Snow and Ice
In spite of his watchfulness, it was a low that growl first alerted Bilbo to the danger. He jerked his sword out of its sheath and turned towards the source of the noise. A nearby hobbit gave a shout of surprise, but Bilbo paid him no mind.
The wolf lunged, and Bilbo's sword flashed. Red splattered his face, and the wolf lay still.
Distantly, Bilbo heard his mother give a fierce and joyous laugh. A wet thunk told him that her axe had struck true.
Somewhere behind him there was a loud crash, and a whine. Someone shouted for the children to get in the center, and, "keep the torches up! They need them to see!"
Another wolf emerged from the snowdrift and Bilbo hurled himself toward it. He plunged his sword into the place between the snapping teeth and aimed upward, towards the brain. The wolf jerked and went still, and with a great pull, the sword was freed.
Another thunk sounded, and then another, and Bilbo slashed and slashed at the wolves that kept on coming.
A dark blur moved toward him. Goblin! His blade came up and parried the first blow, the goblin's weapon falling harmlessly to the side. Bilbo's sword rose and slashed across the goblin's chest, making it shriek and back away.
Bilbo held his blade in front of him in a ready guard, nothing at all like the unsteady weaving of his true first fight.
The goblin began muttering and shrieking at him in its own language, then with a loud cry turned and ran off into the darkness.
Bilbo breathed in once, and then again. His eyes scanned the snow banks surrounding the group, and he found no further enemies.
Mother! Bilbo looked over the group anxiously. She had to be alive. She had to be.
"That's the way it's done!" Belladonna laughed. She was covered in blood and gore, but appeared unharmed. She looked positively radiant. Six wolf carcasses and a goblin lay at her feet. The hobbit families kept glancing at her, then at Bilbo, then away.
It was only then that Bilbo noticed the blood dripping from his sword and clothing, and the five fallen wolves that surrounded him.
"Excellent job with that second goblin, son!" Belladonna praised. "I didn't even see him! "
Bungo walked over to his wife and son, frying pan in hand. It had a large dent in the middle, in the shape of a wolf skull.
"And you, dear husband! I knew you had it in you!" Belladonna threw down her axe and dragged Bungo into a kiss.
Bilbo averted his gaze, staring down at his sword. He should feel relieved, he supposed. Mostly he just felt ill. Distantly he heard his father complain about the blood and gore his mother had gotten all over his traveling clothes.
Bilbo jumped as a hand clasped his shoulder.
"Bilbo, are you alright?" his mother asked, concerned. She turned him to face her and proceeded to scan him for injuries. "None of that blood is yours, is it?"
Bilbo shook his head. "I'm... not hurt."
Bungo appeared on Bilbo's other side. His hands moved up, and then down, as if he wasn't sure what to do with them.
"Perhaps we should clean the both of you up, first, before we continue on?" Bungo asked hesitantly, his brow furrowed. His hand touched Bilbo's shoulder. "I belief I have some clean cloths in my pack."
Belladonna looked inquiringly at her husband. Bungo met her eyes and something unspoken passed between them.
Belladonna released her son's shoulder, and stretched her muscles. "Yes, cleanliness. Very important, that. I'll go take a look, shall I?" She headed back to pick up her axe then walked towards the huddle of hobbits. The children crowded around her curiously, while the adults held back and muttered.
"Bilbo," Bungo said, touching his shoulder again. "It was a good thing you did. Son... You are a Baggins as much as a Took. It's alright to be afraid, any hobbit would feel the same - well, most hobbits; very few of us are like your mother..."
Bungo took a deep breath and blew it out his mouth. "What I mean to say is that you shouldn't feel bad. It's alright that you do, but you did nothing wrong. And what you're feeling now is also nothing wrong."
"Dad," Bilbo started to say, guilt gnawing at his insides, "I'm fine." Bilbo was not the young tween he appeared: he had been through war and fire and the threat of death before without anyone holding his hand.
It was in that moment that Bilbo realized that though he had regained his parents, they had lost their son.
Bilbo became, if possible, even more quiet and withdrawn after the blood and gore was cleaned off and he and his father rejoined their neighbors. He did not even notice the sideways glances and faint mutterings of the others when his parents weren't looking.
Bilbo did manage to smile at little Daisy Greenhand as she offered him a sweet roll for "saving us all from those big mean wolves!"
After another hour or so of walking, the group reached Tookland.
A bounder, marked as such by the three feathers in his hat and the bow on his back, emerged from the nearby watchhouse to greet them.
"It's not safe to be out at night," the bounder said, looking over them curiously. "You had best be headed indoors, and quick!"
"We know it's not safe," Master Twofoot replied. "We were attacked! And right outside your doors, too!" He stamped his feet. "Were you sleeping?"
The bounder eyed Belladonna and Bilbo's red-stained clothes and weaponry. "We have had several such attacks since the Brandywine froze, and are sorely needed here," he eventually replied. "Is everyone all right?"
The party assured him that everyone was just fine. The children spoke enthusiastically about Belladonna and Bilbo's defense of them, while the adults tried and failed to shush them.
While this was happening, the door to the house swung open again and several more bounders emerged.
"Auntie Belladonna! It is good to see you again! And Uncle Bungo and cousin Bilbo, as well."
It was Fortinbras Took, one of Bilbo's many Took cousins, and future Thain of the Shire. His father, Isumbras, was the second son of Gerontius Took, and had inherited the Thainship after his elder brother Isengrim's death. Isengrim himself had lived and died a bachelor, which was not as uncommon as some hobbits tried to pretend.
Isengrim was also, if Bilbo remembered correctly, the current head of the bounders.
Fortinbras continued to speak. "What brings you to Tookland? I would think Hobbiton a much closer trip!"
"Hobbiton was closed, nephew," Belladonna replied. "There were no supplies to be had, there, and no doors opened for us."
Fortinbras frowned. "What of the bounders? Uncle gave them specific instructions to aid travelers, so that no one need travel after nightfall."
Belladonna frowned as well. "We saw no bounders."
"Are you certain, Mistress Baggins?" the bounder with the three feathers asked. "Could they have been out patrolling?"
"There were no fresh footprints upon the snow," Belladonna said grimly. "And there were fang marks on some of the boards that had been nailed to the windows."
"They would not have abandoned their posts," Belladonna added.
The other hobbits of the party looked on blankly.
Bilbo blinked twice. Oh... dear. Of course, of course there had been more than one raiding party between Hobbiton and Tookland! There had been hundreds of wolves and goblins ranging from the Brandywine in the east to Michel Delving in the west! Their party had been very lucky to have only been assaulted once, if one could call that luck. The wolves and goblins near Hobbiton had been... busy.
Bilbo turned green. The bounders of Hobbiton were mostly unknown to the hobbits of the Hill, save for the warnings they had brought this winter. They had seemed kind, pleasant people, always with a smile or a song. The first time, he had not even noticed they had gone missing! To be eaten by wolves and goblins was not a fate he wished upon his enemies!
The bounders exchanged looks among themselves.
"We shall escort you directly to the Great Smials," the bounder with the three feathers said eventually. After some hurried shouting and packing, they did just that.
Bilbo was not surprised that Fortinbras was one of the hobbits chosen to accompany them. He said as much to his cousin, when he found Fortinbras walking on his side.
"We will be traveling to my father's smial," Fortinbras said. "Marcho, the chief of the Tookland bounders, and his brother Blanco both have regular rooms there."
So that was the name of the bounder with the three feathers, thought Bilbo, and the other one, too. Neither fellow had bothered to introduce themselves, though his mother had seemed to know them. Perhaps Bilbo had once known them also, but had since forgotten? It has been some time, after all... he thought ruefully.
Fortinbras shook his head. "Uncle Isengrim will not be happy to hear of this," he said to Bilbo, speaking of the attack on the party. "The old wizard has been pushing him to accept the aid of the Rangers, but he will not hear of allowing humans into the Shire. After this news he just might have to. And Grandfather will not be happy to hear that Auntie Belladonna and his ickle grandson Bilbo were attacked as well!"
"The old wizard..." Bilbo began, something sharp twisting in his insides, "do you mean Gandalf?"
"Yes," Fortinbras replied with a nod. "Who would have thought there'd be more to him than fireworks! But he says he knows the head of the Rangers, and that they make it their duty to keep the peace among these parts. Ever since the fall of the King."
Fortinbras removed his hat and covered his left breast with it. "Would it be that he be here in these troubled times!" Fortinbras said dramatically before re-donning his hat.
"Gandalf says these Rangers are different," Fortinbras continued in his original vein, "But of course, Uncle Isengrim has seen too much of the wrong sort of human men to ever trust them. Grandfather is caught between his friendship with the wizard and his trust in his heir, I reckon."
Fortinbras' eyes swept downward over Bilbo's blood encrusted clothing, mercifully clean of gore. "I imagine you're quite looking forward to a hot bath and a change of clothes, cousin!"
Bilbo agreed that he was, before falling silent again. His old friend Gandalf was here? The twisted unpleasant feeling grew. No, that was not quite right. His old friend Gandalf was on his way home to Valinor. The wizard they were to see would be a stranger bearing his face.
Panic grew in his chest. These long weeks he had done his best to accustom himself to the thought of looking upon his former friends as strangers. Bilbo thought he had been successful. He did not believe he could look upon this stranger's face without bursting into tears. What was he to do? What was he to do?
It was quite late when the group finally arrived at one of the doors to the Great Smials. Bilbo had spent the past hour making half-hearted conversation with his Took cousin and doing his best to forget that Gandalf might be awaiting them there.
The party was shivering, hungry and sore when Fortinbras walked up next to the great round door and rung the bell. He waited a minute and rung it again.
The door opened a crack. "Who is it?" asked the voice of a hobbit woman. "And do you know what time it is?"
"It's me, Myrtle! And it's time you opened the door!" Fortinbras shouted.
The door swung open, and the hobbit, Myrtle blinked at them. "Oh, my," she said, taking in the fifteen weary figures on the doorstep. "Oh my, oh my," she said, taking in Bilbo and Belladonna's bloodstained clothes. Myrtle wrung her hands and twisted from side to side.
"Myrtle," Fortinbras said, more gently this time. "These good hobbits are our guests. See Auntie Belladonna and her husband and son! They brought their neighbors with them. They will be wanting guest rooms, hot baths, and supper. Blanco and Marcho will have their regular rooms."
Myrtle stared at Fortinbras, dumbfounded. "Everyone is asleep! Including your father."
"Well, wake them then!" Fortinbras snapped. "And be quick about it. They've had quite a long walk today. We must have words with Grandfather and Uncle Isengrim, too. As soon as possible! There has been an attack!"
Myrtle hurried off and woke the rest of the Tooks' servants. Fortinbras escorted the party into one of the sitting rooms, and brought out some cold cuts and pickled vegetables. The children were too hungry to complain about the fare and the adults dug in gratefully.
"This is my father's smial, one part of the Took family's Great Smials which has been kept in our family for generations and even now serves as the seat for the Thain," Fortinbras told the gathered hobbits. "Each of the smaller smials houses one part of the family, and all are connected through underground passageways. The Great Smials can house up to a hundred hobbits in all! I believe it was Isengrim the Second, the twenty-second Thain of the Shire, who excavated them in 1082..."
As Fortinbras entertained the Baggins' neighbors, Belladonna and Bungo spoke quietly. The two other bounders had disappeared off into one of the tunnels, presumably towards their "regular rooms."
"It will be good to see Gandalf again," Belladonna said with a grin. "It's been, what, five years now?"
"Six," Bungo corrected. "At your father's one-hundred fifteenth birthday party."
"Oh, yes," Belladonna wrinkled her nose. "What mathom did we get that year, dear husband?"
"I believe it was a carved footstool."
"The one with the cats on it?"
"I think so, yes."
"What ever did we do with it?"
"Gave it away to one of the neighbors, I suppose." Bungo blinked. "Didn't match anything else in the house."
Bungo eyed his son, sitting by himself at the far end of the table. Bilbo had never been the most social of children, but these past few weeks he had been especially quiet. If it wasn't for meal-times and training with his mother, Bungo doubted he would have even seen his son! And that fight they had been in...
None of the neighbors seemed to realize that they could have very easily been killed.
Oh, they knew it, they grasped it with their minds, as a fact to hold onto. Only, they seemed to have no idea of what it actually meant. The possibility of a violent death was still unreal to them.
Bilbo... The look in Bilbo's eyes was different. Bungo's little dreamer lad had the fear in him. Not for himself alone, it seemed: Bungo had seen the way Bilbo searched the group for any sign of harm. He had looked like a mother duck counting her ducklings. He had not relaxed until he saw his mother standing, and even then he did not relax so much as look down, as if ashamed.
Belladonna touched his shoulder. "It'll be alright," she said. "We can talk to Gandalf. He's certainly old enough, and a wise wizard besides. Gandalf was a great source of comfort to me in my wild tween years! Perhaps he will be of some comfort to Bilbo, too."
Bungo lifted his wife's hand from his shoulders and held it between both of his. He squeezed it gently. "I hope so, dear wife, I hope so."
Thanks for all the reviews! They're excellent inspriation for writing more :). I also have some notes on my profile page, for curious people. There will be a progress report of sorts up there, too.