At first the snows were welcome, a playworld for Bilbo and the other newly-minted tweens. Never had even the gaffers known such deep and glorious drifts. There wasn't a smial in all Hobbiton that month which wasn't thick with the fug of drying mittens and scorched wool; and the lads and lasses scarcely did more than turn up for their suppers before running out again into the changeling world. They built the most marvelous snow forts and refought the Battle of the Green Fields, beheading snowgoblins and squabbling happily over who got to be the Bullroarer for the next round.
The sickness started soon after Yule, as if it had been waiting for the visits and gatherings to touch as many folk as possible before showing its colors. Within a week half the village was coughing, and Bilbo was kept busy running baskets of herbs and honey around for his mother and helping his father move the woodpile into an inside storage room to save digging through the snow. He knew that his parents were worried. They'd worried before -- but this time was different somehow, and he sang silly nonsense songs as he worked to keep from thinking about why.
Seldom that month did he see the sun, and only as a pale round brightness through the clouds. Storm after storm swept down from the north, bringing wind and snow like tiny stones to sting any unguarded corner of skin. Bungo gave up trying to pack down a path and he and Bilbo dug a tunnel instead as far as Bagshot Row, to fetch the tenants back up to Bag End. It felt odd to have guests so painfully polite, and it wasn't until he and Holman Greenhand had a squabble that ended in bloody noses that Bilbo could relax.
The Noakes' baby was too soon born, and too soon dead, and the only comfort Belladonna could offer was a place beside her own lost babes beneath the larch in the garden. Bilbo insisted on helping to dig through the snow and the rock-hard ground, and she was proud of him, though she did not tell him so. Later, she saw him quietly nursing blisters on winter-soft hands as they stood by the tiny grave. He was so much like his father it wrung her heart.
As they turned to go back inside again she heard the first distant howl.
Wolves in Hobbiton! It was like something out of one of Gandalf's tales. Bilbo shivered with excitement as much as cold and settled himself nearer the fire, proud that his parents had allowed him to stay and listen while the adults argued over what was to be done. Already a family along the valley had lost a pony, according to the Shirriff. "Bring the animals inside," said one, and "keep watch on the fields," said another. "Send for the Thain," said his mother, and Bilbo said "Aye" with the rest, and went to bed dreaming of an army of uncles.
Bilbo stood his watch wearing the helmet his mother had recognized among the mathoms which Holman Greenhand had put on every windowsill and filled with seedlings lest the snow stay too long for a proper spring planting. Hastily emptied and turned to its proper purpose, it proved too small for the adults and too large for any of the children but Bilbo. Even on him it sat around his head like a bell around a clapper, but he took comfort in it. It might not stop a wolf; but it smelled of earth and growing things
It smelled of spring.
more of Mid-March
They heard the horns first, and ran to help fight, but by the time they reached the village the celebrations had begun. In swept the reinforcements with a grand flourish and a song:
Ten tall Tooks, on a bell-bedecked sleigh,
Ten tall Tooks are sent by the Thain,
Ten tall Tooks with our bows and our blades
Ten tall Tooks we sing once again.
Ten tall Tooks are sent by the Thain
Away from the comforts of blanket and fire
No matter the wind or the snow or the rain
We are called and we come: The Shire! The Shire!
"There are wolves and there are Wolves," said Uncle Isumbras as he passed around the stock of fireworks. "And we think these are the lesser sort, driven into the Shire by weather all the worse beyond the Brandywine and lack of prey. Keep close to the village. Light and noise should frighten them. Fire certainly will, so keep your torches close to hand. That should keep you safe enough while we hunt them."
"And if they're not the lesser sort?" the miller asked, and the Hobbiton folk crowded closer yet to hear the answer.
"Then we won't be the hunters."
It wasn't till the first rain came and the snow began to rot that the hunters had any luck. They brought the carcass to the village, and Bungo opened the last barrel of apples to mark the occasion. Bilbo helped hand them around and then went back to the shed to take another look. He'd imagined wolves as large foxes, but foxes were sleek, comfortable creatures next to this scraggly giant. Its matted fur was more yellow than white, and its ribs showed.
How terrible a thing, Bilbo thought, to be hunted down for no worse crime than being hungry.