1. A Light In Dark Places
"I say it's an ill omen."
The words lingered in the air long after they were spoken. No-one wanted to agree, of course, but at the same time no-one wanted to be first to disagree; the Old Took had a fierce temper when riled, after all.
Eventually- of course, someone had to speak up; after all, it was the weather they were discussing here- and no-one was surprised by who it was.
"Why is it an ill-omen, Father?"
The Old Took bristled.
"Why? Because it is, that's why! Always is and always has been!"
Half-deaf as he was in his old age, the Old Took's voice was always loud; now it took on thunderous proportions as it echoed round the candle-lit room, and some of the younger Hobbits present began to cry. Belladonna shook her head.
"That's not an answer, Father, and you know it isn't- shame on you! Any Hobbit-lad or Hobbit-lass who answered their teacher's question that way would feel a slipper on their backside!"
No-one spoke. What Belladonna was saying was true, granted, but…
"You're not too old to have a slipper taken to you yourself, you know!" the old Hobbit thundered, countenance as dark as the sky outside, "Such impertinence! If I had talked to my father that way-"
"She's right, you know."
The voice that spoke from the corner was deep and rich and commanded utter, silent respect.
"In fact, if you had spoken that way to your father, Gerontius Took, then I am sure he would have seen his old man's foolishness for what it was and backed down- or at least, backed it up with facts instead of bluster."
Gandalf took a deep breath on his pipe, but did not move his gaze from the old Hobbit.
"Facts? It's facts you want? I'll give you facts, then. I remember the Long Winter itself started in just the same way- it snowed so heavily that day that it was up to the very door-tops!"
"That it did, Gerontius, my old friend, I recall it quite clearly…"
The Old Took's grin of triumph was short-lived.
"…but I also seem to recall that the Long Winter ended long years before you were even born."
No-one dared so much as a squeak as Gandalf's words echoed in the gloom- it seemed even the younger Hobbits present recognised the truth in them. Wizard and Thain locked gaze in the dark, and for a moment Belladonna fancied that even the candle-flames stood still.
In the end, of course, there could only be one winner, and it was the Old Took who looked away first.
"The perhaps it was my old Dad who told me about it. Old Fortinbras, yes, that's probably who it was told me."
"Perhaps he did, and perhaps he was right… but all the same, the Shire came through it unscathed in the end, did it not? After all, you are here to tell his tale anew, are you not?"
Now it was the Old Took's turn to nod, and he turned his gaze downwards, ashamed. Gandalf shrugged and sucked on his pipe again.
"The Shire will suffer this winter, true, but it has suffered worse and will suffer worse in years to come. All you can do is keep warm, keep safe and hope for Spring."
Belladonna caught a glitter of mirth in the Wizard's eye as he spoke his next words.
"That, and that the hairs on your toes do not fall out, I believe the saying goes!"
The mood in the room splintered like weak ice at that, and Belladonna grinned. Same old Gandalf, she thought- always a light in dark places.