Summary: Frodo enters the Old Forest on a dare.

Disclaimer: All names, places, and characters contained herein are property of Tolkien Enterprises, with which I am in no way affiliated. I am making no profit from the publication of this story.

Author's Notes: I know this may seem a little piece-meal, and I apologize for that. I took the name Hugo from one of the family trees but my Hugo is not the Hugo of the family tree. Written for Marigold's 5th Challenge.

Many thanks, hugs, and Hobbits to Elendiari for doing me a favor and beta reading this. Thanks, Ella! hugs

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"Frodo went in there [the Old Forest] once, long ago." --Meriadoc Brandybuck, "A Conspiracy Unmasked"

---

"I dare you."

Those three immortal words that no lad can deny rang out in the late afternoon sunshine, disturbing the quiet that always surrounded the gate to the Old Forest. All the lads present turned to the youngest member of their group, waiting to see his reaction.

Frodo Baggins took a deep breath, straightened his shoulders, and held his fourteen-year old head high as he faced his challenger. "What do I have to do, Hugo?" he asked, unable to hide the quiver in his voice.

Hugo, the eldest of the lads at the age of twenty-one, smirked at Frodo's feigned bravery. "Walk, not run, mind you, one hundred and fifty paces into the Forest, stay there for a count of twenty, and then walk back out," he answered nonchalantly.

"And all of you have done this?" Frodo asked, glancing at the other members of the group.

"Of course," Hugo lied easily. "We all had to do it to become part of the group. It's simple enough for those who aren't scared of the bogey stories about the Forest."

"How do I get past the gate? Isn't it kept locked?" There was a definite note of hopefulness in Frodo's voice and expression. His face fell, however, as Hugo produced a key out of his pocket.

"Borrowed it from the Master's desk," he explained as he opened the gate. "He'll never know it was gone."

Frodo, looking like he was facing a horde of Orcs alone, stepped up to the gate. Glancing over his shoulder at the distant Buck Hill, Frodo took a steadying breath. With faltering steps, he left the Hedge behind and entered the Forest.

---

Rorimac Brandybuck looked up as five breathless lads burst into his office unannounced.

"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded, placing his palms on his desk and leaning forward slightly.

"He went in--"

"--only supposed to go--"

"--hasn't come out--"

"--almost an hour--"

"Quiet!" Rory bellowed, causing the lads to freeze. "Now, one of you, explain to me what is going on."

"Frodo went into the Forest," Hugo began, speaking quickly. "I dared him to go in but I didn't think he'd actually do it. He was only supposed to go in one hundred and fifty paces, but I think he got lost. He's been in there for almost an hour."

"How did he get past the gate?" Rory asked, eyeing each lad suspiciously.

"I took the key from your desk," Hugo said, holding out the pilfered item in his palm. "We didn't mean for him to get lost."

"Are we going to be punished?" one of the younger lads asked.

"Yes," Rory answered, "but it will have to wait." With purposeful strides, Rory left his office behind and headed towards his son's rooms. Knocking once, he let himself in.

Esmeralda was sitting in a rocking chair by the fire, nursing Meriadoc. Saradoc was sitting at his desk but rose at his father's entrance.

"Get together a search party," Rory directed without preamble. "A lad is lost in the Forest."

Esmeralda gasped. "Who?"

"Frodo."

Saradoc froze in midstep, his shocked eyes looking to his father. Esmeralda's rocking faltered as she, too, looked to Rory.

"He was dared by some lads who stole the gate key from my desk," Rory continued. "Hurry now, son, it's almost dusk."

As they hurried down the hall, Rory heard Esmeralda let out an anguished cry before they were out of hearing.

---

"No one goes in alone," Saradoc addressed the assembled Hobbits. "Stay in groups of at least two, with at least one lantern. Don't lose sight of anyone in your group and everyone keep hold of a rope. If for some reason you get separated from your group, the rope will lead you back to the Hedge. Three tugs on the rope, a pause, and then three more tugs means that it's time for you to come back. And whatever else to you, do nothing to anger the Forest!"

With this last warning in mind, groups of Hobbits began to enter the Forest. Because of the coming darkness, only those who had previously been in the Forest were being allowed to search.

The minutes passed like hours to Saradoc, who kept wondering what had possessed Frodo to enter the Forest at all, let alone when dusk was coming. The sun sank lower and lower and torches were lit, illuminating the edge of the Forest menacingly. Stars began to twinkle in the sky.

After a seeming eternity, Merimac came out of the Forest, cradling Frodo tightly in his arms. The lad was wrapped in Merimac's cloak and jacket but was still shivering terribly. Those Hobbits who hadn't gone into the Forest began tugging sharply on ropes.

Once through the Hedge, Saradoc helped his brother get Frodo on the back of a pony before jumping up behind him. With a quick but heartfelt thank you to Merimac, Saradoc kicked his pony into a trot.

---

"Why would he have gone into that dreadful Forest?" Esmeralda asked later as she and Saradoc watched Frodo sleep.

"A dare is a powerful thing," Saradoc answered, wrapping his arms around his wife's shoulders. "No lad wants to seem weak by denying one."

Pulling away from her husband's embrace, Esmeralda sat down on the edge of Frodo's bed. She frowned as she brushed his hair off his forehead. "He's coming down with a fever," she said, her voice full of motherly concern. "Those lad who sent him in the Forest should be punished."

"They will be, in the morning, as will Frodo," Saradoc told her, bracing himself for her reaction.

"What?" she exclaimed, mindful to keep her voice down. "Why is Frodo to be punished?"

"He entered the Forest when he knows that it's strictly prohibited," Saradoc answered. "He will receive his punishment as is his due. He needs to learn that he can't act without repercussions. He will not be granted special privileges just because he is the nephew of the Master."

"Saradoc--"

"Frodo will receive his punishment with the rest of the lads."

---

"I found Frodo near the Bonfire Glade, which is much farther into the Forest than one hundred and fifty paces," Merimac told his father the next morning. "He was huddled near the base of an oak tree, shivering and crying when I happened upon him. He had no cloak and his jacket had been torn, probably by one of the trees."

"How could he have gotten so far into the Forest without realizing it?" Saradoc asked. "I very much doubt that he lost count of his steps."

"My guess is that the trees shifted, causing Frodo to lose his bearings," Rory answered, leaning back in his chair. "He probably thought that he was headed back towards the Hedge while he was really being herded farther and farther into the Forest. It has happened to even the oldest and most experienced of Hobbits."

There was a knock on the door and a messenger stuck his head in the door. "Sirs, those lads you wanted to see are waiting out in the hall. Do you want me to send them in?"

"Just a moment, Fosco," Rory said.

Saradoc shifted uncomfortably in his chair and cleared his throat uncertainly. "Esmeralda... requested... that I ask you to be lenient with Frodo. She believes that he doesn't deserve to be punished at all, since he's become ill from his venture into the Forest."

"Frodo should have thought of that before he decided to disregard every rule we have about the Forest," Rory told his son. "He will be punished like the other lads. But you may tell Esmeralda that I will delay his punishment until he is well again. I will not, however, lessen the punishment in any way."

---

Years later, as Frodo was once again before the gate to the Old Forest, he remembered all those long days spent mucking out the stables and splitting firewood. This time, though, he would not be punished by his uncle for his his irresponsibility. He was not entering the Forest on a fool-hardy dare but on a desperate gamble that he could evade those pursuing him.

Though his words to Fredegar had been hopeful, Frodo couldn't help but wonder if he and his companions would be able to make it through the Forest as the gate clanged shut behind them ominously.

The End