“It beats me why any Baggins of Hobbiton should go looking for a wife away there in Buckland, where folks are so queer.”
“And no wonder they're queer,” put in Daddy Twofoot (the Gaffer's next-door neighbour), “if they live on the wrong side of the Brandywine River, and right agin the Old Forest. That's a dark bad place, if half the tales be true.”
“You're right, Dad!” said the Gaffer. 'Not that the Brandybucks of Buck-land live in the Old Forest; but they're a queer breed, seemingly. They fool about with boats on that big river– and that isn't natural. ”
- The Fellowship of the Ring (Chapter 1: A Long-Expected Party)
The Brandybuck clan were an odd lot, make no mistake, and there were any number of hobbits who would tell you so, from Sackvilles to Chubbs, Whitfoots to Proudfeet. Even the Tooks, flighty and funny folk themselves by times, would admit their easterly cousins could exhibit some eccentricities rarely seen amongst their Shire kin, but, the Tooks might insist, that wasn't necessarily a Bad Thing.
Perhaps the strangest thing of all about the grand, deep-rooted Brandybuck family was that they were not overly concerned about the opinions of their wee, stodgy neighbours. Brandybucks were rather Stoorish by blood, tending toward stout and hirsute, bold as brass, and altogether much too fond of water for any sensible hobbit to be. They kept clubs, sickles, and sharpened axes, not simply as dusty mathoms on the walls of their smials or safely tucked away in the garden shed, but in their entrance halls, hanging from coat hooks and propped against glory boxes. Even their doors and windows were kept latched at night, bolted tight against whatever beasts or bandits might prowl out from the grim shadows of the Old Forest or creep down along the East Road.
It had not been so very many years ago that the Fell Winter had set upon Eriador with such vicious cruelty, bringing terrible suffering and death. Unspeakable horrors had blown in upon the pitiless winds, gnashing tooth and claw, rabid with violence the likes of which gentle Shirefolk had not expected.
Orcs and wolves from the north had crossed the Brandywine in droves, leaving crimson snow and slaughter in their wake, and though the Rangers had come to drive them back in the bitter end, there wasn't a hobbit east of the Far Downs who hadn't heard tales of the Buckland militia rising to the aid of their terrorized neighbours, fending off foul beasts with farm tools and fierce, determined numbers. The great Horn of Buckland, warning of danger and calling them to arms, had blown so often in those frigid months, that there were a fair few Bucklanders who would still hear its dreadful echo in their dreams, when the nights were darkest.
There was a lingering appreciation amongst all Shirefolk for that show of bravery and sacrifice (quite a number of Brandybucks hadn't survived that winter, and their ends had come quicker and bloodier than starvation would have taken them). The Brandybucks were an old, established, and wealthy family, and a useful friend to have nearby when the wolves were, very literally, at the door.
Compared to all that goodness, a great deal of oddness could be forgiven, or at least pointedly ignored, even by the finickiest of gentlehobbits, those most stubbornly set in their ways.
Not forgiven enough to entirely silence the occasional gossiping, of course, but that was to be expected.
Thorin Brandybuck was the essence of so many of these Buckland oddities and more, distilled into one misfortunate young hobbit, much to his infinite embarrassment. Wide shoulders and big, broad hands, with pitch black hair creeping down his forearms and over his knobbly knuckles were undoubtedly Stoorish traits, while the blame for long, gawky limbs and a graceless burst of height before he was even a tween could be placed squarely on his Fallohide ancestors. His nose was too long, too narrow, and his hair had never twisted into the neat, corkscrewed spirals of his siblings and numerous cousins, instead falling in loose curls and inky waves around the points of his ears.
Built like a stork, his father had said once, in an example of Thrain Brandybuck's usual tactless humour. All beak and legs.
Luckily enough, if it could loosely be called lucky, Thorin had never been even slightly comfortable with the socializing and carousing of other young hobbits his age, and so had avoided much of the adolescent teasing he might have suffered. Not all of it, of course, but spending most of his youth hidden away in his room with his books, or out in the back garden of the family's sprawling smial, tinkering on some project or other, had put a dampener on the worst of it. Or, at least, he wasn't within earshot to hear their taunts.
A funny looking lad, from a rather peculiar branch of an already curious clan, who was also saddled with a grim, uneasy sort of disposition— bad luck ran in threes, or so the saying went.
The children of Thrain and Iris Brandybuck (born Iris Sackville) ran in threes as well, though Thorin privately considered any bad luck in that number to have skewed a bit far in his direction. At least they had all been burdened with equally rough, foreign sounding names— curious even by Brandybuck standards, which was saying a great deal. That was a small consolation for Thorin, and a point of shared commiseration amongst them all.
Frerin was still a tween, barely thirty, and just absurdly handsome, boisterous, and charming to boot. He’d inherited thick hair like spun gold, even brighter than their mother’s honeyed curls, and it was confined mostly to his curly pate and the tops of his well-formed feet— Frerin suffered none of the scratchy wool Thorin had sprouted on his chest, like a thatch of twisting weeds. Frerin was also a perfectly reasonable height, standing about three foot seven and unlikely to grown more than another inch or so, with a rounded, welcoming sort of face and an easy, toothy smile.
Dis would be twenty-seven in the autumn, and had recently grown out of the childish, gawky look Thorin had been sporting his entire life, filling into attractive, healthy plumpness instead. Her hair was darker than Frerin’s, tawny brown like the fur of a new fawn, and her cheeks were full and always glowing petal-pink. Dis wasn’t quite so effortlessly charismatic as their middle brother, but she was sharply witty, and quickly becoming more adept at talking her way out the same troublesome situations the barbs on her silver tongue sometimes got her into.
They were inarguably a comely, affable pair of young hobbits: well liked by their neighbours and a source of pride for their parents, to be sure.
But both of Thorin's siblings had scuttled home on more than one occasion with scuffed knuckles and a tear or two in their clothes, and (only at first) with stories of defending family honour tumbling proudly from their chapped lips. That boasting hadn't lasted long at all, past the first few incidents— Thorin would always go quiet and very tight around the eyes whenever he found out Frerin or Dis had been tussling on his behalf, on account of some other lad or lass from across the river making a rude jape at his expense. He was a hobbit grown, having just come of age the last summer, and their elder brother, on top of that. He could fight his own battles, and choose which were worth the fighting, as well.
Most of the time, it was simpler just to avoid such situations altogether. No company was better than poor, unpleasant company, in his opinion. And Thorin was certain that his temperament generally made him quite poor company indeed.
At that moment, on a balmy summer’s afternoon with no pressing chores to keep him close to home, he was rather content to avoid anything and everything, thank you very much.
Thorin had spent months during the past winter, squirreled away in one of the family’s expansive storage rooms— it was a cool, but perfectly dry extension of the smial, used to keep an abundance of grain and preserves in the colder months. Thorin vividly recalled parts of the Fell Winter, years before: mostly the ominous sounds of howling beyond their barricaded doors, huddling tightly with his little siblings around the meagre fire they were permitted in their hearth, and the persistent gnawing of hunger in his belly as they divvied up rations. Having been a tween of only sixteen at the time, he hadn’t been involved in the fighting or the bitterly hard choices some families had been forced to make, but his parents each wore their scars from that long, frigid season, and they had always been sure to keep an impressive surplus of long-lasting foodstuff on hand ever since.
The particular storage room Thorin had claimed as a workshop had been built with outside access, opening into the back garden through a wide round door, which made it nearly perfect for his purposes.
It had taken a couple of false starts and mangled boards before he got the hang of shaping the planks with the curve he wanted, while keeping the finished project water-tight. A little wooden boat, a punt large enough to carry him and some fishing gear without being cramped.
That very morning, his mother hadn’t done more than shake her head, calling out demands that he be careful for goodness sake when he first struggled to haul it out through the garden and down towards the Brandywine. The boat had been balanced precariously, held upside-down and over his head, and when he’d shouted back his promise to do so, the echo of his own voice had left his ears ringing.
He’d managed not to trip over his feet and break his neck on the walk down to the river, and initial testing had assured him there weren’t any leaks— his wee punt seemed safe enough to be going on, and regardless, Thorin wasn’t a completely useless swimmer, if it came to it. The Brandywine was deadly deep, and the current could be treacherous in some places, but he had decided to keep to a wide, particularly slow-moving bend in the river, at least until his craft had been tested a bit more thoroughly.
That was how Thorin Brandybuck found himself floating in the river from which his family had claimed a portion of their name, spread out on his back, lying cross-ways in a boat he’d built with his own two hands and no small amount of stubbornness, with his legs dangling over the side and his toes dipped into the cool water. The sun was lovely, baking him gently down into his bones, and the breeze was light but fragrant with a faintly sweet blend of heather and lavender. Besides some birds, the slosh of water against his hull, and the buzz of swooping dragonflies, there was naught but silence around his hideaway, and Thorin was revelling in the stillness of it.
He kept the boat tethered to shore, tied to a heavy old log that lay partway up the grassy bank, but on a long enough rope to drift loosely in the gentle current, bobbing to and fro. It was a relaxing rocking, just floating there, and Thorin let his eyes drift shut, with his hands folded up behind his head as a pillow. He was rather proud of his boat, and very much looking forward to a few months of this sort of restful escape, whenever the relative bustle of Bucklebury became too much to politely bear.
The unexpected sound of a voice shattering the tranquillity was enough of a surprise that Thorin nearly ended up capsizing, scrambling out of his lazy lounging pose. The punt dipped dangerously to the side, but Thorin managed to steady it almost immediately— not soon enough to avoid a horrified cry from the far shore, however.
“Are you all right?” the voice called out, sounding more panicked than Thorin felt, and he was the one in the jostling boat.
Taking a deep breath, fairly confident he wasn’t about to end up taking a dip now, Thorin sat up properly and glanced over to the far shore, on the Shire side of the river. Two hobbits stood there, one perhaps a head shorter than the other and both wearing trousers, though with the sun reflecting off the water Thorin couldn’t make out much else about them.
“Fine,” Thorin called back, biting out the assurance with a certain amount of annoyance darkening his tone. It had been a lovely afternoon of solitude, after all.
There was a moment or two of quiet, some muffled chatter from the pair on shore, until finally the voice spoke up again.
“You wouldn't be willing to take on a passenger or two, would you, friend? Just for the crossing.”
“Oh, honestly,” Thorin grumbled under his breath, then called out louder, aiming for neutral and possibly straying a wee bit toward crabby instead, despite his intentions. “Boat’s too small for three. The ferry is only four miles south, anyway; she’ll take you across.”
More quiet, barely audible conversation followed, carried across the water on the fresh breeze, but Thorin wasn’t bothered enough to strain his ears for the words. Instead he sat, fingers laced between his knees, feeling too out of sorts to go back to his mindless floating. The spell was broken, but hopefully only for the day.
Still, he wasn’t about to row himself to shore yet, either. That would look strange to his observers, as though he was fleeing from them.
The hair on his toes was soaked from the river, curling in inky whorls that plastered against his skin— Thorin's feet were the one unabashedly, unquestionably respectable thing about him. Nicely formed, with hard, sturdy soles, and big enough to match his frame, without a single yellowed nail or slightly crooked bone. And the dark hair that was so out of place on the backs of his fingers and dusting across his collarbones grew steadily denser from his knees down, tufting healthy and thick on the tops of his feet.
Most of the lasses and a number of the lads around his age agreed: it was tragic shame such fine feet were attached to a gangly, unsociable grump.
Thorin reached down to scratch one of those fine feet, plucking a small, wet leaf from between his toes. He shifted his shirt as well, picking at the excess of fabric that billowed slightly around his middle, especially hunched as he was. Neither he nor his mother had ever been able to find suitable shirts for him, once he'd grown into his frame, at any market in either Buckland or the Shire. Those that might fit him for length (usually those sold in Tuckborough, for the benefit of those Tooks that tended toward rangy) ran too tight elsewhere, and those cut for stockier builds never had enough of a hem to tuck into his trousers. Rather than spend the effort sewing an entire wardrobe— and it would have certainly been quite an effort, considering how hard Thorin could be on his clothes— Iris Brandybuck had thought of a better notion.
One pleasant shopping trip into Bree later, and Thorin's mother had bustled home with a sack full of foreign-made clothing, mostly dwarven but a few from the tailors of menfolk as well. Most of the mannish clothes had left him swimming in fabric, but the dwarfish shirts only slumped from his shoulders somewhat over-sized. It was close enough to a functional fit that his mother had been happy to alter them, taking in a few seams here and there, and shortening the foolishly long trousers to proper hobbitish length.
Of course he had a few things made from scratch, in wool and linen that was softer and finer than any tough dwarven weaves— his mother had made his waistcoats (which he wore rarely, if he could help it), the few shirts he kept folded and pressed for best, and a couple corduroy jackets that didn’t strain across his back when he moved his arms. Currently, dressed for a day by the river, Thorin was simply wearing a pair of dark brown trousers and a plain, hay-beige shirt (which his mother had slit open in the front and fitted with a row of neat buttons, since dwarves apparently preferred to dress in sacks). His hair was tied up in a stumpy tail at the nape of his neck, held tight with a thin leather thong to keep it out of his face; he wore it ever so slightly longer than was considered tasteful, leaving him just enough to bind back rather than deal with it hanging limp in his eyes.
He looked perpetually out of fashion, not nearly as natty as his peers and usually a good deal dustier than the average gentlehobbit.
When Thorin deigned to glance up at the far shore again, the interlopers were just starting to trudge off down the riverbank, their backs to him now. The taller one carried a walking stick, long and straight, and both of them wore leather packs strapped to their backs. Thorin wondered absently how far they’d come to make it to the Brandywine; how many leagues had they trudged across the sloping fields? It was two days’ walk from Tuckborough or Frogmorton, and a bit farther still from Hobbiton. Most Shirefolk east of the Marish travelled to Buckland by cart and stuck to the main roads, especially when the weather was damp and the land on either side of the Brandywine would go muddy and thick as oatmeal underfoot. It had rained heavily not two days past, pouring some vibrancy back into the greenery, but Thorin imagined the trek from Woodhall had been a mucky one.
An unpleasant walk for two strange hobbits was hardly his concern, however, and he hadn’t been lying: the punt almost certainly wasn’t large enough to safely carry three. It would have been a quick paddle with the oars to make the four crossings necessary to ferry them both over, one at a time, but he was no bargeman for hire. Plain refusal hadn’t been the most polite answer he might have given, and Thorin could almost feel his mother’s disapproving stare boring into the back of his skull, but there wasn’t anything to be done about it now, even if he’d wanted to. The travellers were already off on their way south, disappearing ‘round the river bend, presumably headed for the ferry crossing as he'd suggested.
Thorin kept waiting a few minutes more, drumming his fingers over his thighs. Then, when it became apparent that the travellers weren’t returning this way, he took up his paddles and started back towards his own shore. Dragging the boat onto dry land once he got close enough, he hopped out and claimed a mossy seat on the log that had been acting as his mooring, considering his options.
The punt was small and relatively light, but it was a hike back to Bucklebury, especially now with the mid-afternoon sun high and hot overhead. He could leave it tied, and be fairly confident of its safety here along the river; it certainly wouldn’t be the only boat moored along the east side of the Brandywine. Generally understood custom among Buckland folk was to leave such boats be, except in cases of emergency, but there were always those few young hooligans who thought it great fun to commandeer some fisherman’s skiff for a pleasure cruise. That sort of tomfoolery was especially common around the Lithedays celebrations, when bottles of apple wine would always mysteriously go missing from cellars, and at least a few enthusiastic tweens would make arses of themselves.
The Lithedays were only a fortnight away (as was Thorin’s birthday, sharing glory with Mid Year’s Day as usual), and Thorin was hesitant to leave his little punt unguarded in the meantime. It represented not just months of hard, frustrating work and countless splinters, but also a point of pride— he couldn’t bear the thought of some of his stupider cousins, likely drunk, crashing it into someone’s dock.
It wasn't worth the risk, even if choosing the safer path meant he'd be lugging his punt to and fro from home until he could find a nice, safe little spot to hide it. Thorin stared out at the water for a bit longer, watching the surface glimmer, deep greenish where it wasn't reflecting the clear blue of the sky, and rippling with gentle current and a few diving insects breaking the surface here and there. Without the distraction of just floating, mindless, his stomach decided to remind him how long it had been since breakfast, and what a scant second breakfast he'd bothered to grab on his way out the door.
Next time he came out here, Thorin determined he would bring a pack lunch. Simple, filling, and enough to keep him for the day, in this rare, precious solitude.