On the Current
Mayfair Orrins Lillyroot knows she's nobody's fool.
Her father, Parson Lillyroot, is a hobbit of girth and has more than enough to deal with in managing the fishdock at Needlehole, and the added gravity of being a widower with a spinster daughter makes his life along the Water difficult enough; the wholly unfair fact that is that his Mayfair is a better fisherman than any of the young bucks who take their coracles and punts and rafts out each day. Her father's constant trial is to live with the polite faces and behind-the-back commentary of the community even as she returns each day with full nets and a strong will of her own.
If only your mother had lived is Parson's daily unspoken lament, and even though the two of them manage nicely, her father keeps harping that it's nearly time to have her presented for courtship. That would have been her mother's moment of glory, Mayfair knows, fussing over her and eventually negotiating a marriage that would have given all parties some satisfaction.
But no, her mother is now twenty-five years dead and gone and Mayfair is supremely uninterested in parties or prospects of any sort, much to her father's despair.
She knows she's in trouble. Even after years of being on The Water, of knowing the river's currents and moods day in and out, Mayfair knows right now that she's out of her depth, literally and metaphorically. The rush is a roar to her ears and the dizzying speed is driving the breath from her. Under her feet the boat is rocking madly, and she's clinging to the gunnels so tightly she can feel her fingernails digging into the soft wood.
She's driving past the rushes of the bog and into darker water, driven by a surge of storm current and the cold wind blowing hard from out of Ered Luin.
Dodging low-hanging branches, Mayfair tries to study the banks but the light is fading in the late-afternoon storm, and the dark trees are rushing by at a dizzying rate. She knows she's gone at least three leagues further than her normal fishing grounds and at this rate the walk back to the docks will take her a day or two if she can make it to one side of the river or another.
Bother the weather, she grumbles. There's no-one to blame for her current dilemma but herself and her pride. Mayfair knows perfectly well that she chose to go out despite the red sky that morning, and that her father probably won't miss her until after dinner, when it will be too late for anyone to go searching. He'll worry of course, but she's been caught out overnight before, so the real fear won't set in until tomorrow.
A branch whips across her face and the shocking sting of it makes her gasp. She claws at her reddening cheek and mutters a curse, then feels the boat begin to spin, bobbling over a stretch that feels shallower and dangerously swift. Mayfair hunkers low, blinking rain out of her vision and reaches down for the rope and anchor. The water here is moving too fast for dropping it straight in, but if she can hook a point ashore, the drag of the current should bring her close enough to wade to land . . .
Coming up fast downstream she sees a long trunk of a black tree reaching out over the water. It's big and dark, and Mayfair scrambles to grip the anchor, knowing full well she'll have only one shot at hooking it as she passes. The other end of the rope is already secure to the bow, and Mayfair hopes the knot will hold even as she locks her gaze on the tree. She throws, and even as the anchor leaves her hand she feels a sense of frustration; the heavy metal hook sails up and barely touches the tree, gouging a long gash in it before one point precariously digs in. The boat shoots under the trunk and Mayfair braces herself for the sudden jerk as the line feeds out.
What she doesn't expect is for the boat to hit the hidden rock just under the surface and tip her out into the cold, dark water.
He should be done with this sort of discomfort. Tramping out in the wet while there is a perfectly good fire blazing away back in his home makes this all the more irritating, and Bilbo glowers as he holds the lantern higher. Adventures are all well and good when one has company, he thinks. On one's own, they lack appeal.
Although it's hard to consider looking for a missing water butt as an adventure, in all honesty. Bilbo heard it go tumbling off in the wind and knows perfectly well that while he could wait until morning to retrieve it, the chances of actually finding it are better right now, before it's smashed to pieces or drifts off on The Water to parts unknown. It wouldn't be difficult to replace but Baggins are frugal by nature.
Bilbo sighs and looks towards the right, where the natural curve of the hill runs down to meet the edge of The Water. Everything is dark and seems menacing at the moment, from the claws of the tree branches overhead with the wind whistling through them to the driving rain adding its hiss to the unpleasantness. Underfoot the mud and leaves squishes unpleasantly between his toes, and Bilbo knows he'll have to have to scrub his feet before he steps inside again. Fortunately he'll be going up the hidden tunnel and given the distance a lot of the mud will dry and drop off before then, he thinks.
He hopes, anyway.
Bag End has a few secrets and one of them is the tunnel whose door is cunningly hidden at the back of the pantry; the tunnel that leads down through the hill and to The Water. Bilbo discovered it as a child and has found it more than useful since, particularly when relatives come calling. It's one thing to say you're not at home to visitors, and another when everyone can vouch they saw you fishing somewhere else at the time.
The little door here at the bottom is carefully shielded from view by a boulder and a pair of gorse bushes, and Bilbo keeps a few fishing poles just on the inside, along with a net. He wishes he'd left an oilskin coat there now as he pulls his own soaked jacket closer and peers into the gloom. Nothing. He moves closer to the water's edge, aware that it's higher than normal and falling in would be a very bad situation indeed, especially since nobody is around.
Most folk should be celebrating a good harvest out on the green at Hobbiton, but in this weather it's far more likely that they're all holed up in the Green Dragon tavern and surrounding buildings, singing and drinking as they wait out the storm. Bilbo doesn't mind; he's quite content with his own company and spends a fair amount of time compiling notes about his Adventure. His home is warm and comfortable and if it wasn't for the blasted water butt deciding to roll off in the night Bilbo would be utterly satisfied.
He hears a noise and tenses up, waiting very still in the dark.
It comes again, and this time it's so small, so weak that Bilbo feels foolish; whatever is making that noise isn't a threat, but at the same time memories of the moon-eyed fiend deep in the Goblin's lair sends a shudder through him. Bilbo thinks of the Ring, safe on the mantle behind the jar of pipe-weed.
Or is it?
"Hallo?" he calls, wishing for a moment that he'd thought of bringing his walking staff with him. Or Sting.
For a moment there is no reply, and then the little sound comes again, a cross between a cough and a gurgle. Bilbo holds out the lantern, and the light of the candle glitters on the fast-moving water a few feet in front of him. He sees branches swept up along the bank, along with the usual debris of leaves and straw, and a hand . . .
Bilbo starts, the lantern wobbling. He freezes, his mind rushing through the terrible scenario before him, and he dreads looking again even as he knows he must. It might well be someone he knew, and a Baggins would never shirk the solemn duty of care for the dead, especially for someone of the Shire.
With care he leans down, holding the light out further, and his gaze makes out the sodden figure of a dark-haired woman half in and half out of the rushing water. Her cheek is pressed to the dirt, and Bilbo can see that her shoulders are moving; that she's alive, but barely. That galvanizes him and he sets the lamp down, stepping closer and wading shin deep into the water to help roll the rest of her up on shore. The water is drearily cold and he tries not to shiver as he slips his hands into it, catching her hips and lifting.
Heavy of course. Not the woman, but the sodden linen of her dress, soaked through and probably mud-coated as well. She's a Hobbit, clearly, and Bilbo manages to swing the rest of her body out of the water and onto the wet leaves on the shore before wading out again and gritting his teeth against the cold. Bending close, he peers into her face, wiping away some of the mud. "Hey? Can you hear me? You're going to be all right now . . ."
A groan rises up from the dark-haired woman, and she coughs up water, the trickle of it spilling down her dainty chin, washing it clean. Her eyes open and Bilbo sees that not only are they out of focus, but they're leaf-green and fringed with great dark lashes. Definitely not a local then, where blonde is more common and most eyes are blue or brown, Bilbo realizes. He drops to one knee and slips an arm around her back, helping her to sit up. "Slowly now; you've had quite a night of it."
She coughs again and groans, one hand going up to her left temple, where a great bruise is showing under the mud and clinging leaves. "M-my boat."
Bilbo risks a quick look around but sees nothing that looks like a boat or even the remains of a boat. He shakes his head. "Sorry, it's just you, Miss."
Mayfair isn't sure if she's having a nightmare or not. She dimly remembers falling into The Water and being washed a good distance over rocks, then managing to claw her way to shore, but right now—if now IS now- images are woozy and everything is fading in and out. Someone is helping her up, telling her encouraging things but she wants to lie down and sleep. She's wet and every step is hard, but the voice is promising her warmth and somewhere deep inside she knows she must keep going.
She leans against a doorjamb and even the dim candlelight makes her eyes hurt so she keeps them closed even as hands start tugging at her sleeve. The voice quietly tells her to take off her wet things, that there is a towel and after that a warm shirt to climb into. Mayfair follows the directions, groaning, and lets the voice lead her a little further along. A few glimpses here and there let her know she's indoors, and then oh then the glorious softness of a bed. Mayfair burrows under a thick linen coverlet, curling up underneath like a little hedgehog. The quiet and the warmth envelop her and she sleeps.
She moves though dreams as if she's on the river again, and images go by—her father, and Minnow the old crooked cat who lives under the docks, and further along, the ghostly outline of someone tall on the far side of The Water, watching her go by with a nod. Mayfair knows she's dreaming but at the same time the feelings of frustration and fear still buffet her, and she shifts uneasily in her sleep, clinging to the pillow.
It's very dim when she wakes, and by the rattle of rain against the window it's clear that the storm hasn't let up yet. Blearily she opens her eyes and takes the room in around her. Low, dark wood beams rounding overhead; a sturdy Hole then, well-established. Mayfair shifts her gaze, noting the polished dresser with ornate doily laid precisely in the center, the heavy beveled looking glass over it, and the cunning little washstand carved of willow with its ceramic basin and pitcher.
Posh, she thinks. Certainly a bit more well-to-do than she and her father with their little burrow home on the backside of the bank. This is not what she expected, and Mayfair tenses, wondering who her benefactor is. She looks down at the coverlet, noting the careful vine embroidery that curves in fancy curlicues and loops all around it, little satin leaves decorating it and thinks, little old woman. Widow probably, not hurting for money.
She tries to remember anyone from the night before, but all Mayfair can bring back are helping hands and a soothing voice, pitched low. At the same time, a rush of aches floods her and she groans as they make themselves known. Carefully Mayfair takes inventory: sore right elbow, several good bruises along her right hip and a cut across her nose that stings. The shirt she's wearing is a man's and big on her; it holds a nice scent to it. Widow must have a son or a nephew, Mayfair thinks, smiling. That would explain the voice last night. She pushes back the coverlet and tries to climb out but even that simple action makes her moan a bit.
The door creaks. Mayfair turns her head quickly—too quickly—and through the throbs watches as a man peeks in at her. He seems surprised to find her awake, and they share a long moment of simply looking at each other in the dim morning light.
He's got a pleasant face, Mayfair thinks, and a good nose. His expression looks kind, if a little weathered and she figures he must be the widow's son, the one whose shirt she's wearing now. Thick curly hair the color of shallows sand, dimpled chin and a sturdy build to his frame as well. He clears his throat and when he speaks, Mayfair recognizes his voice as the one from the night before.
"How are you doing?"
"Much better, thanks to you," Mayfair croaks, and adds, "and your mother."
He blinks a little and makes a few awkward steps into the room. "I was just making some tea; shall I bring you some, and muffins perhaps?"
"Tea . . ." Mayfair murmurs longingly, thinking of the hot goodness of it. "That would be lovely, please."
He smiles at that, and when he does, she feels a little thump in her chest because his expression is so open and sweet. But it's also touched with a hint of sadness too, and Mayfair senses he's had hard times in his past. She smiles back.
"I'll bring it in directly then," he replies and slips back out again. Mayfair rises and makes her way to the little water closet on one side of the room, and glancing at her face in the looking glass over the basin. The cut across her nose makes her look scruffy, her temple hurts and her hair is a fright, but other than that she seems to be all right. By the time she limps out and back towards the bed she hears footsteps approaching once more. It takes some strength to climb back in, but once she's settled the door opens and the most amazing sight of a tray loaded with a full breakfast. There are kippers and toast and marmalade and soft-boiled eggs and cheese and sausages and the scent of all of it makes her stomach growl.
Mayfair blushes but her host gives a chuckle and brings the tray closer, settling it next to her on the mattress. He cocks his head and holds a hand out to her. "My name is Bilbo Baggins, and this is my home."
She blinks a little, since she's heard the name before, even up as far as Needlehole, and not always in an approving way. Mayfair tries to remember what was said about him, but is interrupted by his sigh. "And I can see you've heard of me."
"You're the one who fought Orcs," Mayfair finds herself saying. "And a dragon."
"Sort of," he tells her and begins to pour her a mug of tea. "And you are?"
"Oh, sorry. My name's Mayfair Orrins Lillyroot, of the Needlehole Lillyroots." She fights the urge to bob her head the way her father's taught her when speaking to one's betters.
"Needlehole? Oh you've drifted a long way then, Miss. A very long way."