The gate of Bree loomed tall before the three travelers, blocking their
path. Aragorn turned and stopped the elves, his focus on
Elladan. He and Legolas had been in this same situation many
times, entering a town of men who were not frequently exposed to the
Firstborn. Most humans were suspicious and wary of the fair
The ranger was not worried about how his elven friend would fare,
Elladan could more than take care of himself. It was his
brother’s reactions that concerned him, and the risk of losing their
cover. Elladan was not uncomfortable or wary around humans as
Legolas had once been. However, he was used to cities of men who
were friendly and accepted the elven brothers’ comings and
goings. Their dealing with the rangers and Beornings had made the
twins somewhat innocent to the workings of humans on a greater
scale. Here they would find no welcome.
“Elladan, listen, when we get in there...” Aragorn’s admonitions were
cut short by his brother.
“I have been among humans before, Estel. You worry far too
much. El and I have ridden with the rangers since long before you
were born, I’ll have you know.”
Pressing the two elves back into the woods behind them, Aragorn
continued the conversation at a safer distance from the city so as not
to be overhead by the random passerby.
“I know you have. And you are older and wiser in the ways of this
earth than I am...”
Elladan grinned. “Correct. Estel, it’s not as if this were
the first time I’ve seen Bree. I don’t see the need for all
this.” He gestured to the coat hiding his features.
“I know it’s not, but there’s a difference between riding by or passing
through, and actually trying to mingle. These men are not like
the men you have known. They are not bad, but they are a
suspicious and superstitious lot. Many have never even seen an
elf, for elves do not frequent these places and they are more used to
the evil things and the wilds than they are to something they consider
myth.” He raised his hands in a pleading gesture when Elladan
tried to interrupt again. “Please, brother, I do not question you
or your abilities, it is the ones we will be among that worry me.”
Aragorn glanced to his right, smiling at the prince. “Legolas is used
to this atmosphere, but it has not been without trial and error that we
discovered how best to conceal ourselves. Let me do the
talking.” He spoke the last sentence slowly as though speaking to
a very small child. “In all likelihood we will not be challenged
or even engaged in conversation by anyone. We are here to listen
and see what we can find out.”
“I do not like this,” Elladan answered softly.
“I know.” Estel placed his hands on the elf’s shoulders and
stared up into the blue-grey eyes that watched him. “Do this for
me, I need your help. Besides, it won’t be that bad.”
The elf nodded once. It was enough for the ranger, who tugged
playfully on the edges of the hood and turned silently, leading them
back to the large wooden gate. He rapped on the timber that made
up the huge door and waited, pounding again when no answer was
forthcoming. Sounds of shifting and grumbling issued from behind
the barricaded doorway and an irritated voice finally answered the
“Who calls so late at night?” a thin voice called to them.
“Open the portal.” Aragorn glanced behind him shaking his head.
A small square window set in the door cracked open and yellow light
spilled out from the lantern that the gatekeeper held up eye level so
he could view the travelers without. It was late. Later
than anyone usually came calling and he wasn’t too disposed to
opening the large barricade. It was cold out and he was
sleepy. His irritation with the intruders showed through. “What
do you want?” he questioned again grumpily.
Aragorn stepped up, blocking the man’s view of the elves. “We
would like to come in. We’re headed for the Prancing Pony.”
“Well it’s a might late.” The small door cracked open wider as
the old gatekeeper glanced around the ranger. “There’s talk of
wights about. The townsfolk don’t like the gate opened any more
after sundown, it’s not safe.”
“Do we look like wights to you?” Legolas stepped forward into the shaft
of dim light, allowing the man to view him more fully. When he
spoke his voice was lower and deeper, not as soft as it normally
Aragorn glanced at his friend out of the corner of his eyes.
Rarely did the elf speak when they entered human towns, but his time in
Harad and with the Gondorians had made him bolder, more used to dealing
with humans and concealing himself among them.
“Well...” The older man behind the barricade eyed the elf hard, “Not to
me, you don’t, but then I ain’t one that’s seen them devils.” The
small window slammed quickly and forcefully shut. In moments the
doors of Bree opened slowly and the threesome were allowed entry.
“Now don’t let me hear of you starting no trouble in town. I
shouldn’ta let you in but...”
“You’ll not hear of us causing any stir.” Aragorn promised,
waiting as Elladan stepped inside the doorway. He followed the
elves up the street to the local tavern.
“See that I don’t!” the caretaker called after them. Something
still felt wrong about him letting the strangers in, but he had seen
the ranger before, so he was less inclined to keep them out.
Shaking his head he stepped back into his small house adjacent to the
gates and lit his pipe once more. Everyone was just too on edge
The lights from the Prancing Pony spilled into the dirty streets of
Bree, their cheerful yellow cast belying the goings-on within the
Aragorn pushed the door open and waded into the sea of humanity just on
the other side. Men were pressed up against the bar, drinking pints of
ale as they bemoaned the day’s labors. Others were gathered about
circular tables, telling each other tales, some of which were true and
some that were suspect. The smoke from pipes hung thick about the
middle of the room, choking the air, and the small confines smelled
the closely pressed bodies that occupied the tavern. Many found
it a welcoming, cheery place, and Aragorn himself was no
exception. However, the ranger knew from experience that while
comfortable to men and halflings, elves did not take to these settings
Elladan stopped on the threshold of the door, catching his breath as
the sounds and smells assaulted him. Half in, half out of the bar
he stopped, taking it all in. There was something disturbing to
the elven senses about the clamor and disorderly atmosphere. If
it hadn’t been for Legolas’ hand in the small of his back, he might
stood there all night until someone pushed him out of the way.
The gentle pressure from the elven prince caused the twin to refocus on
the sight of his retreating human brother and he stumbled into the bar.
Making his way to the table in the corner that Aragorn had chosen, he
dropped stiffly into the chair that the ranger kicked out for
him. Estel was right; the atmosphere here was entirely different
than what he was accustomed to, even in his many dealings with the
mortal race. It was just a building full of humans; he didn’t
know why it made him so hesitant, but it did.
Legolas seated himself on Aragorn’s right and immediately began to look
over the tavern. As usual the ranger had chosen a well-placed
section of the bar to sit in. They were at a round table, out of
the way towards the back of the room, with a good view of the door and
all the occupants. Only one small corner to Legolas’ right was
obscured by the brick firepit that smoked away, heating the already too
The elf prince felt no reservation about these settings anymore, he had
long ago learned to tune out the elements of chaos that were initially
disturbing and see beyond them. The Prancing Pony was actually
far more pleasant a place than some of the seedy, cutthroat little pubs
he had seen in the south.
“You all right?” Aragorn softly asked his brother, his voice not
even audible over the din in the tavern. Only an elf would have
heard the question.
Huge, dark eyes fastened on his own and Elladan nodded slightly. “Yes,”
he answered, although it was not the entire truth. He had never
in his life entered an establishment like this, not even in the company
of the Beornings or the other rangers. It was an unsettling
place. Nothing he couldn’t handle, but unsettling. More
than anything, it irritated him that his brother had been right about
how unnerving it was. He supposed, however, he would get over
but it would involve thinking up something clever to do to Estel for
dragging him in here.
The ranger read the single word reply as it passed across the elf’s
lips before redirecting his attention to the bartender who was moving
in their direction.
A knowing glance passed between Legolas and Aragorn and the human
kicked his chair back casually, balancing on the back legs as he liked
to do and affecting an air of disinterest as he began watching the
occupants of the room.
“What’ll it be?” The bartender squinted at the three men, sizing
them up. He was a large man in stature and girth and the shadow
of a beard colored his face. Unkempt dark hair spilled into his
eyes where his locks were too long, he was definitely in need of a
haircut and a good bathing, but his eyes were quick and bright as he
glanced over the newcomers. He was drying an ale cup with the
edges of the apron he wore. The garment was stained and filthy
and Elladan grimaced as he watched the man from the shadows of the hood
that concealed his features.
“House brew,” Legolas replied simply, his shoulders slumped, his
voice rough as he threw the answer offhandedly at the man. He
broke eye contact and glanced casually over at a small brawl that
erupted in the far corner of the establishment.
Elladan was quietly intrigued by how very little Legolas actually
resembled the elf he knew him to be at the moment. Just what
exactly had his brother and the prince been up to over the years?
“Damn that Braxt. You give him too many and this is how he acts,
every night. You think I’d throw him out when he shows his face
in here.” The man turned back to the patrons in front of
him. “Sister’s husband,” he answered the question no one had
asked nor cared about.
The ranger he recognized and didn’t bother to ask what the Dunadan
wanted, he already knew, but their hooded companion hadn’t spoken.
“And you?” the bartended pointed the cup he held at Elladan.
Once again the elf froze, not knowing quite how to respond. He
didn’t drink the foul mead that men did and was certain they served
nothing he would recognize. Startled, he turned towards
“He’ll have a house brew, Jansit.” Aragorn answered the bartender
casually. “Now where’s that son of yours, young Barliman?
How come you haven’t got him working down here with you? Seems
you could use the help.” The ranger eyed the four men that had
just noisily spilled into the bar, demanding ale.
“Now you just don’t take no nevermind to my son.” Jansit Butterbur
frowned at the man, ignoring the new customers, “I know you rangers,
Strider, making off with people’s kids to help fill out your
ranks. Well you’ll not be getting mine! He has a
future! All this here’s gonna be his one o' these days.”
With a laugh Aragorn let his chair fall back down onto all four legs
and leaned across the table, fixing the bartender with a devilish grin,
“Where do you get your
stories, Jansit? I can’t believe you
listen to those old biddies gossiping. You put enough of that
brew of yours in them, you can get them to say anything about a body,
you know that.”
With a snort of derision the bartender turned and walked away. “You’re
all getting house brew tonight,” he called over his shoulder, “and I’ll
not hear nothing to the contrary!”
Aragorn laughed and patted Elladan on the arm. “That was
“Estel, what am I supposed to
be doing? Why have you dragged me
here?” The elf locked his gaze on the human as Aragorn tipped
back in his chair, once more relaxing into the atmosphere, letting the
patrons around them forget they were there. He could tell his
brother was anxious and tried to put him at ease.
“I want you to listen.” He glanced casually at the elf out of the
corner of his eyes, slowly moving his head until he was staring
straight at his brother. The action was deliberate and off-handed
- it garnered little attention. “At first you may find it hard to
do.” His voice was barely audible over the noise in the room, but he
kept it down, teaching the elf by his example how to concentrate on one
voice at a time. “Just like you are listening to me, listen to each of
the conversations. Hear what they are talking about. We are
looking for any tips on the doings of the wights in these parts.”
Aragorn glanced up as Jansit walked back towards them and deposited
three mugs of ale onto the middle of the table, the thick mead sloshing
over the sides. “Drink up boys,” he muttered as he walked away wiping
on his apron.
Leaning forward, Aragorn grabbed a brimming mug and took a deep draught
of the drink. His focus turned suddenly outward as he began
scrutinizing the men around them, weeding out the braggarts and the
obviously drunk. Someone here just had to have information, and
in a group this large and diverse someone would be willing to
It had been sometime that they had been sitting at the table with no
results when Legolas reached over and gently touched Aragorn’s arm with
the tips of his finger. His gaze caught the ranger’s and
redirected the man’s attention to a table in the far corner. What
looked like a group of farmers were trading stories animatedly among
themselves, most of them talking around the tips of pipes shoved into
their mouths that they chewed on as they spoke.
Elladan tuned into the conversation when he saw Aragorn’s sudden
“What are they saying?” Aragorn whispered.
Legolas shook his head slightly, shushing the man with the motion; he
had missed out on what the older grey-haired man had just spoken.
“The old farmer says that it’s the Curse of Angmar, come back to haunt
them.” Elladan replied, whispering as he concentrated on hearing
through chaos of the room.
“Nah, Fildred, you’ve been out there working in the heat too long.” The
younger farmer at his elbow replied, causing his companions to laugh
jostle one another good-naturedly.
“You mark my word, Tilden,” Fildred replied, unruffled by the
taunting, “It’s the work of the curse, stirring them up again.
Why we haven’t had so much trouble with the wights since the flood of
2941. Overran their homes, the water did, and haven’t never seen
anything so mad as they were. Livestock and people gone
missing. Some never heard from again.” The older gent
chewed on the end of his pipe, letting his words sink in.
“Old wives' tales, didn’t never happen,” another of their companions
snorted. He was more or less ignored.
“Old Breidy, he lost him a good horse two nights ago. Got stuck
riding past the downs after dark. Cart threw a wheel stopped him
up good,” a farmer across the table spoke up. “Said it was
terrible frightening. Claims they came from out of nowhere.
Says the thing wasn’t alone.”
“Ain’t nothing good goes on in them barrows after sundown,” chimed
“Never heard of wights working together,” Tilden commented
quietly. “Nor leaving their barrows.”
“Me neither, but from what Breidy said they weren’t in no mood to
tolerate him. They set up a fierce wailing all about and the
horse bolted, never saw him again. When he tried to get away,
said there was a loud sound and a lot of light. Devil’s
fire! Springing out of the earth or maybe called down out of the
sky, he weren’t sure which. Knocked him senseless, it did.
Woke up over near the Brandywine with nothing but his breeches.”
The farmer speaking glanced at Fildred and they both nodded knowingly.
“Hasn’t been outta his house since then. The missus says it threw
him mighty good, it did.”
“It’s the curse I tell ya,” Fildred repeated, pulling a deep
breath on his pipe, and holding the sweet smoke in his lungs before
Talk turned from the Barrows to the weather and deteriorated from
there. Legolas tuned the conversation out and turned back to
Aragorn. Elladan had relayed everything he had heard and Legolas
quietly filled in the parts the elven twin had missed.
“Sounds like our wights alright.” Aragorn leaned forward over his
pint, resting his chin on his hands. “But I’ve never heard of
wights doing what these do. And what is this curse of
Angmar? I am not very familiar with the legend or our evil
Elladan glanced at Legolas, but the elf shrugged; he had heard of
Angmar, but most of the history on this side of the Misty Mountains had
not been the subject of dinner talk around his family table nor
included in his training.
With an understanding nod, Elladan moved closer to Aragorn and
proceeded to tell him what he knew.
“Father has spoken of them a few times. You know that the Barrows
were originally burial chambers used by men, your ancestors, Estel,
in ancient days when Arnor was young. Later, after the wars with
Angmar and its final destruction, the Barrows were used by the Cardolan
and the Dunèdain to bury their dead. Great men were laid
to rest there and it was a good place.”
Aragorn nodded, this much he had heard. He loved sitting near his
father and hearing the tales of old.
“Angmar was the domain of the Witch-king, chief of the Nazgûl,
and he did not accept his defeat well. Bitter over his losses and
still warring with the remnants of Arnor, he sent evil spirits to
inhabit the Barrows and they became a place of horror, avoided by all
who traveled through the downs. The wights themselves are rumored
inhabit the bodies of the deceased men who had been buried there,
fostering a multitude of tall tales and untruths that began
circulating, adding to the fear and confusion.”
Legolas felt involuntarily chilled at the mention of the ringwraith’s
Elladan continued, oblivious to the prince’s reaction, “They have ever
been in opposition to all men, in accordance with their master’s
wishes, but they are never hesitant to take whatever poor soul happens
by and enslave that one to their own will, binding them up and covering
them with the sleep of the dead. To some, the wights became known
as the Curse of Angmar and they exist to this day. No one has
been able to overcome them. There are rumors and old wives' tales
of the wights walking through the Shire and the outlying regions, but
they are unconfirmed. From what I know, wights do not leave their
barrows but wait for unsuspecting souls to pass close enough to catch
them in their snares or lure them in with the promise of
treasures. Many a gold seeker has walked the Barrows and never
been heard from since. What they do with their captives no one
really knows for no one has ever escaped who was caught.” He
paused thinking hard. “At least not that I have heard of.”
Elladan shrugged and glanced about them, finished recounting what he
knew of the ancient history of these parts.
“Well, that would make a lovely tale to tell around a dark campfire
night...” Aragorn murmured. “I’m surprised you and Elrohir never
told me about that when I was young and you delighted in trying to
scare the daylights out of me whenever we were out in the woods
Elladan chuckled. “There are some things, brother, that even El
and I wouldn’t joke about.” Sitting back in his seat, the elf
glanced up as Jansit walked back over to their table.
“Another round perhaps?” the bartender questioned. He carried
four brimming mugs with him. The bar was beginning to clear out and
those not leaving were sleeping
loudly where they had fallen.
Strider shook his head, downing the last of his drink quickly. He
started to rise but stopped as Jansit set the pints down on the table
and seated himself across from the ranger.
No one spoke for a few moments. The local bartender rarely joined
any of his patrons at their tables and the look on the man’s face was
not a jovial one.
Breaking the silence, the ranger spoke up as the last of the conscious
but inebriated men pushed each other out the tavern door. It
swung back heavily on its hinges and clanged shut.
“What can I do for you, Jansit?” Strider asked warily.
The rotund man glanced between the strangers on either side of the
human that sat across from him. He didn’t trust them but, despite
his low opinion of the rangers, it was undeniable that they at least
were usually willing to poke their noses in where sane men feared to
venture. Jansit’s desire to confide in the other man finally
overcame his hesitancy.
“Why are you here, Strider?” he answered the question with one of his
one. “I haven’t seen you in years.”
“Passing through,” ghe man answered casually. Although his
outward appearance affected a manner of disinterest, his curiosity was
heightened. Jansit never carried on much of a conversation with
him other than the usual pleasantries, but tonight the bartender seemed
anxious and worried. “The wilds get tiring. We wanted some
of your house brew. Why do you ask?”
“I think there’s more.” Jansit glanced first at Elladan and then
at Legolas. “Your drinking company makes me think there is for
one. Not your usual fare.”
Elladan stiffened, but Aragorn gently touched his thigh with the
fingers of his left hand.
“What of them? I thought you didn’t care who you served.”
The ranger’s voice took on a hard edge and the tone wasn’t lost on the
Bree-lander as he shifted uncomfortably under Strider’s scrutiny.
With a sigh the bartender leaned forward and lowered his voice even
though the patrons left were sleeping, dead to the world. He
needed to confide in someone and he was hoping that his suspicions were
“There’s talk about. The wights are stirred up so they say.
My Flossie came home late two nights ago. I thought she was
already in-city before the gates were closed or I’da been out there
looking for her. Said she was attacked by...by things that
glowed. They tried to catch her, but she’s not one for giving in
easy and she made it to the gate, but not ‘fore the wits were scared
out of her. Said there was some sort of explosion and light and
noise, almost made her lose her bearings. They made off with the
new milking cow she had just purchased. Poor beast bolted on
her. She’s made of stern stuff, my Flossie, but she’s still
getting over the shock. Barliman’s stayin’ home with her full
time ‘til she gets back on her feet.”
He paused and glanced between his listeners. Strider leaned
forward and nodded, encouraging him on. “I’m not thinking it’s
the wights. My family has lived here for years. The wights
haven’t been this active since my great-great grandfather was alive if
the stories be true. And what would they want with animals
eh? ‘Twas always people they wanted in the old tales, not
goods. But all the people's been left so far. Doesn’t make
sense now, if you’re asking me.”
“And you’re thinking...” Legolas prompted the man when he stopped.
“I ain’t so sure it ‘tis the wights, if you catch my meaning.
That’s all.” Jansit took a swallow of the mead and leveled his
gaze on Strider.
The ranger didn’t speak or answer the unspoken question just yet. He
was thinking about all that he had heard and just how much he should
tell the bartender.
“You are here to look into it aren’t you?” Jansit’s tone was
cautiously inquiring, but his eyes were practically begging. “I
mean it’s an awful coincidence.” He motioned at the elves on
either side of the ranger, “and coming with friends as you
Elladan looked at Strider, his face hidden from all the others by the
hood, but his brother could see the elf’s eyes. “Tell him.
He’s afraid,” the twin mouthed the words. Aragorn barely
nodded; it couldn’t hurt to have someone in town helping them
out. Before he could speak, and to his great surprise, Elladan
slowly slid the hood off of his head and stared at Jansit.
The man sat up a bit straighter, pushing back slightly from the
table. “Well, I’ll be.” The bartender glanced around them
quickly but they were alone in the tavern. “An elf. Haven’t
seen the likes of your kind here in... well, ever, really.” The
relaxed a bit and squinted at Legolas, “So what would you be?”
“A friend,” Strider commented quickly with a wry smile.
“And in answer to your question, Jansit, yes we are here because of the
rumors of the wights. I wasn’t fully convinced it was them
either, but the stories we’ve heard tonight and your own corroboration
is pointing to something else, something pretending to be wights.
If I had to guess, I’d hazard that you have a band of highwaymen
camped out hereabouts.”
“Flossie won’t leave the town until they’ve gone for good and we are in
mighty terrible need of a cow, as ours took ill last month.”
Jansit frowned and glanced down. “Anything I can do to help?”
“Keep your ears open. See if you can find out anything from your
patrons. They talk and they aren’t quiet about what they
know. If you hear of anything suspicious or see anyone in town
that you don’t recognize, let me know. I’ll check in from time to
time.” The ranger answered with a small nod that was echoed by
the Bree-lander. “We’ll be about and we’ll get to the bottom of
this. Give us some time.” Scooting his chair back and
standing stiffly to his feet, Aragorn leaned across the table and shook
the large man’s hand. “Give Flossie my greetings and tell her not
“Think I’ll tell her after you’ve gone. You think these men are
bad,” Jansit chuckled. Motioning with his thumb, he pointed over
his shoulder at the men who were crashed across the tops of tables or
laid out on the flooring sleeping, “you should hear them women when
they get together! But I’ll tell her she doesn’t have to worry so
much anymore.” Accepting the ranger’s proffered hand he shook
it. “Thanks, Strider.” The words were gruff, but
sincere. Jansit may have been leery of rangers, but having
dangerous folk on your side was a good thing in dangerous times.
Legolas and Elladan took their cues as the ranger glanced at
them. Elladan quickly flipped the hood back over his head,
tucking his hair around his ears and flashed the bartender a
“It was good meeting you...er...” Jansit fished for a name.
“Another thing you can just keep between us,” Aragorn cautioned
the man with a smile as he brushed past the Bree-lander, pushing the
elf out in front of him.
“Can’t blame a man for being curious.” Jansit laughed as he
straightened his apron, cleaning the table of the now empty mugs as
Strider left the bar with the two elves in tow. “Just ain’t
everyday that a body gets to meet an elf around here.” His muttered
conversation to himself was cut off as the three stepped out into the
darkened streets of Bree.
“That was risky,” Aragorn turned to Elladan as they walked
towards the gate.
“He needed to know, Estel. These people are living in fear and
those are no wights that are attacking them. I am almost sure of
it.” Elladan shrugged. “Besides he seemed honest enough and
he appeared to trust you more than your appearance deserves.
Sometimes trusting is risky.”
“It will help to have someone inside the town watching for us.
Another pair of eyes and ears couldn’t hurt,” Legolas commented
quietly, walking on the other side of Aragorn.
“And you wondered why I asked
the two of you to come with me.”
Aragorn smiled impishly as he lifted the heavy crossbar on the gates,
silently letting himself and the elves out of the sleeping town.
The old man who kept the gates heard them snick shut and fell out of
bed, rushing to the barred wooden doors as the crossbeam fell back into
place with a heavy thunk. Cautiously opening the small window, he
peered into the predawn dark but saw nothing, not even the whisper of a
shadow moving. Glancing warily about him, he crept back to bed
hoping things would be all right in the morning.