The Daring Demons
by Laura Mason

"No girls allowed!" Tom shouts as he and Sam run away from Marigold and Rose. The girls look ready to cry, but Sam is too excited to stop. Who wants nasty old girls tagging along, anyway?

The sun is already hot, though it's still early in the day. The two boys race across the fields, glad of a holiday without chores. Overlithe means there will be feasting and dancing later, but for now it is merely a day to enjoy everything the summer offers. Adults are still lingering over their breakfast tables and children are running wild, just like Sam and Tom.

When they reach the woods behind the mill, Tom leads Sam down the mostly dried creek bed until he sees the Secret Mark on the upright log. They veer away from the creek then, headed to a small opening dug into a slight rise in the land.

The older boys always have the best forts, and Sam hears Ned's is wonderful. It faces the creek and is surrounded by trees, making it almost impossible to find unless you know the secret. Now Sam does, thanks to Tom. He feels puffed out with pride as they approach the entrance.

At 12 they are the youngest boys allowed in the group, and today Ned has promised to make Sam a member of his club if Sam passes the initiation. Sam crawls inside the fort behind Tom. When he reaches the others, they are lighting Tom's candle, and each is holding a light of their own. Ned, Blackie, Rolly and even Tom look unfamiliar in the flickering lights as they stare at him solemnly.

Tom greets the three with a hand signal, and Sam watches them each return a sign -- all different. Sam breathes heavily, too nervous to smile at the thought that he might have a secret sign of his own before the day is through.

"I've brought Sam to join the Daring Demons," Tom announces. "He's loyal and tough."

Sam blushes at Tom's praise.

"Do you swear to keep our clubhouse secret, Sam?" Ned asks.

"I do."

"Do you swear to stand by your Daring Demon brothers through thick and thin?" This from Rolly, who is on the thick side already. "To keep all their secrets and never tattle?"

"I do."

"You must do two things to get your Daring Demon sign, Sam. Are you ready?"

"Yes," said so softly Sam fears they didn't hear him. He nods vigorously, feeling that he will burst apart at any moment.

"First, we must know that you will be an interesting companion. Tell us the most horrible tale you know."

Sam thinks for a moment, but only a moment. His Gaffer likes to tell tales around a winter fire almost as much as Mr. Bilbo does. And Sam is old enough to know that the Gaffer's tales are more to the taste of most hobbits.

"This is a true story that happened in the Southfarthing hundreds of years ago." The other boys lean in closer as Sam spins the tale of a wealthy widow who lost her arm in a horrible accident. He copies Mr. Bilbo's storytelling manner, speaking softly so they have to listen hard.

"Widow Banks was very, very vain. She always dressed in the latest fashion, and she didn't want to have her clothes made with only one arm. She insisted the healer give her a new arm. Now the healer was a very clever man, and he had the local carpenter carve an arm for Widow Banks. But she said that was common, so she gave all her gold to the smith, and he made a cast from the wooden arm and fashioned an arm of solid gold for Widow Banks."

Sam checks his audience. The older boys seem rapt, so he continues. "The arm was very heavy, really impractical. But the Widow didn't need to do anything for herself. Her niece Larkspur had come to live with her when her Aunt was hurt, hoping she would die soon and leave all her money to Larkspur. But the Widow healed up just fine, and she made Larkspur her slave. Every day Larkspur would have to dress her and do everything for her, and polish the Widow's golden arm.

"Twenty years passed like this, while Larkspur grew old herself. The Widow Banks finally died, and on her deathbed she begged to be buried with her golden arm. Most of the Widow's wealth was in that arm, so Larkspur was left with her smial but little else.

"Larkspur couldn't stop thinking on the arm, and all the gold would buy for her. She was old and withered herself, with no sweetheart..." Sam winced for a moment, realizing that he was using all his father's words and forgetting his audience. But none of the boys seemed to notice, so he continued. "Larkspur WANTED that gold for herself. She deserved it, after all those years of nursing her Aunt and catering to her whims.

"So the next moonless night, Larkspur went to the graveyard and dug up her Aunt's body, and she stole the golden arm. It wasn't until she got home and cleaned up that she realized she couldn't sell it anywhere in the Shire without everyone knowing where it came from, and what she'd done. Larkspur hid the arm under her bed and sat down to have some tea and think.

"As she sat in her kitchen, she heard the wind howling outside. It sounded like a voice, almost, and she decided to go to bed and stop thinking about the arm for now. But once she was in her bed, covers pulled up to her ears, Larkspur heard the voice in the wind even more clearly.

"It was a moaning voice, old and feeble sounding. A woman's voice...

"It was saying, over and over again, 'who's got my golden arm? Who's got my golden arm?'" Sam is whispering now, doing his best impersonation of Widow Banks' voice. "Who's got my golden arm?"

Sam suddenly whirls and grabs Tom, screaming at the top of his lungs: "You've got it!"

All the boys jump, and Tom actually lets out a little shriek. Then the three older lads begin laughing, and after a moment, Tom laughs, too. Sam smiles. He knew enough not to make one of the older boys his victim, but he felt bad picking on Tom. It seems Tom forgives Sam.

"You have passed the first test, Sam," Ned says, a laugh still in his voice despite trying to sound serious. "Now you must prove yourself a true Daring Demon. Your final challenge is to procure your clubhouse light, which you will bring whenever we meet."

Sam nods, already planning to get the junk lantern from the shed. No one will miss it, he's sure. It's rusty, but Sam can clean it up. And his mother has a drawer of candle ends and scraps he can raid...

"This is not as simple as it seems, Sam, for you must steal the light, and prove it to us all."

"Steal?" Sam echoes, then asks "How do I prove I stole something?"

"You must steal your light from Old Mad Baggins at Bag End. So you'll need to bring something we know belongs to Bilbo, perhaps a lamp monogrammed with his initials."

"Or something that's half a set, and we can see the one that's still there," Rolly chimed in.

"Like those tin-punch lanterns on either side of the door," Tom says, and Sam looks at him in horror, his eyes wide.

Steal from Mr. Bilbo, who is always so kind to him? What if he is caught, and his father loses his job? What would become of his family?

What will Frodo think?

That one almost stops Sam cold. In the three years since he's come to live at Bag End, Mr. Frodo has always been a friend to Sam. He tells stories, helps Sam with his chores, and even asked Mr. Bilbo to give Sam lessons with him, to learn to read and write. Mr. Frodo is far ahead of Sam in both skills, but he always helps with sounding out the words when Sam wants to read a tale.

Sam respects Mr. Bilbo, but he truly loves Frodo. Frodo Baggins is more of a brother than Ham or Hal have ever taken time to be.

"Do you agree to this, Sam?" Ned asks, and Tom's eyes are on Sam, pleading. If Sam fails, it will be bad for Tom.

"I'll do it." Tom's smile helps Sam feel a little better, though he's more frightened now than when they first came to the fort.

"We'll all return here tonight, after second supper. Bring your light and you'll be a full-fledged Daring Demon."

***

Sam sits miserably in the party field below Bag End, which Bilbo offered for the Overlithe dancing, fingering the candle halves in his pocket. Now is the time to go get the lamp; everyone is busy serving second supper, and he can slip away unnoticed. The adults have been drinking ale for hours now, none of them noticed Sam's lack of appetite at supper -- very unusual for him. Of course, Frodo asked if he was sick...

Sam glances around. He can't see Frodo anywhere, though he'd been dancing until the food came out. Frodo might be walking with Daisy Bracegirdle, he supposes, though why anyone would want to talk with that silly girl is beyond Sam. Rosie, though just a baby, is much more fun. She catches frogs and tells great stories. Sam hopes she doesn't change once she's a tweenager, and laugh at nothing and look cow-eyed like Daisy. If Rosie does that, he'll stop playing with her. But Mr. Frodo never payed any mind to Daisy until she started being so dumb.

Sam sees Tom leaving his family's table and realizes it's time. Now or never. Is he daring? Sam won't be thought a coward.

He briskly walks toward Bag End, then ducks under the fence and into the garden, where he carefully creeps along, trying to stay in the shadows. There are so many lights outside tonight that the garden looks very different. It's good Sam knows his way around so well. The flowers seem to smell stronger now, in the soft nighttime breeze.

When he passes the pathway that leads to Frodo's favorite bench, tucked back against the hill, Sam thinks he sees movement and he stops. But there is nothing, and he isn't here to investigate coneys stealing vegetables; Sam is here to get that lantern.

The lanterns are on either side of the main door to Bag End. Sam knows the one he takes will be missed immediately, and he knows it's wrong to steal. But he wants Ned to like him, so he scoots over, reaches up, and grabs it. But he only succeeds in knocking it off the hook; his hands are sweaty and he doesn't have a firm enough grip. The lantern falls and the candle inside is extinguished. Sam picks it up, looks around, then runs like the furies are after him, back through the garden, under the fence, and toward the creek.

***

When Sam arrives at the fort and crawls inside, brandishing the lantern, Ned looks surprised and Tom positively shocked. Did they think he would fail? He puffs his chest out as they congratulate him and give him his own secret sign. It's like a flower, he thinks, as he moves his fingers, following Ned.

The other boys re-light Sam's lamp and all give their signs. Sam is perfectly happy.

"We can't stay out too much later," Ned announces. "But Sam told us a story this morning. Now it's time for another. Who's got a horrible tale to end our holiday?"

"I have a true story," Rolly offers. "About murder -- a murderer right here in the Shire, though not in Hobbiton."

"Ooh, truly?" Blackie asks. "Tell!"

"This is the story of Drogo Baggins, a bachelor until he was 58," Rolly begins.

"Here now!" Sam interrupts. "You're telling tales about real people--"

"It's true, I tell you. I heard Lotho Sackville-Baggins tell this story at his birthday. His parents know someone who was there, and they swear it's true."

"Tell the story, Rolly." Ned's word isn't to be questioned in his clubhouse, so Sam sits back, still upset. Tales about Mr. Frodo's parents are fairly common -- Sam has already heard many rumors. It still bothers him, and he knows it must grieve Mr. Bilbo and Mr. Frodo.

"Drogo married Primula Brandybuck because she was already with child. And no one knew for sure that it was *his* child she carried."

The audience of boys, except Sam, all nod. Everyone knows Frodo doesn't look like a Baggins.

"But Drogo didn't suspect for many years, until the night Old Rory Brandybuck's birthday feast was being held at Brandy Hall, and Drogo took Primula to see her family. At the supper Primula she was holding his hand and snuggling up to him so much that the whole family noticed it.

"After supper, Primula asked Drogo to take her for a row on the river, saying she'd missed living near the water. Drogo agreed, but once they were out on the water, she told him she was expecting another child."

Everyone is listening as Sam makes a noise of protest. At Ned's look, he bursts out "How could anyone know that? Were they in the boat with them?"

"They all heard them, because Drogo was so angry he screamed at her. You know how sounds can be heard at night, and it's easier over water. Everyone on the shore heard them fighting. She kept insisting it was his child, but Drogo said he knew better now and she wouldn't make a fool of him again."

Sam wishes he could stop his ears, or leave. Tom's hand on his arm helps a little, but he doesn't want to hear this story. Sam tries to ignore it, but all he can think of is his own parents, and how horrible it would be to hear someone talking about them this way. And it has to be even worse for Mr. Frodo, since he's lost both parents...

"That's when it happened. Drogo stood up in the boat, and it looked as if he were trying to hit Primula. Then she pushed him overboard, into the water, but it tipped the boat and she fell, too. And he grabbed her and held her so she couldn't swim -- being a Brandybuck, you can bet she knew how to swim. But Drogo didn't, and he knew she wouldn't help him. So he pulled her down with him, and they both died."

Rolly looks pretty pleased with himself. Until Blackie says "That's all? Don't their ghosts haunt the riverside now?"

"I said it was a true tale, Blackie."

"Ghosts are true."

"Are not!"

"Are too!"

"I've got to get home," Sam chokes out. And Tom, bless him, says nothing to stop him. Sam grabs his lantern -- Bilbo's lantern -- and quickly crawls out into the still night.

He stops almost immediately, realizing with a sick drop in his stomach that he can't walk home with his bright lantern. It must stay here in the woods. But what Sam really wants is to take it back to Bag End and replace it where it belongs. He wonders if it's already been missed.

He turns in a slow circle, lantern swinging, looking for a hollow log or low-branched tree, when he sees a tall figure in the darkness, just standing and watching him.

"Sam," the figure calls softly, and Sam's heart stops.

"Mr. Frodo," he chokes out, dismayed. "I can-- it's not--" But it is, and Sam has nothing to say.

"Follow me, Sam." Frodo leads him along the creek, to a tall tree with a low split. Frodo takes the lantern from Sam's hand and holds it high. "There's a dead branch... step here, Sam, and reach up -- feel it? You can hang the lantern there for safekeeping."

Sam looks down at Frodo, who has the lamp right next to his face. He is confused, but what he sees wipes that from his mind. Frodo's eyes are red, and there are streaks on his face. He's been crying, and Sam knows only one thing would make a tweenager like Frodo cry.

"I'm sorry, Frodo. They had no right."

"Hush, Sam, forget it. It's not worth talking about." Frodo's voice is shaky, and he looks away as he speaks. "Now hang this silly thing and blow out the candle, and let's go home."

"But I thought you'd want me to return it to Mr. Bilbo."

"You must have taken it for a reason, Sam."

"Yes, but--"

"A very important reason, to make you steal from Bilbo."

"Yes, I mean no, I mean ... it seemed important at the time. But..." Before he realizes what he's doing, Sam is back on the ground, crying all over Frodo's best party waistcoat. He's babbling about Tom, and wanting to fit in, and taking the lantern.

But Frodo doesn't seem to hear any of it, for he's still telling Sam it is all right and rubbing his back soothingly. "I was in the garden and I saw you take the lamp, and I followed you out here. I heard everything Sam, and I do understand."

"I'm so sorry," Sam finally says clearly as he backs away from Frodo at last. "I knew it was wrong and I did it anyway." He rubs a hand across his eyes. "You were in the garden? Why didn't you say anything?"

"I was ... umm ... talking with Daisy. Until you walked past and scared her away."

Sam looks at Frodo for a moment, wants to ask him why he'd talk with her, but decides he's just delaying. He squares his shoulders and says, "I'll take it back and tell Mr. Bilbo."

"What about the Daring Demons, Sam. And Tom?" Frodo's face has that far-off look, his thinking look. "You want to fit in with the other boys." Sam wonders how Frodo knows that, since he's never fit in as far as Sam can tell.

"I suppose I'm out of the club," Sam admits sadly, his disappointment plain. "And I'll be punished."

"Sam, we can work this out." Frodo says excitedly. "Quick, hang the lantern where I showed you. You'll still be punished, mind, but at least you'll be in Ned's club."

"Really?" Sam quickly extinguishes and hangs the lamp, then hops down to join Frodo.

"Yes, really. Now let me think a bit while we walk back. I'm leaving you at your house, Sam. I'll talk to Bilbo myself."

***

"Frodo told me what happened with my lantern, Samwise," Bilbo says the next morning when he comes across Sam weeding the garden. "You lads should be more careful, you know."

"I'm very sorry, sir," Sam begins.

"Well, you'll both need to be punished."

"Both?" Sam squeaks.

"I know you're the one who borrowed the lamp, Sam, though what you were trying to find in the woods at night in pitch-darkness I surely don't understand. But Frodo admits he's the one responsible for leaving the lantern in the woods. And he knew that set was a gift from Drogo, older than Frodo himself. His father gave me those when he was just a boy. I've cherished them for his sake these many years, though they weren't the most expensive things..." Bilbo wanders off, leaving Sam standing with his mouth open.

Then Bilbo turns, and sees Sam is close to tears. "Don't take on so, lad. You've only got to make do without cakes for two weeks. I discussed this with your father first thing, and he agrees it's no sweets for you."

"Frodo..." Sam manages to gasp out.

"Don't worry about him. He's a big boy, and he knew better."

Sam bursts into tears and runs home without another word, leaving a very surprised Bilbo standing in the garden.

***

That afternoon Frodo visits Sam, who has been put to bed and given a tonic by his mother.

"Bilbo said you're upset, Sam. What's wrong? Are you ill?"

"Oh, Frodo!" Sam throws himself out of bed and almost knocks Frodo over with a hug. "Bilbo told me -- and you're being punished, too -- when you didn't do anything!"

"Sam, Sam -- calm down. Of course I'm being punished." Frodo tucks him back into bed and sits next to him, then lowers his voice. "Sam, we stole that lamp together, you know. I'm just as responsible as you, since I knew and didn't make you return it. More responsible, really. I'm older, and according to Bilbo, I'd know better if I'd been raised a proper hobbit instead of growing up half wild."

"It's not fair," Sam whispers.

"Of course it is. We did wrong, and now we'll be punished."

"But that won't make it right, will it? Frodo, I think I need to make it right."

"But you want to be a Daring Demon, too."

Sam thinks about the fort, and his special hand sign. "Yeees, but not if it hurts anyone."

Frodo looks thoughtful. "There may be a way, Sam. Not until next month, since I'm being punished and I can't leave Bag End for any reason.

"Bilbo only let me come to see you because he was so worried." Frodo smiles at Sam. "If you're willing to work with me, I think we can make it half right, anyway."

***

It takes three months, and a lot of his play time, but Sam thinks it was well worthwhile.

"Show him, Sam," Frodo urges as they stand before Bilbo, breathless and excited. Sam pulls the new tin lantern out from behind his back. He and Frodo have made this, with the tinsmith's help, and they tried to match the design of the lamp Drogo gave Bilbo so long ago. Sam punched the tin himself for one half, and he doesn't think anyone could tell which side is his and which is Frodo's work.

Bilbo doesn't speak for a moment, then he takes the lantern and walks solemnly to the front door, where he hangs it on the empty hook. The three of them stand looking at it for a moment. The tin is a different color, not as weathered as the other, but Bilbo has a set of lamps again.

"You boys are very dear," Bilbo says, staring at his door. Sam wonders if grownups as old as Bilbo still cry. It sounds like he wants to, anyway, but then Bilbo hugs Frodo, then Sam, and takes them inside for tea and cakes.

The next afternoon, Sam heads to Ned's fort after retrieving his lantern. For the first time, he doesn't feel guilty carrying it. The way he feels today, that lightness inside, is more important than being a Daring Demon.

 

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