Written in honor of the tenth anniversary of the Valar Guild, an international fellowship of Tolkien enthusiasts and gamers.
When the wind from the north rattled the shutters, the two rangers would sit by the fire for hours, hunched over a chessboard marked in black and white squares. At first, Barliman had been annoyed. He was lucky if they ordered a second pint during the evening, and he worried that their grim looks might scare away honest folk. Until he saw how the other guests were watching their match with great interest.
The rangers called it "the game of kings" and Strider had offered to teach him, but all those pieces and rules were too much for Barliman to remember. Kings, castles, knights, pawns—it was enough to make your head spin! But Breelanders, dwarves, and Shirefolk gathered about the table to watch and sometimes even play. Whenever a dwarf sat down at the chessboard, there were long discussions about which moves were lawful, and the Shire hobbits insisted on using their own names for some of the pieces—thain for king and archer for knight. The matches lasted for hours and sometimes even days. Barliman was puzzled. This pastime seemed as amusing as watching the grass sprout on the Greenway, but if it kept his guests happy, who was he to complain?
Then the two rangers would disappear, leaving the chessboard sitting on the table. Barliman guessed they were off in the wild, doing whatever it was that rangers did. The less he knew of their business, the better, he supposed. The innkeeper would not see them for days and sometimes even months; and then one evening, he would look across the common room, and there they were playing chess, as if they had never left. Except that their boots were more worn and their faces a little more grim. "The game of kings," Barliman would mutter as he brought two tankards of ale, "That's a funny name for a game played by rangers."