38. Rivers and Hobbits are a Dangerous Mix
Were all hobbits so stubborn, Aragorn wondered, or had he just been blessed in the Ring-bearer and his friends? He turned to Boromir, who sat in the stern of the narrow elven river-craft, keeping the boat on shore with a paddle dug into the bank. Frodo and Merry shared a seat before him, Merry on the left and somewhat hampered by his still-healing wrist. Pippin sat before them, his arms stretched wide to hold both sides of the small craft as it bucked and heaved in the swift waters. The soldier shrugged his thick shoulders helplessly but amusement at the Ranger’s predicament lurked in his hazel eyes. Legolas and Gimli stood by the second boat, waiting for the resolution of this unexpected revolt.
“Sam,” cajoled Frodo, “you don’t want to be the only one who doesn’t know how to manage a river-craft, do you? Come on now, be a good lad.”
“Mr. Frodo,” Sam replied, “me Gaffer always said that water an’ Gamgees don’t mix.” His round face paled as the small craft rocked and Boromir had to thrust the oar deep into the turf to keep the boat from working free. Pippin squeaked, his hands on the sides going white. Sam shook his head resolutely but his words were pleading. “Please, sir, don’t make me.”
“Sam, you must.” Frodo stared at his friend helplessly. “Truly, it isn’t so bad. Rather like sitting an unruly pony. Isn’t it, Pippin?” This was perhaps not the wisest query to make, as Pippin was beginning to look a bit green and they hadn’t yet pushed off from the shore. The gentle streams of the Shire were nothing like the swift and noisy waters of Rivendell. The small boat bounced and dipped, and Pippin and Frodo both gulped.
“Meanin’ no disrespect, Mr. Frodo,” said Sam slowly, not missing their white-knuckled grips on the boat, “I’d just as soon not. The ground’s never let me down before, and I hope ‘ta keep it that way.”
“Samwise Gamgee! You get in that boat this instant, young hobbit!”
Several things happened at once. Frodo and the other young hobbits snapped to attention. Sam levitated into the air and was climbing into the rocking craft before he was quite aware of moving. Once seated beside Pippin, he glowered resentfully at Bilbo. The elderly hobbit smiled at him serenely, brown old eyes sparkling with mirth. “I’ve known the lad since he was a gleam in his father’s eye,” Bilbo said in an aside to Aragorn. “Always did need a push now and then.”
“Thank you, Bilbo,” Aragorn muttered, storing away that tone of voice for future use. Legolas boarded the second craft gracefully and held it still for the dwarf. Once everyone was seated, Aragorn motioned for them to begin. Boromir and Legolas pushed off and sought the shallows, away from the swift flow at the center of the icy river.
“Shouldn’t you be going with them, Dúnadan?” asked Bilbo, from where he had settled himself comfortably on a grassy hillock, a somewhat worn wool blanket spread over his legs.
Aragorn stood on the bank and addressed the old hobbit over his shoulder. “I think it best if one swimmer stays ready, Bilbo. Just in case.”
Bilbo nodded. “Ah … good decision, my friend. Just in case.”
But it seemed the Ranger’s caution was unnecessary. Boromir and Legolas guided their river-craft easily and well, keeping close to shore and taking advantage of the swirling currents to back paddle and stay near the watchers on the bank. After they felt themselves comfortable with the boats, both pulled into an eddy and waited for the craft to settle. The Man and the Elf shipped their paddles and turned control of the small craft over to the hobbits and the dwarf.
Despite the paddles Elrond had had shortened for them, the hobbits had difficulty. They could not reach over the high sides (to them) of the craft to dip the oars far enough into the water to get an effective stroke. Frodo and Merry worked out a rhythm quickly enough, both handling an oar, but Sam and Pippin had more trouble. The difference in their sizes only exaggerated their problem with the oars; when Sam did get in an effective stroke, he tipped the river-craft to the side and Pippin was flailing air.
Gimli did better under Legolas’ coaching, growling under his breath at the swift waters and occasionally at the amused Elf. His immense strength drove the small craft forward in leaps and bounds but he had difficulty swiveling from side to side to steer the craft. Aragorn’s attention was on Legolas and Gimli when Boromir’s voice roared out behind him.
The Ranger swung back to a scene of confusion. Boromir and the hobbits were in the water. The river-craft was upside down, and two wet hobbit-heads were surfacing to cling to the overturned bow. The water darkened their hair and made it difficult to identify which of the little folk they were. Where were the other two?
Aragorn kicked off his boots and was in the freezing water in a heartbeat. It was so cold that it drove the breath from him and chilled him instantly. Boromir had disappeared; he broke the surface moment later, flinging water from his hair, a third small body thrashing in his arms. Legolas had snatched the paddle back from Gimli and was stroking towards them, but they had drifted some way off and the Elf was working against the current. Now Bilbo was on his feet, shouting and pointing.
Aragorn paused, following the old hobbit’s finger. A sandy head bobbed briefly in the current then went down again. Samwise. ‘Oh, no,’ thought the Ranger as he threw himself full length into the water and pushed himself off. ‘He’ll never enter a river again.’ Boromir had pushed Merry and Pippin against the frame and wrapped one arm around Frodo’s chest, holding them both to the overturned boat. He was struggling with Frodo - the Ring-bearer was fighting him, trying to get free to go after his friend. Merry and Pippin had latched onto Boromir’s clothing to drag them back to the craft, but they were drifting into the swift current and it caught the man, finding purchase against his larger body. As Aragorn watched, Merry’s weakened hand betrayed him and he lost his grip. Pippin could not hold Boromir and Frodo by himself. The two went down again, and when they came up, they were already far from the overturned craft.
The Ranger swam quickly, strong arms and legs kicking, sped by the current. His mind flashed back to their scouting-trip not so long ago, when Merry’s ill-fated fishing attempt had resulted in him falling into the river and Aragorn leaping in after him. But there were no twins to help this time. He pushed all considerations from his mind other than reaching the bobbing forms.
Level with the water, he could not see any of them. Nor could he make out the others’ shouts over the roaring of the water in his ears. The dwarf’s powerful voice bellowed over the river-song, but the words were indecipherable. Surprisingly, it was young Pippin’s shrill shrieks that penetrated the water’s buffering roars and made themselves audible to Aragorn. “Left! Left!” the young one was screeching, his high voice drilling into the Ranger’s eardrums. Aragorn threw himself to the side, half-turning in the swift waters. There was something dark in the water … small hands batting the foaming surface weakly. Aragorn surged past it then turned, catching the struggling form and pulling it on its back with his arm around its chest. Sam. The hobbit relaxed, instinct or weariness warning him not to continue fighting. Aragorn pulled him closer and started stroking for shore with one arm, towing the semi-conscious gardener.
Bilbo met them on the bank, panting alarmingly, his lined face bloodless. Aragorn heaved up the hobbit onto the shore and immediately flipped Sam onto his stomach, pushing hard below his ribcage to expel the water he had taken in. Sam choked, his eyelids fluttering, fingers digging into the spongy grass. Bilbo collapsed by his head, tugging his wool blanket over the young hobbit, stroking the limp curls and murmuring to him, “Breathe, Samwise. Breathe, my boy. You’re all right now, my lad.”
Aragorn thought that Bilbo should take his own advice. Sparing a moment to raise his head, he saw that they had not traveled far down the bank but were past where Merry and Pippin still clutched the overturned river-craft. It looked like they were trying to tow it to the other, closer shore, but could make little progress against the current. Boromir and Frodo were nowhere in sight. Legolas and Gimli were farther down, past where he had found Sam, the Elf impossibly standing in the boat, feet balanced on the sides, hand raised to his eyes to scan the waters. Gimli was dragging the paddle in the water, trying to slow them and afford Legolas some stability. Aragorn watched as the blond head turned from side to side, searching desperately.
Bilbo called his attention back to Sam. “Aragorn, he’s stopped breathing! He’s not breathing!”
Aragorn rolled Sam onto his back, crouched over the now unconscious hobbit and placed his ear over Sam’s mouth, listening for the rush of air past the hobbit’s lips. No air brushed his cheek and Sam’s chest did not move. Quickly the Ranger inserted a finger into Sam’s mouth and ensured that the hobbit’s airway was clear. Then he placed his hand under Sam’s head and gently extended his neck, opening his mouth by tilting back his chin. One hand rose to pinch shut Sam’s nostrils, the man’s thumb and forefinger covering nearly half the small face. Aragorn inhaled deeply and fitted his mouth over the hobbit’s, making a tight seal, blowing slowly into his mouth. For a child – or person of small statue – the Ranger’s mind supplied, each breath should last a second to a second and a half. Five seconds between breaths … twelve breaths a minute. Bilbo placed his hands on Sam’s chest, feeling it expand with the forced inhalation. Aragorn blew in a second breath then released Sam, shifting back to see the hobbit’s chest slowly sink.
“Come on, Sam,” Aragorn growled. He placed two fingers just to the side of Samwise’s throat-apple, seeking the carotid artery. It pulsed sluggishly beneath his touch. He knelt over the hobbit again and forced in a third breath, then a fourth. Again the small chest slowly sank. He was about to deliver another pair of breaths when Sam’s face crinkled. He choked and quickly Aragorn rolled the hobbit onto his side.
Sam moaned once then he was vomiting, legs drawing up as cramps ripped through his stomach and forced the icy river-water from him. His eyes opened but they were glazed and unfocused. Bilbo knelt over him, stroking his head and murmuring constant, meaningless reassurances. The old hobbit raised his eyes to the Ranger’s. “He’s breathing on his own, now. Aragorn – please. Find Frodo.”
With a last check on Sam, Aragorn nodded and rose. His wet clothing was plastered to him, sending shudders through him, making it impossible for his body to generate heat. He had to get Merry and Pippin out of the water as quickly as possible. “Bilbo, will you start a fire? There is plenty of wood about – part of the blanket can serve as fuel. Your kin and Sam will need the warmth as soon as possible.”
Without waiting for an answer, Aragorn ran to the bank. “Legolas! Legolas! Bring the halflings to shore!” He need not have feared the Elf would not hear him. Legolas turned towards him then sank down back into the boat. He steered while Gimli paddled, the dwarf using that immeasurable strength to push against the current and draw near to the hobbits. Legolas’ long arm reached out and he caught first Pippin, then Merry by their collars, hauling the waterlogged hobbits over the side of the craft to sit them before he and Gimli. The two were shivering too much to speak and could only stare at their rescuers with tearing eyes in white faces. Unheeded, the second elven-craft whirled in the water then shot off down the river.
Again the dwarf’s great strength made light of the obstructing current. Gimli grounded the boat with a push that drove them up on the bank and Aragorn caught the bow, anchoring it so that it could not slip back into the river. Gimli dragged himself gracelessly out of the craft, lifting Merry up to Aragorn as Legolas picked up a dripping Pippin.
“Fro – Fro – Fro -” tried Merry, unable to get his cousin’s name out past chattering teeth.
“We will go after him in a moment, Merry,” Aragorn reassured him. “Boromir will keep him safe. Now you and Pippin and Sam must get warm. Bilbo, how’s that fire?”
“Coming along,” replied the old hobbit distractedly. Gimli and Legolas were helping, dragging over branches and feeding in tinder, and the flames were growing to bonfire proportions. Bilbo was directing the young hobbits to remove their clothing, and helping the now awake but miserable Sam to undress. “Close by the fire, my lads. That’s it. Pippin, dry your hair with my blanket. You too, Merry – take the other end. Aragorn, you should get out of those wet things.”
The Ranger shook his head, struggling to don his boots. “Legolas and I are going downriver. I’ll warm up soon enough with a brisk run. Gimli, will you keep the fire fed and do what you can to help them?” The dwarf nodded, dark eyes worried.
Legolas sprang away and Aragorn after him. They had passed beyond the hearing-range of those left behind when the Ranger sought his friend’s attention. “Keep your eyes on the shoreline. They might have found a quiet shoal and been able to pull themselves ashore. I hope it is so.” Legolas looked at him without speaking, then immediately returned that keen gaze to searching the river. “There are rapids farther down,” Aragorn explained. “They lead to a great waterfall. If they survive the rocks, they would never survive the fall.”
* TBC *
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.