puff on strong pipe-weed. "One thing is for sure," he said, "we can't make a habit out of these games; one of us is liable to have our wits thrashed out of us before long."

They chuckled at the idea, and before the disgruntled Pippin had a chance to defend himself, another distant voice called from behind on the road.

"Ho there, hobbits!"

They turned to see a large chestnut horse clopping briskly in their direction, pulling a wooden cart along the path. A single passenger perched on the cart's riding seat, his back slightly bowed with fatigue and age. He was clad entirely in long, woolen robes that were the color of dark slate. His tall, pointed hat shadowed half of his weathered face, but his eyes shone piercingly under the brim. Grey hair waving over his broad shoulders, the man greeted the hobbits with a nod and smoothed the long, white beard which flowed to his midsection. Boxes rattled in the cart, stamped with the familiar mark of the great wizard, Gandalf the Grey.

Frodo waved happily, beaming. "It's been long since I last met you, Gandalf!"

"Good day to you, Frodo," the wizard responded in his deep, commanding tone. He pulled his horse to a stop, nodding at the two hobbits behind Frodo. "Meriadoc, Peregrin; you are both looking well."

They returned his greetings. Frodo took a step closer, careful of the huge horse pounding the earth with its hooves nearby. "What brings you to the Shire, Gandalf?" he asked.

"Our great friend Bilbo, of course," Gandalf answered, leaning forward and letting his elbows rest on his knees. Glancing over his wares, a smirk lit his wrinkled countenance. "He wanted the best fireworks anyone could offer for your long-expected Party." Gandalf was a master of fire and displays of smoke and light, and a long-time friend of Bilbo Baggins. Though he was considered an outcast and someone not to be trusted, all of the hobbit-village knew and respected Gandalf.

News of the Bagginses' Party had traveled fast through Hobbiton, and since everyone knew how queer the occupants of Bag End could be, the entire town was keeping its eyes open. Gandalf was yet another confirmation that unusual and grand things were happening at the Hill. Already, hobbit-children were staring from their windows and lawns at the strange Man with the cart and full-grown horse.

Gandalf flattened the wrinkles in the sleeves of his robe. "This is hardly everything he wanted. I shall have to return in September to bring the rest of them."

Frodo squinted up in the sunlight. "Bilbo will be glad to see you; 'the fireworks will probably be better than the food,' he keeps telling me."

"Well," said Gandalf pleasantly, "that's a magnificent thing for a hobbit to say, especially since I know how much hobbits love meals."

"Which reminds me," Pippin interrupted, "we've not had breakfast yet."

"Would you Little People like to ride the rest of the way to Bag End?" Gandalf invited, making room in the rear of the cart.

"Thank you," Merry and Pippin accepted at once, clambering into the wagon, but Frodo announced that he had left his knapsack in the woods.

"I'll be back in a moment, if you'll wait."

Gandalf agreed, and Frodo went trotting away between the trees. Shafts of light filtered through the boughs above, and the forest life twittered and sang around him. The soil was fertile and damp beneath his feet. Ahead, beside the stream, he spotted his pack set against a boulder where he had left it earlier that morning. He stooped and slung it over his shoulder, rising to breathe in the sweet-smelling air, pausing to admire the solitude. The brook bubbled, and the woods reverberated with a comforting song. The song was broken a moment later.

All at once, there was a rush of violent wind all about Frodo, bursting so unexpectedly and so furiously that the hobbit was nearly knocked off his feet. His cloak was ripped from his neck and blown across the stream, landing in the shadows. The gale rushed into Frodo's face, stinging his eyes and biting his skin with dust. The tumult was deafening.

As soon as it had come, the storm was gone, and Frodo found that he had been thrown down into the dirt and moss, his arms wrapped around his head protectively. He lifted his soiled face, gasping. The serene forest was no different than it had been before.

Searching vainly for a grey cloud in the sky, for a source of the storm, Frodo stood, amazed. He had never experienced anything so sudden and fierce, nor had he ever heard of it happening to anyone else. Rattled and scared, and wanting to hurry back to his waiting friends, he bounded across the slow-running stream to find his cloak.

He located it lying across the ground, a gaping hole ripped into the attractive green fabric. Wondering anxiously if it could be repaired, he trotted over to it.

Yet when he lifted the stained cloth, it was not earth or stone that he revealed underneath. Frodo's blue stare glittered with confusion and disbelief, his brow puckering into a bewildered frown — he was looking upon a Lady. He ogled down dumbly, not sure what he should do, but with a jolt he abruptly remembered that he had a voice.

"Gandalf!" Frodo shouted, standing and yelling with all his might in the direction of the road. "Pippin, Merry! Come quick, now!"