Determined not to miss anything, Merry and Pippin raced to stand with Frodo, Sam, and the others, as Elrond regarded them with bemused indignation.

"Right," said Pippin. "Where are we off to, then?"

"Nowhere at all, I think."

All eyes turned to Bilbo Baggins who approached the throng with slow, measured steps.

"Gandalf," said Bilbo, "I wonder if I might have a word."

Gandalf's thick eyebrows rose and fell like waves. Finally he said, "Certainly, my dear Bilbo, a quick word if you like."

Off to the side, Bilbo and Gandalf conversed while the Elves, Dwarves and Men exchanged puzzled glances.

The conversation seemed to end when Gandalf, having bent over to hear Bilbo out, suddenly straightened and shook his head.

Frodo heard Gandalf mutter, "Well, there's certainly no fool like an old fool."

Frodo approached them. "What's this all about?"

Bilbo patted Frodo on the shoulder. "Gandalf and I have a bit of business to attend to. I suggest the rest of you stay here and have some tea. We'll be back in a couple of hours. Oh yes," he added, snatching up the ring, "we'll be needing this."

Elrond, his face worked up in a severe frown, watched them leave. "Tea!" he called out.

Two hours later, the Men were playing cards, Aragorn and Arwen were snogging behind a pillar, and the Dwarves and Elves were cheering on Gimli and Legolas as they engaged in an arm wrestling contest.

The Hobbits were busily downing cups of tea and spreading jam on scones when Frodo looked up and announced, "They're back!"

All eyes turned towards Bilbo and Gandalf. Gimli took advantage of the distraction to down Legolas' arm and declare victory.

"Well, that's that," said Bilbo.

"What do you mean, Uncle?" asked Frodo.

"He means," said Gandalf, "that its done. Over. The ring is destroyed."

"What? How is this possible?" Elrond demanded.

"Yes, about that," Bilbo said, scratching the side of his head. "It occurred to me as I reread my book that the adventure you were about to undertake would be full of risk and peril. Things would be blackest before the dawn, if you get my meaning. And what happens when things are the blackest? Why the eagles happen, of course. They come out of nowhere and save the day. So I asked myself, why don't we just skip ahead past all the danger and death, right to the blackest bit, and get the eagles to come now rather than later? Gandalf agreed and summoned two eagles. They flew us straight to Mount Doom, wherein we dropped the ring into the fires and returned."

Bilbo yawned and stretched, oblivious to the blank stares from the assemblage. "And now," he said, "if you'll excuse me, it's time for my afternoon nap."

Frodo and Sam exchanged glances. "Well," said Sam, "the old Gaffer would have something to say about that. I, on the other hand, am speechless."