“Nature is, by its nature, deceitful. A tree that looks strong will crack beneath the wind that a flimsy reed will weather. And a river that trickles calm at its surface surely roils with rage beneath.” - anonymous
Seven days of rain made for a lot of things.
It made for some very cranky dwarves – ah, dwarrow, actually, apologies. It made for some smelly ponies (and not just ponies, let's be honest). It made for an uncomfortable ride, unpleasant company, one foul-tempered wizard, one incredibly wet hobbit, sore bums, ratty hair, sniffles, snarls, half-yelled cuss words that will not be repeated, and far, far too much mud.
It also made for rapid, flooding waters, which in the lieu of everything else at their attention, was unfortunately forgotten.
In the year that Bilbo turned twenty-one, nine Hobbits, two Men, and a horse drowned in the Brandywine River.
One would think that this wouldn't be so frequent an occurrence, that adult hobbits would keep their children from the Brandywine and let only those who were best able to tread water near the edge. The thing about hobbits is that very few of them can swim. In fact, out of one hundred hobbits, it is entirely likely that none of them would be able to swim. In the whole of the Shire, there might have been ten who could.
Bilbo would have bet Bag End at least nine of them were named either Took or Brandybuck.
The tenth, of course, would be Bilbo himself.
His mother, Belladonna, had been a Took before she married Bungo Baggins and pretended, for all of a week, that she was going to settle down in his smial with him and be a proper, respectable hobbit wife.
Belladonna had been filled to the brim of her shining green eyes with a wanderlust that could not be caged. She wandered far beyond the borders of the Shire, further beyond than perhaps any hobbit had ever gone before, and though she always came back to Bungo, she also always came back different.
One day, some years before Bilbo was born, Belladonna returned home from a long adventure, pensive.
“What is it, My Wandering Heart?” Bungo had asked as he set out tea and some biscuits, his eyes shining to see his lovely wife, still dressed in her travel clothes, worn and dirty, and not caring that the three hobbits peeking in through the window would soon spread word about how disreputable she looked. Bungo didn't let it bother him. He didn't share his wife's wanderlust, no, but he had married her in part for that shine in her eyes and though he was a Baggins of Bag End and respectable to a fault, even a respectable hobbit was allowed to enjoy a good scandal.
“Bungo, dear,” Belladonna said, taking the seat across from him and picking up a cranberry and walnut biscuit, eyeing it as though it held all of her answers. “When we have a daughter, I want to teach her to swim.”
To be fair, Bungo didn't react right away other than the involuntary stiffening of his shoulders. For a moment, he considered leaping to his feet and excitedly demanding when she was due, but Belladonna had been gone for nigh on four months and her waistline was only thinner than it had been before she left, so no, she was not with child. His shoulders eased down into a disappointed slide but he breathed a sigh, thinking of that spark in her eyes that said her wandering days weren't yet done, and then thought of a future where he had fauntlings running rampant through the smial, dashing across Hobbiton, and swim--
“Swimming?” Bungo asked, a thrill of fear making his voice go high.
Belladonna nodded softly, her pensive expression gone and replaced with something sad.
“I saw the sea, you know.” She turned the biscuit in her hands, as though she were counting the nuts and wouldn't be pleased to eat it without knowing how many there were to be chewed. “They say it's large but what they don't say is how the whole world just drops off and all that's left is water. Just water... everywhere.” Her voice cracks on the last word and she crumbles the biscuit in her suddenly shaking fist, and Bungo has to rush around the table to catch her before she falls, shuddering, to the floor of the smial, gasping for tear-strangled breaths into his collar.
“He needs to know how to swim,” she hisses, and Bungo just clutches her tighter thinking Oh Yavanna, what happened? What happened? My Wandering Heart, why did you go to the sea and what happened and oh please, don't ever go back.
“Okay,” he says instead, holding her tight as she shivers and gasps in his arms, fighting off memories or fears or visions of the future – he doesn't know! - “Okay, we'll teach her to swim. I promise. She'll know how to swim.”
Belladonna doesn't give birth to a daughter, but she loves her son Bilbo even more than the child she had envisioned in her mind. She loves him so much she wants to wrap him up in a blanket and never let him out to where anything can hurt him, but she knows that doing that would hurt him, so instead she prepares him in every way she can.
She teaches him to cook. Not just meals for eating at home but scones packed with dried berries and nuts that last for weeks on travel. She teaches him to sew, how to patch clothes or hem trousers, and even the proper stitch that will seal a would, though she calls it a Healer's Stitch and teases him about doctoring that tear in his stuffed bunny's ear so the nightmares that haunt her dreams won't take him when he's still so young. She teaches him which plants are safe to eat and which should be avoided at all costs, what ones are good for burns or bruises or an upset stomach, and she mentions a few that are incredibly toxic when they get into the blood, “because it's important to know what you must never ever be scratched with, Bilbo.”
Bungo teaches Bilbo maths and his letters. He teaches Bilbo Sindarin because, while Belladonna was the one that visited Rivendell, Bungo will always be better at languages. He teaches Bilbo about business and about their duty to Bag End and how to write his alphabet so the letters are neat and legible, and how to word a letter so it is polite and professional. He also teaches him how to write a letter that is polite and professional and scathing, because sometimes that sort of thing is the only way to get idiot hobbits to pay attention. And if he focuses more than a few lessons on just the sort of things to say to make the neighbors eyes pop out of their sockets at the sheer Tookishness... well. He does enjoy that light shining out of his sweet Belladonna's eyes, and he married her for that Tookishness, after all. That Tookishness and her blackberry crumble, Yavanna have mercy.
And when Spring comes and the weather turns warm, Belladonna teaches Bilbo how to swim.
Bungo can't. She does try to teach him, but Bagginses are well-known for their ability to sink and neither of them want to risk it. But Bilbo is half-Took and it might not be enough to make him as good a swimmer as Belladonna, but it cancels out that awful sinking that is the Baggins blood (or their bloody dense feet, more like!), and he'll have to work for every stroke, but by the Green Mother, Bilbo Baggins can swim.
It bothers Bungo more than he says, more than he'll ever say, because it's just not right to see a hobbit in the water. But when the nightmares that had plagued Belladonna since that day she returned from the sea finally, finally abate, Bungo can feel the worry settle down into that place in his chest where it will always be, but where it will be silent, and he is content with that.
Bilbo is nineteen when he is deemed an adequate swimmer, but he will never be a fish and he does avoid the water as best he can. He doesn't trust it, he says to his mother one day, and his mother kisses him on the head and tells him good.
“Don't ever trust the water, Bilbo. It looks calm and pretty and it shines so bright, and that's how you know it lies.”
It's two years later, in the spring of the year that Bilbo will turn twenty-one, when the warm weather comes suddenly and melts the heavy ice and snow of the winter in two days, straight down to green grass. It takes a whole two more days before the flood waters come, but by then, it's too late to prepare.
When two adult hobbits disappear, it's giggled about behind a hand, because Apricot and Margo have been eyeing each other for year and can you believe they would just run off together? And when Thistle doesn't come home, her mother frets, but she's at that tween age that has the hobbits all dashing about and being completely, properly improper to get it all out of her system, so it's not worried about too much.
It's when the two faunts don't come home, neither of them yet ten, that the worry comes. And when the Ranger who catches sight of Gorman Proudfoot plunges horse and all into the Brandywine after him only to not come back out, the panic comes. Hobbits grab their children, faunts and tweens, and fetch their husbands and wives and siblings and gather together, counting, calling out names, searching, searching, searching smials and land and even the Old Forest, because surely that would be better than the Brandywine, oh Yavanna, the river.
In the end, the two faunts are found by the Bounders washed up with the bracken, and thank the Green Mother, because no parent should see their child like that. Apricot and Margo are both found, tangled together in death as they were in life, by a Ranger searching for his lost kin. He finds the horse, thoroughly drowned, further down from the couple, but he never finds the Ranger that plunged her in after Gorman Proudfoot. Gorman himself is discovered by a tween, who screams loud enough to wake the BarrowDowns at the sight of his bloated body washed up on the bank.
It's only after the flood waters recede that Filly Sandbank and her two children are found in the basement of their smial, all three of them drowned when the river broke through the wall and flooded the cellar. When her husband is last seen glaring at the Brandywine before he disappears without a trace, no one dares to say a word, but they all know the river took him, too.
When the dirt-darkened riot of flood waters finally calm back down into the shining, beautiful Brandywine they all know, the hobbits breathe a collective sigh of relief, because surely now that the flooding is done, the river is safe again.
It just so happens that Belladonna is near enough to the river to hear the screaming cry for help when the young Ranger falls in, and if she beats his companion into the water, neither of them were planning to call a competition. Between the two of them, they manage to drag the lifeless boy – for he really is just a boy, just a tween in those strange Men years – back to the bank, but Belladonna can see the greedy Brandy has taken yet another poor soul.
Except the older Ranger doesn't let go easy and Belladonna watches in part-horror, part-fascination as the Ranger forces water out of the boy's lungs and air into them again and again, until the boy chokes up what he took from the river if only for mercy for his poor, abused chest.
Belladonna forgets whatever appointment she had meant to keep that day and takes both Rangers, the older carrying the younger one in his arms, back to Bag End, where she warms them up, feeds them, and calls the closest healer in to check on the breathing (how are you not dead?) boy.
When the boy is deemed healthy enough for having tried to drink the Brandy, cracked ribs aside, the older Ranger asks Belladonna to let him pay her back for her help. Hobbits don't have much use for anything they don't already have, most of what they need growing from the earth in their gardens, but Belladonna has always wanted for knowledge.
“What you did for him, bringing him back,” she tells the Ranger. “Teach me that.” And when he does, and leaves, taking his charge with him, Belladonna goes to Tukborough and to Buckland and especially to the smials of her cousins who live near the deceitful Brandywine, and she shows them what the Ranger showed her. And after she's shown the Thain, who will pass on his knowledge to every Bounder in the Shire, Belladonna returns home.
And then, she teaches Bilbo.
Bilbo remembers very little of the flooding the year he turned twenty-one. He recalls that the Brandywine took a number of lives and he remembers being told by his father that he must not go near the Brandywine that year. Bungo would prefer Bilbo never go near it, but if he must, fine, but not that year. Most of what occurred that spring was over-shadowed by the grief of the Fell Winter a few years later, but if the pain that lingers in his heart has done anything for Bilbo, it is to highlight his mother's lessons.
So it is that when Ori's pony spooks at a floating branch while trying to ford a small river, rearing and sending both herself and a startled dwarf into the raging undertow, Bilbo doesn't really think. He remembers. And then he does.
He ignores Dori's shouting for his brother and he doesn't let his mind linger over the look on Nori's face (he knows that look, he's worn that look). He drops out of Myrtle's saddle, shoves the reins into Bofur's hands, and dives straight into the water.
It's cold, colder than it has a right to be at this time of year, and Bilbo clenches his throat around the breath he's holding tight in his lungs as he swims. It's been years since he's swam and he's glad his mother taught him until his body knew what it was doing without further input, because there's a part of Bilbo's brain (the Baggins part, he thinks) that's forgone all thought and is simply screaming in absolute terror. Bilbo does his very best to ignore that scream, It fades to a distant whine in the back of his mind, and he scours the waters for a glimpse of the dwarf.
He doesn't see Ori right away. It's hard to see anything in water that's so muddy from the constant rain sending dirt and bracken into its depths. It's when he shoots up out of the water for a breath (did Ori manage to get to the surface for a breath? How long can dwarrow hold their breath?) that he's nearly brained by the thrashing hooves of the pony. Bilbo ducks back into the water in time enough to avoid being knocked unconscious and surely drowned himself, though he feels the sharp edge of the pony's hoof scrape across his skull, and the sudden chill and heat of an open wound. He's not unconscious and not drowning so he shoves the knowledge that he's been kicked in the head by a bloody pony to the side and opens his eyes wide under the water.
He gets dirt and Yavanna knows what else in his eyes, but he also catches sight of his missing dwarf, and its very clear that no, he has not made it to the surface. Ori is tangled in the reins of the pony's bridle, one leg shoved down through a stirrup, and he's practically upside-down in the water as his pony flails in an attempt to escape a fate that has already claimed her. Bilbo doesn't have to have seen someone drown before to know what the jerking, slowing kicks of the pony's legs mean.
Instead, he grabs hold of Ori, twisting one arm in the knitted sweater the tween – dwarf – child, he's just a child wears, and uses his other to unwrap the reins from where they're twisted around him. He's careful to hold on, because the river is throwing them about and only the fact that its so damn deep has kept them from being thrown into a rock and smashed to broken pieces. When the reins are gone and Ori is dangling by his foot, scarf flowing outward from his neck in some macabre attempt to look graceful in what Bilbo knows is a word he dare not think, will not think, Bilbo grabs Ori's leg and jerks it from the stirrup. He holds onto him tight, fingers twisted into the pattern of his sweater, and uses the drowned pony's flank as a kickoff point, sending both himself and Ori shooting for the surface.
He breaks free of the water long enough to gasp in a desperate breath and flail his eyes around for direction, before he is pulled back under. He doesn't fight for the surface again, knowing it will drain him too much, sure of the breath he's holding and the direction of the shore. He kicks as hard as he can, worrying that Ori's extra weight will take away that Tookishness that lets him swim and make Baggins sinkers of them both, but he clutches the breath in his lungs and kicks and kicks and kicks as hard as he can, until land slams into his shoulder hard enough that he chokes on his breath as it leaves him in a rush of bubbles.
For one terrifying moment of wallowing futility, he's knows he's killed the both of them.
Then hands plunge into the water around him, grabbing him by the collar of his shirt and strangling him so firmly he can't draw in any water to drown in, and he and Ori both are pulled out of the churning river and there's finally land under his feet again.
It's Bofur, he notices absently, eyes catching on peripheral details and brain making connections, running fast on adrenaline and what's probably eclipsed terror and flying straight into outright panic.
He catches sight of the pony. She standing quietly, his stalwart Myrtle, firm in the face of everything except trolls, which is understandable, the smell alone is enough to start a riot and Bilbo travels with dwarves. Her reins are in the not-quite-as-familiar hands of Bifur, his face a mask of what might look like indifference if someone didn't know what it felt like to go absolutely blank with horror. The ax in his head might have stopped Bifur's ability to speak Westron, but his eyes alone prove that the dwarf is anything but stupid or slow.
But his gaze is riveted on Ori, sweet Ori, who Bofur is turning over onto his back as Bilbo struggles to his knees beside him, and oh Yavanna, why does his head hurt so bad?
He ignores Bifur, because Bofur is safe and Bifur is Bofur's and that makes him safe, and he's holding Myrtle and so Bilbo shoves the ax-addled dwarf and Myrtle and the other ponies out of his busy, racing mind and focuses on Ori.
Bofur has Ori's shoulders clenched in his hands, his gloves are soaked with river water, and he's shaking the dwarf, trying to wake him. Bilbo doesn't look at his face, can hear in his voice the desperation turning into despair as he calls Ori's name over and over, and he doesn't want to see that sweet, kind smile replaced with that look. It would ruin Bilbo, he thinks. If he sees cheerful Bofur give up, then he'll just stop right here and simply fall away forever, and he needs to stay focused because Ori is here and so is Bilbo and that screaming voice turned whine in his head had changed again and this time it's the sweet, missed voice of Belladonna telling him what he needs to do.
Bilbo pushes Bofur out of the way, doesn't pay attention except to note that the dwarf does not fall into the river, and then he's leaning over Ori, fingers reaching for his throat, grabbing for a pulse he hopes is there but knows almost before he touches the dwarf's throat isn't, and then he's rolling Ori over, onto his stomach, and shoving every bit of weight he can onto the dwarf's back.
Hobbits are small, smaller than dwarves who themselves are short, but hobbits are dense (it's one of the reasons most can't swim), and Belladonna Baggins taught Bilbo how to do this the same way she taught him how to swim – until he didn't even need to think about it.
Which was good, because the way that Ori was lying was absolutely nothing like the way that Ori slept. Ori curled up into a little ball like a kitten, clutching his travel journal to his chest, fingers usually stained with ink, face occasionally spotted with it, sometimes snoring, often making an odd humming sound like he's half-thinking of breaking into song while in the midst of a dream, only in sleep louder than he is in wakefulness.
He finds it disturbing how loud Ori is now. The sound of Bilbo's hands shoving down against Ori's back made a sort of thumping shuffle as the rest of his body moves in time. His arms are limp at his sides, fingers still where they would normally be in constant motion. A habit, Bilbo thinks, Ori shares with Nori, though for different reasons. And he knows that Nori is there now, knows the rest of the company is there by the way Dori doesn't so much scream Ori's name as exhale it in terror. He hears the slap of muscles against flesh as someone grabs the dwarf, and he's grateful, because he knows how strong Dori is and he really doesn't want to be thrown back in the river.
There's a sputtering, gagging sound and then Ori's body heaves as water comes gushing out of his mouth and nose, foaming and filthy. Bilbo keeps shoving his body weight on the dwarf's back, pressing his chest against the ground to get the water out of his lungs. He listens, ears twitching, to catch the sound of a breath, but there's none and he needs to change that soon.
Ori's body (and that's the horrifying part, it's just his body now, not Ori, not really, not yet) spasms again and more water rushes from his mouth and nose, and Bilbo takes a moment to worry about how brown it is, how dirty, and then Ori is vomiting, his whole body shaking under Bilbo. Not just water but half-digested food spews across the ground, the stew from a few hours ago, and it all reeks of stomach acid and something that is strictly river.
Bilbo swipes his hand through Ori's mouth, not letting himself focus, not letting himself think about body fluids and handkerchiefs and filth. “Just do,” his mother says in his mind and Bilbo does, because if he thinks he will falter – he knows he will falter – and then Ori will be lost.
There's no more water spilling from his mouth, though Bilbo pounds a few more times on the scribe's back. He shoves his shoulder hard enough to roll the dwarf over and oh Yavanna have mercy, don't think about his head lolls to the side. He hears a sound in the distance and it's distant because he shoves it there before he can focus on it. Doesn't let his mind think about how Ori's entire body is completely limp, sagged. He doesn't let his mind linger on his lax mouth, lips pale blue and beaded with muddy water, and he doesn't meet those brown eyes that are half-open and staring with a terrifying vacancy at nothing. And he very, very much does not let himself hear the choked cry that Nori makes when he rolled Ori over, or the terrible keening wail that shudders out of Dori's throat.
He doesn't think.
If he thinks, he'll worry about time. How long has it been since Ori went under the water? How long was he able to hold his breath before the river wouldn't be denied? How long did it take Bilbo to get them to the shore? How long did he waver there, half on the edge of panicked unconsciousness after Bofur pulled him out, before he turned his attention to Ori? How long did he spend trying to get the water out of his lungs? How long has he been forcing his breath into Ori's lungs? How long had he been pumping Ori's chest as hard as he can, trying to get him up, get him going, get him breathing, get... Ori... back...
How long? How long? How long? How long had it been since Ori's heart had stopped beating?
How long had it been since Belladonna's voice in the back of his mind had been replaced by a roaring hum that sounded too much like a river to suit Bilbo's tattered and tearing nerves? How long--
Ori made a sound reminiscent of a braying horse as his body gave a violent convulsion and Bilbo jerked back from where he'd been forcing air into the dwarf's lungs. He stared for a moment, mind screaming through the torrential roaring of his own failing adrenaline, as Ori bucked against invisible bindings. Then he all but bowled the dwarf over, shoving the scribe onto his side. He sprawled across the ground at Ori's back as the scribe choked and sneezed water out of his lungs. He cherished the sound of every garbled, starving breath Ori sucked into his lung as he tries to remind his lungs how to breathe.
How long had it been since he'd breathed?
Bilbo felt the world around him whirl once, a swift, sickening motion that made him shut his eyes. He thought he heard someone call his name, but the roaring in his ears had gone from river to waterfall. Bilbo swayed left, felt the current catch him around the chest, and he tumbled over the falls and into darkness.
How long had it been since he'd breathed?
He wasn't sure he was asking about Ori anymore.