Nothing of Note

by Primula

24: Bogged Down

Bilbo awoke with a snort. It wasn't his own, but one in his ear that was unexpected and disorienting. He jumped and tried to sit up, promptly smacking his face into that of a pony who startled back from him with a whoosh and a staccato of hooves on the soft floor of the stable.

"Aigh..." he rubbed his forehead. "Sorry to startle you, but ow. You have a hard head. I suppose you are thinking the same of me, eh?"  He slowly sat forward and extended his hand, waiting until the pony relaxed and came forward to sniff his palm for treats. He reached over to a grain sack beside him and loosened the top just enough to dig a bare handful out as an apology. The warm velvet and whiskers on his palm tickled, and then the grain was gone.

He could see sunlight coming in the cracks around the doorway, the straight, clear light of morning. Plucking odd bits of hay out of his hair and brushing off his clothing he made himself as presentable as he reasonably could. He drank a dipper of water, gathered his pack and then unlatched the door to go out into the cool air. He was none too soon, for a boy was coming around the building with a bucket and currycomb in his hands heading for the stable. 

"Excuse me," he said to the boy. "Can you tell me which is the best way to go to the Rushock from here?"

The lad's tea-brown eyes looked at him curiously, but he replied politely enough. "The bridge across the water is over that-a-way." and gestured down the road that ran east through the town.

"Thank you, but I didn't mean the way over it, but rather into it. The bog that is."

The boy blinked at him, then pointed southeast. "There's an orchard you have to go through, but there's a path over that way. Right between the two big willows." he said helpfully.

"Thank you! Much obliged. Good morning." He left the boy to his chores and lifting his pack decided to head that way first and find a suitable breakfasting spot later.

The ground sloped gently downward, slowly pulling away from the narrow stone bridge that spanned The Water at Needlehole. He soon found the orchard and slipped between the bars of the fencing without much trouble then paused to listen. No dogs barked, no geese hissed. Relieved, he worked his way down through a few rows of apple and pear trees into an adjoining orchard of trimmed hazelnuts.  Beyond he could just make out a grassy, thick greenness. Shuffling along through rain-softened leaves of the previous fall he felt a small thrill, a spark in his breast.  He felt like a lad again, exploring the farmland around Hobbiton, hiding from his parents who were calling him to supper.  What a rascal I must have been, he thought, if that is the sort of thing I remember best after all these years.

He came out into a border of mown grasses no wider than a cart-track. Across lay the wilderland of the Rushock Bog, tangled and overgrown, uncountable shades of brown, green and gold. Looking up and down the border, he soon located the willows the boy had referred to, thick-boled and whispering in the light morning breeze. Their new red-green leaves still tender among the clinging brown ones of the previous year; he slipped under the canopy of the nearest one and paused to listen to the birds and rustling all around him.  This was a fine breakfasting spot if there ever was one. Hidden under the boughs from passerby should there be any, he spread out his blanket sorted through his pack for whatever breakfast he could still put together. He still had provisions but he and Ponto had made great inroads upon it and it wasn't lasting as long as he had at first thought it should. Still, two flat oatcakes with a bit of jam and a paper full of sunflower seeds soon cheered his insides up enough to match his outsides.

Leaving the willows found the well-trodden dirt path descended over fat roots and under green tunnels of overhanging boughs until it came out into a more open area; he was greeted by mosses and clumps of various grasses extending out to a veritable wall of cattails and the bright sky over all. Buzzing, chirping and the whispering of the grasses surrounded him.  In spite of the earliness of the season he had the impression of untraceable small movements in the grasses, of garter-snakes and insects.... In the summer, what a bedlam it must be! He remembered too late the insect bites that were as much a part of the bog as the water and grasses, and grimaced slightly, rubbing his arms in mute anticipation of unavoidable itching. Still, he decided, even if he had recalled it as he should have it wouldn't have stopped him. So much to see here!

His path turned and skirted along the cattails.  He followed it, though he soon found it more necessary to watch his footing than he had at first expected. Roots and grasses layered and overlayered across the path giving more opportunities to land him on his face than he cared to have.  He picked his way along, occasionally reaching up to enjoy the soft velvet fatness of a cattail under his hand.  The heads were somewhat ragged, many of them completely in tatters, mere tufts and bits still clinging to their stalks from the previous year; the new ones had not yet formed. Even as he watched, a bird flew down to perch on the bent stem of one, dug in its beak and flew off with a wad for nesting material.

He remembered reading that cattail fluff made good tinder, though he'd never tried it himself. He paused to dig his tinderbox out of his pack. It was nearly empty anyway, so he pulled a cattail down to him and pried it open to get at the dry inside. Filling his tinderbox with the creamy fluff, he let the remains of the cattail spring back up and slipped the box back into its pocket. Only time would tell if that book had been right - he would probably be wanting a fire at the end of day.

He continued on, slowly picking his way south along the edge of the bog, enjoying the nesting waterbirds, the bright chirps of small frogs and the slow sway of the waterplants in the clear, shallow pools. He crouched for a time teasing tadpoles with a reed, caught some in his empty jam jar then after gazing at them in the sunshine a bit, poured them back into their home.  He sketched a little, tucked half a dozen samples of grass, moss and bird feathers into his pack and snacked on raisins, tossing a few to some ducks then laughing as they all curiously dove for them.

As the morning drew on he began picking his way across. It looked wide and shallow enough here, with an endless array of little grassy patches to be followed like stepping stones. All went well at first, stepping and occasionally leaping from one mossy little islet to the next, some large and surrounded in their walls of cattails and bulrushes, others so small he barely had room to land evenly upon them. He was a little wet from the occasional splash but the sun was warm and bright, and the insects weren't nearly as much of a nuisance as he had originally feared.

It was only when he began to be weary and hungry nearing noon that he took good stock of how far he had come and how far he yet had to go. All of the zig-zagging he had done going from islet to islet meant he had not covered nearly the distance he'd first thought. He was a little disoriented, figuring his direction roughly by the sun and the way the water was flowing. Looking back he saw the exact same view that lay ahead. Cattails, rushes, mossy islets, hillocks of grasses all surrounded by wet mud or shallow waters. And the waters were not always shallow anymore. As he had gone on he had found them to be deeper; he could see small fish swimming past down at the bottom. The water was still fairly clear, but the depth was certainly increasing. And the mud also. It wasn't the sort a body could stand on anymore, but a sloppy, soupy mud. The sort that grabbed at his feet, pulling downward. It worried him; if he should slip and become entrenched in it, what help would there be?  

He forged ahead, leaping and clambering, sloshing and splashing then resigned himself to having to add wading to his activities for the day.  Another slow hour passed before he was brought to a halt. The current in the water had been steadily increasing, and the depth also; the small island he stood on was long and thin, a grassy ridge surrounded by mud and water. The next one was much too far away, and the water too deep. He could see the Eastern bank, tantalizing in the distance with its trees but he could not reach it. The Water would not allow the Rushock to tame it utterly, and its strength was found here, on the Eastern side.

He sat down on the ridge to ponder, wet, muddy and sore from countless small nicks on his legs and hands by the sharp-edged bog grasses. Of course his earlier memories of the bog had also been from the summertime, when the waters were lower and warmer. The recent spring rains had greatly lifted the depth of the Rushock and the Water; those storm rains were hurrying past him, deep, strong and silent. He was no swimmer. He had acquired a small amount of dog-paddling skill long ago in Laketown but only under duress and didn't think he cared to try it out here.

"Not much of a barrel-rider without a barrel, am I?" he said aloud. "Stopped by a little water. What's to be done?"  He looked up and down the river for inspiration but received none. Sighing, he turned and began working his way upstream along the ridge, then started back the way he had come. Leaping from one section to another he nearly stumbled over a section of log, washed into the bog from some winter storm. It bobbed and rotated slightly, turning it's green-mossed edges over.

He stopped and took a good look at it. He pushed on it with one foot. It bobbed strongly, but stayed afloat very well. Not waterlogged then.  It had a long branch on one side, but it was cracked and partially peeled away.  He tugged at it until the branch came loose then used it to pry at the log, guiding it and turning it to the side of one of the tussocks. 

"Maybe I'm crazy after all." he muttered. "But a barrel is a barrel when one is in need." He pulled off his pack and adjusted the contents, fastening and tightening everything inside, then pulling the cord to strap the oilcloth and leather firmly in place. It should stay dry unless completely submerged. Better practice without it first, just in case.

He lay his pack aside and carefully lowered himself onto the log, as if he were mounting some strange sort of pony. It bobbed alarmingly under him, wanting to turn to one side or the other. It was some minutes before he felt he had it under control enough to try moving around on it at all. Remembering Gollum on his darkened lake, he experimented and found that laying flat across it and paddling with his hands and feet worked pretty well. Never know when something will come in handy... He tried minor navigation, paddling first to one side than the other without too much tipping.

Feeling only slightly more confident, he carefully climbed back off (a trick easier said than done) retrieved his pack and climbed back on again. Paddling and bumping along he slowly navigated his way eastward with only a few mishaps. He knew the stronger current was still to come; what would happen then? All he could do was hope for the best...

The last ridge of grasses and mud was bumped past.

He could feel the current tugging and pulling at the log. He scooped the water with his hands and kicked frantically on one side, trying to turn it quickly lest the river water flip it over and drop him in. It bobbed up and down, the entire front submerged badly but it came back to the surface with a splash that made him blink water from his eyes and shake it from his hair. He was still afloat!  And he was moving, drifting along without any effort at all. The current wasn't fast, but it was inexorably pulling south. He began kicking and paddling as hard as he could for the eastern shore.

That was when he heard a sound over his own splashing and panting that made him stop and drift to listen.

There it was again!

A child, crying.