Curse of Angmar

Chapter 6

by Cassia and Siobhan

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Legolas glanced up at the pattern of stars overhead and grimaced.  The heavenly shift in the lights told him they had been hidden on the fringes of the Barrow-downs for about three hours now and nothing had stirred. 

“Stop that,” Aragorn whispered from his crouched position next to the elf.  “You looked at the stars only five minutes ago. Five minutes, no more, have passed since the last time you checked.” 

“We will find nothing here tonight as we have not for the past three nights,” Legolas countered fiercely, his voice barely audible. 

“He’s right, Estel.”  Elladan rolled over in the grass, giving the ranger a good view of Elrohir who was seated just beyond his twin, idly chewing on the end of a piece of the long grass which hid them.  The dark-haired twin nodded, agreeing with his brother. 

With a sigh Aragorn sat up, giving way his position.  Seeing their hiding places revealed, Halbarad dropped lightly from a tree not far off to their left.  He had sent Arendur back west to see how the other rangers fared.  A runner had met up with them just last night to inform the Chieftain that the source of the warg invasions had not been curbed.  They needed help and badly.  To his deep regret there had been none to give.  What Aragorn and the elves had turned up in Bree had worried him.  If they had a group of highwaymen waylaying unsuspecting travelers, it was no light business and needed to be dealt with now before their operation could expand.  And if by some strange chance they truly did have a reawakening of wights on their hands... they would cross that bridge when they came to it.  So he had opted to remain with the others and sent Arendur back in his stead.  The lad was headstrong and prone to quick judgments, but he was loyal and nearly as stealthy as an elf. 

Standing up slowly from his crouched landing position, Halbarad approached the elves that had seated themselves around the other Dunadan and were talking quietly.  They glanced from time to time out across the Barrows, but the valley was quiet.  Nothing stirred.  The deep night fog swirled around the dew-coated mounds that dotted the glen, but of the wights or their suspected human imposters there was no sign. 

“What do you suggest, Strider?”  The older ranger seated himself on a rock and stared down at the group of companions. 

“I don’t know,” the younger man answered, throwing up his hands in a gesture of hopelessness. “If it was the wights they should be out after us right now.  If it is not as we suspect... then they are terribly good at hiding themselves.”  He glanced over his shoulder into the valley before flopping backwards in the grass, all but disappearing from Halbarad’s sight, hidden by the long spines.  He stared into the night sky fixing his gaze on Eärendil before it was blocked from sight by an inquisitive elven face. 

Legolas parted the leafy fronds and stared down at the human, “Estel?” 

“Oh lets just call it a night.  I’m tired,” the ranger mumbled. 

Next to him Elladan sat up straighter and glanced at Elrohir. “Did you hear that, El?” 

Legolas was suddenly alert, listening to something as well that neither of the humans could hear. 

“What? What is it?”  Aragorn sat back up, instantly keenly aware. 

“Thunder,” Elrohir whispered. 

The two humans glanced into the clear, starry night.  Not a cloud glimmered anywhere over the area and from their vantage point they could see for miles in all directions. 

“No.”  Legolas leapt to his feet, gazing hard to the west.  “It is not thunder.  There it is again!  Aragorn!”  He called to the human to follow as he raced off through the woods.  Elladan and Elrohir were right on his heels.  The humans trailed farther behind, taken off guard by the elves’ sudden departure.  It was easy to follow the gently glowing shapes as they dodged through the woods, ducking branches and leaping lightly over fallen limbs.  Though the way was more difficult for the humans to traverse, they easily kept up. 

At the outskirts of the Old Forest the three elves halted and walked more slowly.  They picked their path cautiously now and hesitantly entered the thick woods.  It was silent and deathly still beneath the dark canopy.  Here the winds held a slightly sulfuric scent and Elrohir stopped.  Turning, he backtracked their path.  Aragorn joined him, reading the signs in the earth by the glow of his soft light. 

“Here.”  Strider dropped to the ground and gently fingered a square of charred, blackened earth. “Elrohir, over here.” 

In moments the ranger was surrounded by three softly glowing bodies.  Their combined light aided his tracking skills but the patch of raw earth confused him.  Here the smell of sulfur and fire was strongest.  The tips of the leaves above their heads were singed black as though a great fire had reached up and touched them before immediately going out. Nothing save for the ground beneath the ranger’s fingers and the trees above bore the marks of what had transpired and the earth underneath his hand was still warm. 

Pushing the elves back farther away from him and silencing their curiosity, Strider began searching the dew-covered ground for more clues.  It was obvious that whatever had been here was no wight for there were boot tracks all over the small area where they stood, only a few feet from the road that led up to Bree.  Someone had run into the woods to hide. 

Aragorn pressed his fingers into the deep indentations of a man’s bootprint. 

“He ran in here.  Towards this place,” the ranger whispered quietly, not at all confident they were alone.  “And this is where he stopped as well.  But there were others.  Many.  It is hard to tell.”  His hand swept over the grass gently moving it, trying to read the impressions. 

“Strider!”  Halbarad called softly, pointing to the ground in front of him a few feet from where Aragorn crouched. “Here.  I think they went through here.” 

The younger ranger dashed over and knelt where Halbarad had indicated.  Indeed it was as the older man had said.  The footprints here were heavier than anywhere else and they led towards the edge of the Baranduin River. 

Quickly they followed the tracks, the sounds of the river growing ever louder as they approached. 

Legolas’ gasp alerted Aragorn first.  The keen elven eyes had seen through the dark what it took the ranger a split second more to see - the form of a man lying on the ground. 

Darting forward Strider dropped next to the prone figure.  The man lay on his stomach, his shirt and shoes had been removed.  A nasty spreading bruise near his temple caused Aragorn to draw his breath in a sharp hiss.  It was obvious this was the victim of whatever had happened back near the road.  A black powdery substance coated one of his arms. 

Gently the ranger turned the man over and quickly examined him for any broken bones.  Legolas dropped down next to Estel and glanced at his friend. 

“Does he live?” The question was spoken in elvish. 

“Yes,” Aragorn answered softly, gingerly touching the man’s bruised temple, “but I have a feeling that he will wish he had not when he awakens.” 

“We should get him to the town and quickly,” the elf whispered, trying to listen to their surroundings. 

Legolas glanced up as Halbarad approached them. “There is no one in the woods.  They have left.  Garnering whatever this poor soul had that was worth taking.” 

“Tracks?”  Aragorn shifted the unconscious man into a sitting position and tucked his shoulder into the man’s chest.  Aided by Legolas he stood, lifting the man with him and easily carrying him over his shoulder. 

“Oh there are plenty.”  Halbarad replied with a snort of disgust “And they have been trampled and crisscrossed and completely marred.”  He shook his head and glanced around them as though looking for answers in the trees themselves. “Whoever it was was smart and covered their tracks well.  There will be no following them tonight.” 

“Very well.”  Aragorn shifted his burden gently and followed Elladan and Elrohir out of the forest.  Legolas walked beside him, watchful if the human should need help.  “Let us go.” 

The trip back to Bree took twice as long since Aragorn could not run under the weight he carried. When they reached the wooden gates of the town, Strider cautioned the elves to remain hidden in the woods.  The Bree-landers would be wary and when they realized what had happened, even more.  They would be suspicious of anything out of the ordinary and, to the men in these parts, elves were highly out of the ordinary. 

Stepping up to the doors, Halbarad banged his fist hard against the small portal making the gates jump. 

“Open up! We have a wounded man here!” the ranger shouted.  His deep voice carried through the night and cut straight through the gatekeeper's sleep. 

“What?!” The sound of the old man’s sleepy voice brought a smile to Aragorn’s face.  He could hear the gatesman fall out of bed and stumble towards the door, cursing softly as he groped for a light. “What do you want!? It's past midnight, you may not enter!” 

This was not the same guard who had admitted the ranger and his friends several days ago.  Aragorn did not recognize his voice. 

“We have one of your townsfolk, I believe.  He was waylaid near the old forest and is in need of medical aid.  Let us in.”  Halbarad glanced back at his younger companion, stifling a smile as they heard the gatesman’s clumsy attempts to light a lantern.  “Hurry up!” 

“You’re going to give him a heart attack.”  Aragorn shifted uncomfortably under the weight of the man he carried.  “He’s old you know.” 

At this Halbarad did laugh. Turning back to the gates he prepared to pound on them again for it had grown strangely quiet behind them. When Aragorn gasped and dropped to the ground, he spun around startled.  His charge was waking. 


Gently he laid the man on the path and quietly spoke to the confused Bree-lander as he regained consciousness. 

“Where am I?” the man slurred. 

“ is well.  We have brought you to Bree.” Aragorn held the man’s head firmly between his hands giving the human a bit of stability as his vision swam.  He sucked his breath in quickly and held it as his body began to register pain. 

“Where does it hurt?”  The ranger’s voice was calm and soothing. 

“My head right now mostly,” the man whispered tightly, “but I ache all over.” 

“I bet you do.”  Aragorn turned as the gates were thrown open and four men spilled out holding torches and brandishing farm tools; more than likely the first thing they could grab at such short notice. 

“Stay still, help is here.”  The ranger soothed.  Obviously the gatekeeper had gone for others, fearful of opening the doors at such a late hour. 

A fifth man brushed through the others, roughly parting them as he finished tying off a robe around his waist.  “I’m the doctor. What’s going on here?”  Behind him, the gatekeeper peeked around the edge of the doors, leery of the strangers. 

“We found this man near the Baranduin.  It seems he has been waylaid by bandits,” Halbarad explained as the short, round man knelt next to Aragorn.  Large spectacles sat across a pinched face, but the doctor’s eyes were kind and the ranger smiled at the sleepy man. 

“Bright light... like lightening,” the semi-conscious man murmured.  “So many of them... glowing...” 

“Shhh, rest now.  He was unconscious when we found him.”  Aragorn turned back as the murmuring around them increased. 

“That weren’t no bandit doings,” one bystander commented darkly. “Sounds like them wights.” 

Comments to the affirmative could be heard and they were no longer listening to Halbarad as he tried to calm them. 

Leaving the Bree-lander with the doctor, Aragorn rose to his feet and joined the other ranger.  “Here now, it was no wight.  Listen to what Halbarad says.” 

“What do you know of the goings-on around here?” the gatekeeper called out, “and when have the rangers ever been up to any good anyway?  This been happening regularly.  It ain’t nothing natural, you hear!  His clothes is gone ain’t they?  And all his possessions?  And the smell...” the men were beginning to get fearful, agreeing with the older man’s assessment, “That ain’t no natural smell that lingers with him.  It’s only about the wights’ victims!  You heard him!  Glowing?  No human round these parts knows how to call lighting down but I’d bet you those wights do.”  The weathered man nodded, agreeing with himself, glancing around them cautiously as though expecting a wight to appear at any moment. 

“Now stop this at once!” Aragorn raised his voice against the growing assents.  “You have a man out here that needs help.  He was robbed by other men.  I saw the footprints myself.”  The ranger glanced from face to face and written on every one of them was doubt and fear. 

“It doesn’t matter what attacked him.”  The doctor’s voice cut through the chaos, injecting a note of reason. “We need to get him inside.  It’s Brans, and his wife is going to be worried sick.  Someone send for her straight away and meet us at my house.”  He ignored the wounded man’s protests as Aragorn helped the doctor get him to his feet.  Another from the crowd stepped forward when the man was made known to them and took over for the ranger, guiding them back through the growing throng of onlookers. 

“Go back to your beds,” Halbarad spoke above the crowd. “You will have nothing to fear from further tonight.  Whatever it is, it is gone for now.  Try not to be out after dark.  Go now, off with you all, this isn’t helping anything.”  The ranger turned the men at the front of the crowd around, placing his hands on their shoulders and gently pushing them back inside the doors.  Aragorn was quietly reassuring others and motioning them back inside. 

As the gatherers dispersed and the street quieted only the gatekeeper remained. 

“That was foolish.”  Halbarad reprimanded him.  “What were you thinking? You could have had a riot on your hands.  You needed only to open the gates and let us in.” 

“How was I to know you weren’t the wights or bandits yourself?” the older man's voice cracked as he questioned the rangers.  “You think this an easy job do you? Eh?”  He glared between them both. “Well it ain’t.” 

“We meant no disrespect,” Aragorn calmed the man easily. “We are in the area and if we should come to the gates after dark we will tell you next time that it is us.  Your partner, the other gatekeeper, he knows me, you can ask him.  I am Strider.” He touched his hand to the other ranger’s shoulder, “and this Halbarad.  We are here to help you and to serve you, not make your job harder.” 

“Well then next time see that you call out your names.”  The gatekeeper slowly closed the doors, stopping when they were barely open. “You could stop a fellow’s heart banging on the doors like that.” 

“My apologies, I meant no ill to you,”  Halbarad confessed. 

A moment of silence fell between them before the gatesman answered, “My name is Ralmit. didn’t want in tonight did you?” 

Aragorn smiled easily. “No Ralmit, we’ll be on our way.” 

They left the gatekeeper and walked back towards the woods where their elven companions were hidden. 

Legolas stepped forward to greet them, pulling Aragorn into the deep shadows of the forest.  He glanced behind the rangers as the gatesman slowly closed the portal to the large wooden doors.  From his vantage point the older man could not have seen the elf, but the prince had seen him and heard the entire conversation. 

“Are you both all right?” Elladan asked quietly. 

With a smile Aragorn turned his brother back into the woods, his hand on the elf’s shoulder.  It always felt safe when he was with his oldest brother.  “Yes, we are fine, Elladan.” 

“It is good we did not accompany you,” Legolas spoke in hushed tones as he stepped lightly next to Strider.  “You were right about the townsfolk.” 

“Rarely have we seen men act like that,”  Elrohir commented softly, matching his tone to Legolas’.  Something about the forest seemed to be warning him to silence. 

“Well you just haven’t lived long enough, that’s all,” Aragorn taunted, moving closer to Legolas as his brothers took offense to the slight.  His laughter was infectious and in short order the elves had forgotten their nervousness and were easily teasing the young ranger. 

“However do you stand one another?” Halbarad asked, laughing at the four of them. “You must surely drive Lord Elrond to insanity.” 

His comments only caused further mirth and the older ranger simply shook his head, following in their wake as a new round of taunting took over, having to do with Mithrandir warning them all about rangers. 

“Will you never grow up?” Halbarad, playfully questioned.  His inquiry tickled the elves who turned their teasing with force upon the youngest member of the group.  Only Aragorn was no longer listening. 

Stopping mid-step, Strider turned back and watched the forest behind them.  They were nearing their camp on the outskirts of Bree, but the ranger got the distinct feeling that they were being shadowed. 

Elladan glanced at his younger brother, still jesting, “Oh Estel, come now. Surely you didn’t take that personally?” 

The younger human’s actions tipped off Halbarad who melted quietly into the forest on the ranger’s left. 

“What is it, Strider?” Legolas questioned softly, walking back to stand next to Aragorn. 

“There is someone out there,” the Dunadan barely whispered. 

Whatever else the elf had been going to ask was cut off as they heard Halbarad’s voice from the woods ahead of them.  “Why there you are! We’ve been looking...Hey!” the ranger’s easy-going tone was cut off in surprise. 

Aragorn rushed forward, meeting the older Dunadan as he stalked back to his companions. 

“Halbarad! What was that?” Aragorn took the man by the arm and pressed the ranger behind him towards his brothers. 

“It was that Bilbo Baggins, is what it was,” the man replied sourly.  “Didn’t want to stay in camp apparently.  He’s been following us.  One moment he was there and the next moment he was simply gone.  I think I must have startled him.  But for the life of me, Strider, I have never seen a hobbit move that fast.” 

Elladan glanced around them curiously. “Bilbo is odd, even for a hobbit.” 

“I take exception to that!” a small indignant voice piped up from behind the group. 

“You were supposed to, Master Baggins,” Elrohir chided as the small being stepped from the foliage, “but it’s true, you are not like most hobbits.  Ah, ah, ah! Don’t argue.”  The elf cut the little being off as he began to protest.  Elrohir was slightly perturbed with their uninvited guest.  “Exactly what were you doing shadowing us like that?  I thought you were going to wait for us in camp tonight.” 

Bilbo glanced around the ring of elves and men and stood up a little straighter. Pushing through them he began walking down the path to their camp.  “I was waiting for you.  You’re all late.  When you didn’t return I was worried. I thought you might have run into trouble so I went looking for you.” 

“Bilbo, that was brave but foolish.”  Aragorn walked next to the hobbit and frowned down at him, his words softened by the smile on his face. “You know there are highwaymen about.” 

“Exactly,” the little hobbit commented, seating himself next to the dead fire pit when they reached their destination. “I thought you might need some help.  A hobbit can come in handy now and again, they can.” 

Aragorn laughed as he passed Legolas his flint.  The elf struck a flame to the tower of logs the man had stacked in the center of the ring. 

“That they can,” the younger ranger replied as he seated himself next to the hobbit, accepting back the flint as Legolas sat on the other side of him.  “Your concern is appreciated.” 

The elves were still not pleased that the hobbit had been so able to approach them as he had. It disturbed Legolas greatly that the small being was so stealthy.  Something about it didn’t seem at all natural, but he supposed he was just surprised to have found someone who could actually be as quiet and invisible as an elf. 

“So how did it go?” Bilbo attempted to change the subject. 

With a sigh, Strider gazed into the sparking fire.  He was beginning to grow frustrated with their attempts thus far. 

“We have no way of knowing when or where the ‘wights’ will show up.  Waiting for them is useless.” Aragorn shook his head.  “All we can accomplish is to continue to arrive after they’ve already left.” 

“You have another plan?” Elladan raised an eyebrow. 

Aragorn nodded grimly.  “Perhaps.  Rather than waiting for their next strike, let’s plan it for them.” 

“Bait!” Legolas caught the idea quickly.  “We lure them with something they cannot resist and then we see what manner of creatures we are up against.” 

Aragorn smiled.  “Yes, we have already seen their mode of operation.  Living or spectral, these attackers go after goods: livestock, money, gold, jewels.  If they were to hear that one lone person was traveling through the downs, with quite a lot of money on him... I’m sure it would be too much temptation to resist.” 

Elrohir nodded thoughtfully.  “Yes... of course it would have to be someone who was already rumored to be in possession of that kind of wealth so that they would believe it...” 

Halbarad caught their thread and smiled.  “Someone they wouldn’t even think of being afraid of.” 

“And someone who was good at being quiet and going unseen wouldn’t hurt either, as they would be out of the way all the easier when the trouble starts...” Legolas’ grin was impish. 

Bilbo swallowed as he realized they were all looking at him.  “Surely you’re not suggesting...” 

“Bilbo, it’s perfect,” Elrohir shook his head.  “You know what the local people have said about you since you came back from the Lonely Mountain.  Everyone believes you’ve got a whole hoad of gold stashed away somewhere.  It won’t take anything at all to play it up a bit.” 

“W-well that’s all very easy for you to say, you’re not the one who has to be bait!” the hobbit stammered slightly.  “I’m getting too old for this kind of thing.” 

“We won’t let anything happen to you, I promise,” Aragorn swore seriously, resting his hand lightly on the hobbit’s shoulder.  “We would never ask you to do it if we thought you would be in any real danger.  We would be with you the entire time, not more than a few lengths away.  As soon as our interloping wights show up we’ll be right there and catch them in the act.” 

“Well that’s all very well if they’re actually something that can be caught...” Bilbo murmured, but his tone suggested that he was not really as hesitant as he seemed. 

“You don’t have to do it; it is entirely up to you.”  Aragorn shook his head.  “But if you do, I swear to you on my honor I will keep you safe.” 

The hobbit nodded slowly.  He did want to help and he trusted the elves and the ranger.  Besides, even though he would never admit it aloud he was always up for a good adventure.  There hadn’t been anything really interesting happening in these parts in quite some time and the Tookish part of Bilbo was stirred by the prospect of something a little out of the ordinary.  “All right then.   Where ought we to start?” 


It had taken a day or two to start the rumors, but Jansit had been very helpful on that count and now that everything was in place the time had come to put their plan into action.  

A rather nervous Bilbo Baggins set out from Bree in the morning after having stayed a few nights at the Prancing Pony. The hobbit seemed to be alone and was headed west towards the Shire... a course that took him directly towards the Downs.  What no one could see were the two rangers and three elves that followed quietly and unnoticed some distance away, blending into their surroundings like expert chameleons. 

The day went uneventfully, but as the evening shadows lengthened everyone became alert and on edge.  Night mists began to rise from the earth, hanging a low-slung vale over the darkening hills.  Then as the sun began to set they heard it for the first time... the low, unearthly wail that they had heard so many times described but never experienced for themselves. 

Aragorn froze, dropping down and scanning the area around them intently, but there was no movement, no sign of life save the one lone hobbit who had stopped very still some hundred yards away.  Bilbo had apparently pulled his sword and, although none of them knew it, the fact that it was not glowing in the pale moonlight was a good sign.  At least no orcs or goblins were near. 

The wail came again and Aragorn felt Elladan’s hand close on his shoulder.  “That is no wolf, nor warg, but whatever it is there is more than one out there or else it moves very fast,” the elf whispered quietly in his younger brother’s ear.  “I feel no cloud of evil on my heart, but the cries are chilling to the bones.  This is a strange mystery we have here.” 

Aragorn nodded, trying to decide the best course of action as the howls came again, this time more than one, seeming to come from far away and near at hand at the same time. 

Suddenly a bright, flaming shape zinged by Halbarad’s head and a burning dart stuck quivering into the tree beside them, lighting up their position like a beacon flare in the semi-twilight. 

Aragorn swore as they all drew their weapons and dropped to the ground, only just in time to avoid a silent hail of flaming arrows from somewhere behind them.  One caught the ranger’s cloak and he had to roll quickly to put it out.  “Blast!  They know we’re here!” he called to the others as they scrambled backward on their stomachs.  “We’ve got to get to Bilbo!” 

Legolas twisted around on his stomach, trying to see where the shots were coming from, but even his sharp eyes could not pierce the darkness and the thick, growing mists.  Another flaming arrow struck the ground near his face, throwing up a burning spray of flaming oil and sparks.  The elf flinched and jerked, rolling swiftly away from the rising flames and smoke which added to the night fog.  His cheek burned and he wiped at it furiously with his hand, but that didn’t seem to make the burning go away, rather it simply transferred it to his hand as well.  Citing a few highly colorful items of vocabulary, Legolas rubbed his hand and his cheek quickly in the dirt below him, wiping away the burning oil as best he could. 

Crawling swiftly to the other side of the tree where they had at least some cover from the flaming barrage, Aragorn jumped to his feet and scanned the area desperately for Bilbo as he drew his sword.  He had promised to keep the hobbit safe and he could not fail in that trust. 

“Bilbo?  Bilbo!” he called out, but the hobbit was no longer in the middle of the moon-lit dale.  In fact, he was nowhere to be seen.  

Legolas came up beside Aragorn, an arrow notched and ready on his bowstrings.  “Where’s the hobbit?” he asked urgently, looking around.  It seemed as if their trap had backfired on them. 

“I don’t know,” Aragorn shook his head, ducking and dancing away as another flaming arrow struck too close.  They could see nothing now but the flames that were springing up in the grasses and trees around them.  The earth was not dry, but there seemed to be some kind of oil on the arrows that burned on its own power and spread like molten fire across anything it touched.  Legolas’ throbbing cheek was a painful reminder of that. 

The strange wails came from all around them now, and yet they were still some ways off, scattered, taunting. 

“Split up!  We’ll make less of a target than together!” Aragorn called out to the others as their position was once again assaulted by another flaming volley.  “Halbarad, go with Elladan and Elrohir, try to get to those trees and work your way back to where these arrows are coming from.  Legolas, you’re with me, we have to find Bilbo!” 

Everyone sprung into motion instantly, accepting Aragorn’s leadership without question.  If there was one thing that being in the Gondorian army had taught the ranger, it was how to take charge and make snap decisions. 

Legolas followed his friend swiftly through the tall grass, watchful of further assault.  However the arrows seemed to have stopped for the most part and the smoldering fires behind them began to subside, smoking black and thick up into the moonlit night. 

They reached the open road where Bilbo had last been seen in a matter of moments.  Aragorn scoured the ground as best he could in the pale light, but he saw no recent tracks save that of the hobbit and those did not go very far.  In fact they really seemed to have gone up to a certain point and then vanished, but it was hard for Aragorn to be sure in the scant moon light and with his eyes still stinging from the smoke. 

Legolas stood guard while his friend searched, bow drawn taut and ready.  The ranger straightened up, meeting the elf’s questioning gaze and shook his head.  “I don’t know what I’m seeing here, Legolas.  No one’s been here but he’s gone.” 

“Not too gone yet,” Bilbo’s voice spoke up from behind Aragorn and the ranger started and whirled around. 

Legolas blinked several times.  He had been looking straight in that direction a moment ago, until he looked up at Aragorn.  He had no idea where the hobbit could have come from. 

“I hid when all the fire and the voices started,” Bilbo explained quickly, his hand twitching somewhat nervously in his waistcoat pocket as if fiddling with something.  “Where are the others?  Is it wights?” 

“I don’t know.” Aragorn turned slowly around once more, scanning the darkened landscape as another low howl broke out.  The fire from the arrows had all but died down and there was no sign of either their attackers or the rest of their party. 

The dark earth was uncannily still.  Not even the birds or the crickets sang. 

Aragorn and Legolas traded uneasy glances as the unearthly wail came again, nearer at hand.  Bilbo looked fit to faint although his hand rested firmly on the hilt of the small sword at his side.  The other hand remained in his pocket... just in case. 

“I don’t like this,” the elf whispered. 

“Neither do I.” The ranger glanced warily around the mist-shrouded plains, speckled in cloudy moonlight.  “Perhaps we should not have split up... if they wanted to lure us apart, this was a good way to do it.” 

Legolas nodded.  “We had better find the others.” 

The three of them made their way cautiously towards the woods that the rest of their party had made for.  The air was cool but disturbed.  Thunder rumbled in the distance, but none of them could be sure if it was the friction of the coming storm that charged the air or their own tension that made the hair on the backs of their neck stand on end. 

“Perhaps I should go for help,” Bilbo suggested quietly.  “I won’t be much use to you in a fight if it comes to that.” 

Aragorn admired the bravery of the offer, but could not allow the risk.  “Too dangerous.  Alone they could easily pick you off.” 

“If they could see me...” the hobbit murmured quietly, but kept the rest of his thoughts to himself as the woods pressed in close around them. 

The trees made dark and imposing shapes amid the night mists as they moved warily along, calling softly for Halbarad and the twins. 

Legolas’ fingers tensed on his weapon.  Something was close.  Something was very close... all around them it felt like, but he could see nothing. 

Aragorn sensed it too and shifted uneasily.  “Bilbo,” he whispered.  “If we run into trouble and you have the chance, run.  No, don’t protest,” the ranger waved off the smaller being’s indignant retort.  “I’m not casting doubt on your courage, but I don’t yet know what we are up against.” 

Suddenly, silently, as if called by mention of the unknown, the trees came alive with white, glowing shapes.  The almost translucent, frightening apparitions seemed to appear out of nowhere amid the tree branches and with a trilling yell they dropped down in a thick circle around the elf, the man and the hobbit.  There was a frightful flash and a deafening boom that shook the ground, nearly knocking Aragorn and Legolas off their feet.

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