Curse of Angmar

Chapter 5

by Cassia and Siobhan

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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 beings. 

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 repeated knocking. 

“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 was. 

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 lately. 

The lights from the Prancing Pony spilled into the dirty streets of Bree, their cheerful yellow cast belying the goings-on within the Inn. 

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 from 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 particularly well. 

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 have 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 warm room. 

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 it... 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 Aragorn. 

“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 good.” 

“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 his hands 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 talk. 

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 interest. 

“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 and 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 another fellow. 

“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 exhaling slowly. 

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 friends.” 

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 to 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 name. 

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 some 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 alone.” 

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 correct. 

“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 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 have...” 

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 man 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 to worry.” 

“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 smile. 

“It was good meeting” 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.

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