What are the Barrow-wights? Why did the wight tell Frodo that they were "waiting" for him? What did it plan for the hobbits, and why? How were the hobbits lured up to the Great Barrow? What explains why Frodo was treated differently than the other hobbits, awakened sooner, and found the strength to resist the call of the Ring in such a desperate situation? This story is my own look at the events on the Barrow-downs from the chapter 'The Fog on the Barrow-downs', The Fellowship of the Ring. The PG-13 rating is for serious themes, consistent with canon.
DISCLAIMER: Of course. The characters don't belong to me, I just get to think about them day and night.
Chapter 1 - On Dangerous Ground
They were not unlike dragons. They lusted for precious metals, glittering gems, and works of exquisite craft, and hoarded treasure beyond price or count. Yet as the slow millenia passed, they could do no more than caress still-bright chains and weapons, or feel the weight of rings on cold fingers. Amassing wealth they could not spend, and greedy for each new, shining trinket, they became trapped by it, and roamed no further than the lonely hills and their silent mounds.
They were not unlike the deathless king they once served. They were immortal, without name or lineage, living as shadowy wraiths without true form or substance. Yet when need arose, they absorbed strength from the bones and sinews of the earth, and took form. They could incorporate the very air around them, using the power of dark winds to form breath - to weave the ancient spells of cold and death-like sleep.
They were not unlike the trees of black heart in the Old Forest to the west, existing only to trap the unwary traveler. Yet once their prey was enspelled, and their wealth stolen, the captives were sacrificed to a Dark Lord who no longer knew of or required such proof of fealty.
They were the Barrow-wights, known by many names, and in the farthest corners of Middle-earth whispered rumors passed from generation to generation, dark and fearsome in the telling. And truly, none knew the truth of the legends that passed among Elves, Men, and even the Shire-dwellers, for those who came under the spell of the Barrow-wights were never seen again.
Tom Bombadil had told them it would be a day's journey, as the crow flies, from his house north to the Great East Road that would take them to Bree - but the hobbits were not crows, and their ponies were not flying. In all their lives, they had never seen land like this. The downs east of the Old Forest were a maze of valleys and ridges, treeless and seemingly endless. As the sun grew high and hot, the steady plodding - up each hill and down into the inevitable hollow before the next hill - grew wearying. The mid-day rest stop was welcomed by all, and the ponies were set loose to graze in the high, bowl-like hollow in which the hobbits found themselves.
"I don't like it," Sam announced, peering critically at the hills to the east. On their peaks could be seen stones tall and lonely, set to mark the thousand-year-old mounds beneath which rested the Dúnedain of Arnor. "We shouldn't stay here."
"We won't stay long," Frodo replied, stretching tiredly. "The ponies need to rest, and so do we. Look." He pointed north. "Can you see it? That must be the Road, at last."
"Finally," Merry sighed. He peered at the dark line far ahead. "I agree with Sam. There's something nasty about this place, and not just because of the old stories. The air is strange here - like how the Old Forest felt so stifling and seemed to want us to stay."
"What old stories?" Pippin asked. He drew from a pack the bread, cheese, fruit, and honeyed cakes that Tom and Goldberry had given them.
"Ghost stories," Merry admitted. The hobbits spread their cloaks at the base of a tall, straight, standing-stone and sat down to eat. "At Brandy Hall, Frodo and I used to listen to folks telling the old tales - late at night, after the children had gone to bed."
"Why did they let you listen to such things?" Sam asked.
"They didn't exactly let us," Frodo admitted. "No one knew we were hiding and listening."
"Tell us," Pippin urged, his eyes shining. "Are there real ghosts here?"
"There really are," Frodo said quietly, in a tone that made Pippin inch closer to Merry. "Remember Tom's warnings? He said we must not approach the barrows, under any circumstances." He looked to the eastern hills and frowned. "The North was a kingdom, once, called Arnor. Somewhere near here was Cardolan, where the last descendants of the Sea Kings fought and died in a great battle. They lie in those barrows, as do their ancestors from many an Age ago."
"But not alone," Merry whispered.
"Why not?" Pippin squeaked.
"Something dreadful occurred in the North," Frodo said, trying to remember the stories. "A dark power spread and overcame Arnor, and the valiant Men of Cardolan made their last stand here, in these hills. The Witch-king of Angmar, they called the worst of their enemy, a servant of the Enemy in the south." He looked uneasy, but continued. "When the great lords and their people died..." He sighed.
"Even then they weren't allowed to rest in peace," Merry continued, scowling at the barrows. "The Witch-king put forth his power and set loose evil wights that came to inhabit these hills."
"Forever?" Sam asked, appalled.
"I suppose so," Frodo said. "There is said to be great treasure in the barrows - the treasure of kings and princes of old - but no one dares search for it."
"I don't blame them," Merry declared. "And we have enough to contend with, with those black riders sniffing for us, and Gandalf nowhere to be found."
"That was wonderful," Pippin said, patting his stomach contentedly. "Poor wights, never able to enjoy a feast."
"Silly Took," Frodo said fondly. One could never stay somber long, with Pippin around. He looked about the flat, grassy hill on which they sat. Something was making him feel uneasy, but he assumed it was caused by remembering the old, frightening stories to which he and Merry had listened in secret. He found himself yawning, even though it was but midday, with a long day's ride still ahead. We must leave soon, he thought groggily, closing his eyes against the bright sun.
From the cold, deep confines of the largest barrow, an ancient creature stirred, growing aware and conscious for the first time in many years. It stretched out through earth and rock, seeking the source of what had awakened it.
The Great Barrow contained glittering treasures, objects holding much power yet within them. But the wight sensed something not far away - unlooked-for, pulsating with the Dark Lord's presence. Thought quickened and flared as ancient memories and promises grew strong and clear. The Dark Lord expects fealty, the Witch-king had intoned. Let none pass. Gather and guard objects of craft and power, and He will reward you.
Four small beings lay asleep beneath the nearby sentinal stone. Another wight, it realized, had sensed them first, whispering to them of rest and sleep, and halting the intruders' journey. But this prize would not be claimed by a lesser presence. The wight of the Great Barrow sent a message to the other, grim and cold: They are not for you. I claim these four.
One of the small ones carried Power with him. He would be lured closer, made captive, and what he bore safeguarded. The Dark Lord's captain would come for him, and that which he carried - and reward would be given. Even now, the earth conveyed a faint echo of the Witch-king, far off and searching. He had returned. And he would come.
- TBC -