Hi, reader! Thanks for checking out my story. A quick note before it begins: The story's timeline is based in book canon, as opposed to movie canon. It's set late in the year 2850 of the Third Age, which is forty years before Bilbo Baggins's birth, according to the Tale of Years in the Lord of the Rings appendices. The Tale of Years and Peter Jackson's The Hobbit movies have just a few differences, one of these being the timing of two related events: Gandalf's visit to Dol Guldur, in which he discovers that Sauron is indeed residing there and planning to find the Rings; and the departure of Sauron's spirit to Mordor for the final time. In the movies, both these events happen quite close together, certainly well within the span of a year (and more likely the span of a few days). In the book timeline, Gandalf's visit takes place ninety-one years before the year of Sauron's departure and the events of The Hobbit. I've chosen to adopt this timeline for the story, although there will still be plenty of nods throughout to things that happen in Peter Jackson's two Middle-earth trilogies.

Chapter One: Waiting in the Weeds

Ulga crouched inside a small patch of thorny bushes some yards away from a faint path, watching and waiting. It was an uncomfortable position, but she hoped it would be worth it. So far there wasn't much to see through the network of gnarled twigs, other than late afternoon sunshine on long, yellow grasses that whipped in the wind, making a gentle, melancholy music if she listened closely. Above were what seemed like leagues and leagues of pale blue sky in every direction, interrupted by nothing except the aforementioned gnarled twigs poking her in the face and obstructing her vision. She peered far into the distance, southwards, causing the twigs to fade out of focus until they were only blurry, transparent shapes she barely noticed. On the horizon she could just see the long, softly curving line of the Ered Nimrais, its peaks' famed majestic purple colors bleached pale by distance.

She shifted her position slightly, to better accommodate the muscles that had begun to ache from staying in one place too long, and she felt the thorns push against her. They didn't bother her much; she had good, thick skin.

Suddenly her pointed ears pricked. There were voices approaching on her left. She wriggled further into the brush, trying to make herself as small and invisible as possible, not an easy feat considering her size; she'd always been rather large-boned. Being seen could be dangerous.

The voices, two males of the race of Men, she guessed, grew louder and more distinct as they neared her, along with the muted thud of their horses' hooves, moving at a leisurely pace. Somewhere under the curiosity and tension in her mind, she felt herself sigh. It had been so long since she'd had a horse.

She craned her neck cautiously to look at them and noticed that they were dressed in simple, thick, warm brown clothing, somewhat travel-worn. They both had light blond hair that reached past their shoulders and caught the ever-present breeze. Their tanned faces were pinkened with faint sunburns on the skin of their noses and cheeks. These faces were so similar in bone structure as well as coloring that she guessed the possessors of them to be brothers. She listened with interest, hungrily trying to pick up their conversation.

"Tell me, brother, what was it you saw?" Ha! She'd been right. It was no easy feat to tell when one Human was related to another. Each Human had looked so much like all the others to her at first, especially those from Rohan and the regions near its borders. Blond-haired, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned, each and every one of them. But her eyes were beginning to learn all the little fascinating ways to tell them apart. Things like face shapes and jawlines, smiles, the curves of noses in profiles, little imperfections in skins, the way one Human might have eyes like she had once heard the sea described, pensive grey-blue, and another could have eyes blue like the sky on a cloudless morning in early spring, and yet another pair of eyes could be blue like the sky after dusk, dark and immeasurably deep… Ulga liked eyes. Even though she was currently hiding from them.

Ulga carefully pulled a pesky branch out of her line of sight and scrutinized the brothers' faces now, looking for differences. One had hair that was just a little shorter and darker than the other's, as well as a short beard. The other was beardless, but he seemed to make up for the lack with his prominent, angular eyebrows, which looked strangely out of place with his fair skin and hair. Even so, the primary difference between these young men seemed to be in their countenances. The one with the beard seemed softer to her somehow, more likely to be compassionate. She thought his eyes were kind.

"I saw, going by on horses, two very ugly old men," said the Eyebrow Brother.

"I say! How very unimpressive. What about them was so memorable to you?" inquired the Soft Brother curiously. Ulga studied his face and voice as he spoke. She decided he was very cute.

"Certainly their appearances did little to elicit my admiration. One was tall, and the other short. Both had grey, bushy, unkempt hair and beards. I even fancied I saw a birds' nest, with birds and all, on the short one's head!"

"How strange," said the Soft Brother, wrinkling his alabaster brow endearingly. (Just imagine what everyone back home would think if they knew she spied on Humans and sometimes even thought they were cute!)

"The tall one wore a strange hat, wide-brimmed and pointed at the top. He was the primary speaker. And what he spoke of was a great danger."

The Soft, Cute Brother slowed then stopped his horse as if in surprise and concern, conveniently quite near Ulga. She hardly dared breathe. (Let the reader draw her own conclusions on whether this sudden abatement in Ulga's respiration was because she was in very real danger or because the Cute Brother was, in fact, even cuter up close.)

"A great danger?" asked the Cute One slowly. "Go on."

"Do you know of the great abandoned fortress in Mirkwood? Dol Guldur?"

"Yes, I have heard of it."

"They spoke of its…not being abandoned. Of the existence of an evil presence there. Apparently the old men, or the tall one at least, had gone poking around there, where he ought not, and discovered it. But there is more." He said this ominously, but with a small smile, as if he were getting some kind of thrill from the telling of foreboding news.

The unfolding conversation, apart from the attractiveness of the conversers, was piquing Ulga's interest and now she waited for this next bit of information with (yet again) bated breath. It was irrational; very little of what Eyebrows had just said or was likely about to say was news to her.

"You know the gist of the histories. You know of…Sauron," he went on.

"Yes but…" the Cute One shook his head. "The Enemy was destroyed. Long ago. By Isildur." He guessed the drift of where his brother was going, but he was skeptical, even as his face grew pale.

"He was not destroyed. Not according to the old man. The old man said he saw him."

"That is impossible."

"I only report what I heard."

"And you believe the man was in possession of his right mind?"

"He seemed so to me. Elderly and unattractive, yes, but there was a certain sharpness, and a believability about him. His friend, however… He had a strange, rambling air to him. Half the time I could not understand of what he spoke."

"Did you hear anything else of interest?"

"Yes. They spoke of a wise, learned White Wizard, a leader, whom they were seeking with haste to tell their news. Apparently he lives in the fortress of Isengard, near the southwestern borders of Fangorn. They seemed very much to look up to him, to trust his goodness and judgment. I did not know that anyone so great as a Wizard lived so near our lands."

A White Wizard. The idea of him suddenly caught Ulga's fancy. She thought she could imagine him, ancient in knowledge but young and strong and beautiful in face, luminous like the moon. She imagined he would be kind and gentle, in a way her kind was not, in a way even Humankind was not. He would not be so quick to judge someone like her, she was sure. He would understand.

The Cute One said nothing in words, but his face communicated much. There was something almost childlike about the fascination on it, the sparkles in his eyes, the way his cheeks regained their color, flushing faintly. It distracted her momentarily but completely from her musings about the mysterious and wonderful White Wizard. After all, this gentleman seemed pretty mysterious and wonderful too, in an entirely different way.

"A Wizard…" he mused. And then, quietly, he actually giggled. It was such a pure, sweet sound. Ulga's kind never giggled, so she was almost entirely unprepared for the shock.

She couldn't help it. She squealed quietly. The brothers both froze, and she wanted to slap her own face.

"What was that?" asked Eyebrows.

"It sounded almost…like the deep and powerful grunt of a wild boar."

"Nonsense. There are no wild boars this far from Fangorn or Mirkwood."

The Soft, Cute, Giggly One shrugged his shoulders. "Well, we ought to be on our way; it begins to darken."

It did. Ulga had hardly noticed. It got dark so fast in winter. Not that the dark made it any harder for her sharp eyes to see their way. She felt the wind nip at her skin again. She probably should be getting home; she'd been away long enough. She watched the Cute One and his brother as they moved farther and farther away from her. Going to their own homes, probably. She wondered what those homes were like. Maybe they had families, real families who loved them. Parents who were in love. Perhaps they had wives they loved too.

These thoughts were not good to dwell on. They stung in ways the wind couldn't. But she dwelt on them anyway until the brothers and the sun were long out of sight. Then she crawled out of the bushes, looking all around her cautiously. She saw almost nothing but stars, there were so many of them out here. They winked at her and she was comforted. It was hard to feel too alone among so many friendly little lights. She sniffed the air. Nothing threatening nearby, as far as she could tell. She whistled a long, low note and waited. While she waited, her eyes absently scanned the track the horses had been walking on. They caught something small, flat, and round lying in the dirt. She picked the object up and held it in her hand. She recognized it, but she couldn't give it a name; it had likely fallen off one of the brothers' clothes as he passed, and she'd been too busy staring at their faces to notice. She sniffed it, smiled, and put it in her pocket. Humans with their strange clothes held together by weird little circles…

Just then Ulga looked up to see a small grey shape appear in the dusky distance. It seemed to be moving at an amazing speed. As it neared her, its true size became more apparent. Small it was not. It was gargantuan. It hurtled through the night and then came to a stop next to her. She grinned. Here was her "noble steed". She'd heard a Human use that term once, and had latched onto it herself. The Noble Steed grinned back, or tried to. Really it looked much more like a terrifying grimace. But Ulga understood the meaning. The Steed's huge, powerful tail wagged and it lowered the front of its body onto its forelegs so Ulga could climb more easily up onto its back.

"Let's go home, Warg."

No promises, because I tend to write very, very slowly and I'm only a couple chapters ahead, and of course I've got real-life stuff that takes up a considerable amount of my time and energy, but I'm going to do my best to post a new chapter each month. Thank you so much for reading :)