1: Playing Chess With Lord Námo

Author's Note: I have substituted the normal notation used in chess with their Elvish equivalents. Thus, the squares going across that are labeled A-H are tinco, parma, calma, quessë, ando, umbar, anga and ungwë, respectively. The squares going up and down and numbered 1-8 are min, tâd, neled, canad, leben, eneg, odog, and toloth, respectively. The POV in chess is from the one playing white. Since the players are speaking Sindarin, they use the Sindarin form of the numbers, but traditionally, the tengwar were referred to by their Quenya names regardless of which language was being used.

The Sindarin names of the chess pieces and other chess terms used in the story are as follows:

Aran: king

Bereth: queen

Arannûr: steward, literally, "king's servant" (bishop)

Rochben: horseman (knight)

Barad: tower (castle, rook)

Maethor: warrior (pawn)

Vaba: lenited form of maba: captures

Tafnen: check, literally, "stopped"

Aran gwann: checkmate, literally "the king is dead" our English word checkmate comes from Old French echec mat, ultimately from Persian shah mat, "the king is dead"

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"Excuse me?"

Maranwë, Chief Maia to Námo, Lord of Mandos, and Doomsman of Arda, schooled his expression to one of indifference and toned down his aura, not wishing to laugh in his lord's face, yet secretly reveling at seeing the usually imperturbable Singer of What Will Be so... so... flummoxed... yes that was the word.

"It is as I said, Lord," Maranwë said, speaking carefully. "The King of Gondor and Arnor is before the Gates of Mandos demanding entrance."

For a long moment Námo just stood there, his expression becoming unreadable even to his closest advisor. Then the Lord of Mandos gave Maranwë a grin which the Maia could only describe as 'wicked'. "Please extend our apologies to His Majesty," Námo said formally, "and say that we are not receiving visitors at this time and would he care to return in... oh, eighty years or so."

Maranwë was hard-pressed not to start laughing. "But he is not asking for admittance for himself, Lord," he said, his eyes twinkling with mirth. "He's imitating his ancestress Lúthien."

Námo raised an eyebrow at that revelation. "You mean..."

Maranwë nodded. "He's demanding his elf back."

Námo shook his head, closed his eyes, and uttered a few choice phrases in Valarin that caused Maranwë's eyebrows to nearly disappear into his hair.

"We'll see about that," Námo uttered darkly as he gestured for Maranwë to precede him down the hallway towards the front gates of Mandos.

Aragorn Elessar Telcontar, High King of Gondor and Arnor, was not amused. He gave the mithril and gold gates of the Halls of Mandos one last pounding and then stopped and stepped back, his posture one of defiance and anger.

"Damn you, Legolas!" he fairly screamed. "You come back here you... you... impossible elf, you!"

"Tsk, tsk, Estel. Such language."

Aragorn stopped his ranting and felt a frisson of something that was less than fear but more than joy coursing through his body and slowly turned around. Standing behind him was a Being, taller than he. He was dressed in a knee-length tunic of nubbed wool dyed a midnight blue with silver embroidery of harts chasing one another. Under this was a figured silk shirt of pale green, embroidered at the cuffs with an intricate knotwork pattern in silver thread. Over this was a sleeveless robe of forest green brocade that brushed the top of his calf-high black leather boots. The robe was trimmed with red fox fur around the neck, along the open front and hem. The arm openings, which went nearly to his hips were also trimmed with fur. His leggings were unbleached suede leather tucked into the boots. His blue-black hair was long and braided elf-fashion, the gems of his front braids glittering in the light that was everywhere and nowhere. On his head he wore a mithril-wrought coronet with a single pigeon-egg ruby in the center. A mithril-linked pendant of the Sun-in-Eclipse graced his neck and a belt of tooled leather was around his waist, its buckle a twin to the pendant. He was smiling, though that didn't necessarily assure the Mortal standing there with his mouth open. Slowly, Aragorn found himself on his knees before the Lord of Mandos.

"It's been a while, hasn't it, son?" Námo said genially. "I think the last time was with Wídfara... or was that the time before?... I forget." His smile turned even more wicked than when he'd been speaking to Maranwë and the Lord of Mandos had the pleasure of seeing the King of Gondor and Arnor start sweating. Which, come to think about it, was a neat trick when said king was here in fëa only.

"Oh do get up, Estel," Námo continued with mock impatience, gesturing for the Mortal to rise. "I really don't have time for all this, you know."

"I've come to..."

"I know why you've come, child, and the answer is 'no'."

Aragorn blinked. "Why..."

"He died, Estel. Plain and simple," Námo said, sounding less impatient and more sympathetic. "He's already passed through Judgment and now sleeps. When he awakens he'll have no memory of his life in Middle-earth, not until he is released from here and is again re-embodied."

Aragorn shook his head in disbelief. "No... it's not been long enough," he protested. "I only just got here. I saw him passing through the gates. I almost caught up with him..."

"Estel," Námo interrupted, reaching out and taking Aragorn into his embrace to offer whatever comfort the Mortal would accept from him. "It's too late. Time runs differently here than in Middle-earth. Trust me. Legolas is safe and he is no longer in pain. Let him go, child. Return to your proper place and mourn, but know that Legolas is well and will someday be restored to his family and friends."

"Not to all," Aragorn insisted as he pulled himself out of Námo's embrace, his expression a mixture of grief and anger. "Not to all," he repeated, more softly.

"No, not to all," Námo agreed compassionately.

"And Gimli..."

"Ah, yes, Gimli."

"I'll fight you for him," Aragorn said suddenly.

Námo gave him a disbelieving look. "Excuse me?"

Aragorn was now nodding enthusiastically. "I'll fight you for Legolas' fëa. If I win, we both go back and if I lose, I go back alone."

Námo found himself intrigued in spite of himself. Truly, these Children were endlessly delightful and full of surprises. "And if I refuse, what then, Edainion?"

Aragorn hesitated, now unsure before the implacable gaze of the Lord of Mandos. Námo nodded, sure that he had gotten his point across to this admirable Mortal. He could see Lúthien gazing back at him through the king's eyes.

"What contest could you hope to best me in?" Námo then asked mildly. "I, who am a Vala, one who danced before the Throne of Ilúvatar."

Aragorn frowned, then sighed in resignation, realizing the futility of his challenge, yet unwilling to back down. "I cannot go back with out him, Lord," he pleaded. "Thranduil..."

Námo's eyes narrowed. "Yes, Thranduil," he said darkly and Aragorn found himself shivering in spite of himself. "Always a force to be reckoned with," Námo added. Then, he came to a decision and his visage lightened towards something closer to humor. "Very well, Isildurchil," the Vala said. "But as you issued the challenge, I get to choose the weapons and the venue."

Now Aragorn gave the Vala a wary look but nodded in agreement, silently berating himself for stepping into what he was sure was a trap. Námo sent a brief thought to Manwë and heard the amused laughter of the Elder King in his mind.

We will see that you and he are undisturbed, my brother, came the thought from Ilmarin.

"Yes," Námo said almost musingly. "I will choose the weapons and the field of battle."

Aragorn, deciding he had nothing to lose, asked a question. "May I see him?"

Námo gave the Mortal an indecipherable look. "Yes, thou mayest," he said formally, "but in this I warn thee: speak to him not, for if thou dost, he will be returned unto my care and thou shalt return unto Life without him, even shouldst thou win against me in our contest."

The King of Gondor and Arnor nodded his understanding and acceptance and then suddenly they were no longer before the mithril and gold gates of Mandos but in a grassy arena surrounded by fourteen thrones and Aragorn son of Arathorn felt his very soul shrivel in fear, recognizing where they were.

Námo gave him a compassionate look. "Fear not, child! Thou art not in any danger of Judgment. This is merely a most convenient venue for our little competition. None will disturb us here. The Elder King has decreed it so."

Aragorn looked more relieved but his expression was still wary, for he did not know what this contest he had so foolishly demanded of the Lord of Mandos would entail. Then all thoughts of this were driven from his mind as suddenly Legolas was there, standing next to Námo, his expression blank.

Almost he spoke his friend's name out loud, but stopped himself in time, remembering Námo's admonition. Aragorn noticed that, unlike himself, Legolas stood in naked fëa. Even his locks were bare of their warrior braids with their gems and beads. The dark golden hair hung loose and free nearly to his waist. The King of Men gave the Vala a worried look.

"What's wrong with him, Lord?" he asked.

Námo smiled, placing an arm around Legolas' shoulders. "Nothing, child," he answered. "As I told you, Legolas has already undergone Judgment and should be sleeping now. His memories are slowly being... suppressed for a time, that he not be overburdened with memories of pain and guilt. Even now, he has forgotten much about his life, though the process will take some time. I suspect that you will have already left the Circles of Arda before he awakens and joins the other fëar in the Halls of Waiting where he will spend more time learning innocence once again."

"Will he remember when he goes back with me?" Aragorn demanded.

Námo forced himself not to smile at the choice of words. Aragorn might not know what the contest would entail but he was confident of winning or at least hopeful of doing so for his friend's sake.

"Yes," he replied. "If you win," stressing the first word, "all of Legolas' memories will be restored to him. Have no fear on that score. Now, shall we get on with this? You are disrupting my schedule. My secretary is most put out by it as you failed to make a proper appointment."

This was said with such blandness that Aragorn was taken aback and was unsure how to respond, though he felt himself reddening with embarrassment. He did not trust himself to speak, only nodding.

"Let us begin then," Námo intoned and then the most amazing thing happened.

Námo gestured and an oversized board of alternating squares of inlaid obsidian and pearl floated before them. There were figures on the board, half carved from what Aragorn recognized as white opal and the other half from onyx. It was a chessboard.

"We're playing chess?" Aragorn asked, realizing even as he spoke how stupid he sounded.

"A royal game of wits," Námo said with a nod, "demanding keen insight and a sound sense of strategy. A worthy contest, think you not?"

"Yes."

"Good," the Vala said with false cheer. "And to make the contest even more interesting for me, if not for you, I think we should change the stakes a bit."

Aragorn gave the Lord of Mandos a wary look. "What do you mean?"

Instead of answering right off, Námo gestured again and two ornately carved chairs appeared and he indicated that Aragorn should take one. Without thinking about it, he sat in the chair behind the white pieces. Námo hid a smile as he took the other chair. Legolas he silently directed to sit between them on a stool. Aragorn was glancing idly at the board as he sat and stifled a gasp, for it seemed to him that as he gazed upon it a mist formed in its center and when it cleared he could see himself kneeling over the body of his dearest friend, while all around him a battle raged.

"What..."

"That is what is happening around you even as you are here seeking for your friend's release," Námo said gravely. "Your men and the elves of Ithilien are fighting hard to protect the two of you as you continue working over Legolas. That, however, may not last."

Aragorn looked up at Námo and saw how the Vala's slate-grey eyes had gone dark, sending a frisson of fear down his spine.

"So, these are the stakes," Námo continued solemnly. "If you win, you and Legolas return to Middle-earth and all is well. If you lose, however..." Here he paused and the smile that crept across his visage was not pleasant. "If you lose, I get to keep you both."

"What?" Aragorn nearly shouted, rising to his feet in shock.

Námo nodded. "If you lose, child, you both die," he repeated. "This game will be for more than just Legolas' fëa, it will be also for yours. If you lose, Eldarion becomes the next King of Gondor and Arnor, somewhat earlier than expected, but..."

Aragorn sat down heavily, still reeling from shock at the implications of the Vala's words. "And Arwen..." he whispered.

"And Arwen will follow you into death," Námo said quietly. "I will grant you this one mercy, son of Arathorn: I will allow you to wait for her to come to you so you may leave the Circles of Arda together."

"What if I choose not to play?" Aragorn asked, almost afraid of the answer.

Námo shrugged. "Then you go back to Middle-earth alone and Legolas remains here with me." He paused for several minutes to allow Aragorn time to assimilate all this before speaking again. "So what will it be, Estel? Dost thou accept the stakes, or wilt thou return to thy proper sphere without thy friend, yet knowing that he is safe and will return unto Life when the time is mete for him to do so?"

Aragorn looked up at the Lord of Mandos and Námo saw Lúthien looking back at him again. Even before the King of Gondor and Arnor spoke, the Vala already knew what answer he would give and was pleased. "Lord, play thy game."

"As you have chosen white, you should make the first move," Námo stated, settling back into his chair, curious to see how this would end.

Aragorn nodded and started to reach for his first piece, but Námo stayed him with a gesture. "We will allow Legolas to help us. Merely state your move and Legolas will move the pieces for us."

Aragorn gave the elf a sideways look. Legolas did not respond, merely staring straight ahead. Then he looked to Námo who merely raised an eyebrow. The Mortal sighed and leaned back with a nod. "Maethor aran ando canad."

Legolas, his eyes still unfocused, reached over and deftly moved the warrior before Aragorn's king forward two squares. Námo nodded and stated his own move. "Maethor aran ando leben."

Again, Legolas reached over and moved the stated piece the required number of squares. While Aragorn contemplated his next move, Námo addressed him. "So, just how did you and Legolas come to this?"

Aragorn gave Námo a surprised look. "But do you not know, Lord?" he asked in confusion. "Surely Legolas would have told you."

"Yes," Námo said with a nod, "but I'm interested in hearing your version of the events."

For a long moment Aragorn did not speak, merely stealing another glance at his friend sitting silently and unaware before returning his attention to the board. "It was stupid really, what happened." He sighed. "We received word that agents out of Khand were moving through Mordor inciting the former slaves who now live around the Sea of Nurnen to rise up against Gondor. It is not a rich land, but I have done what I can to alleviate their plight and better their lives."

Námo nodded, well aware of this. "Go on," was his only comment.

Aragorn grimaced. "The army consisted mostly of Khandian soldiers and malcontents from Harad and Umbar; the rest were the few from the settlements in southern Mordor who had bothered to listen to the agents' diatribes against Gondor and me in particular. I asked Legolas to join me and he came with a contingent of his wood elves. Faramir joined us with his own rangers. I was determined to put the rebellion down as quickly as possible and punish the ringleaders but had no intention of punishing anyone else." He gave Námo a steady look. "I still intend to do that howsoever this game ends. Umbar canad," Aragorn directed towards Legolas, who then moved the warrior before the king's steward two squares.

Námo raised an eyebrow in amusement. "Maethor vaba umbar canad."

Legolas dutifully moved the black warrior and removed Aragorn's piece so that now their two warriors were side-by-side. Aragorn made his next move almost at once. "Arannûr calma canad."

Before Legolas was finished moving the king's steward diagonally across the board three squares, Námo stated his move. "Bereth ungwë canad tafnen."

Aragorn evinced surprise at the move, giving the Lord of Mandos a measured look that nonetheless gave nothing away as Legolas moved Námo's queen diagonally onto the board. Námo merely sat there with an amused smile. Now Aragorn concentrated more fully on the board though he already knew what move he would make.

"Aran umbar min," he said and Legolas moved the king one square to the right, thus moving the piece out of check.

"Parma leben," Námo then said, almost negligently. Now Aragorn's steward was in danger of capture. "So what happened?" the Lord of Mandos asked while Aragorn studied the board and his options.

Aragorn actually reddened in embarrassment and cringed slightly. Námo merely placed his left elbow on the armrest and his chin in his left hand, contemplating the Mortal sitting across from him, thoroughly enjoying himself at Aragorn's expense.

You're being naughty, he heard Vairë chide him with a laugh. You know you're going to let the dear child win.

I don't know anything of the sort, Námo shot back with mock affront. And even if I did, he couldn't help adding, I'm going to make him work for it.

Tulkas offered his own comment. Tell him that Legolas' death would have been avoided if he'd just kept his mouth shut. That should make him feel even more guilty than he already does.

And what would that accomplish? Námo asked with mild amusement.

Nothing much, Tulkas admitted and Námo could almost see his brother's shrug. But it would be amusing to see just how red his face can turn.

Now several Valar and a few Maiar started laughing.

I trust you will not let him suffer too much, my lord, Námo heard Olórin say. He is a good Man and worthy of our respect.

Námo smiled, though Aragorn did not see it. If I did not have as much respect for him as I do, Olórin, I would not be wasting my time playing this game. I would have simply handed Legolas over to him. Accepting his challenge was my way of honoring him and Legolas. Such devotion between these two friends should not go unrewarded. Legolas never blamed Aragorn for what happened, however embarrassing it was for them both.

There were nods all around and more than one Vala and Maia looked in on the game with interest.

"Arannûr vaba parma leben," Aragorn said, unaware of the silent conversation going on around him. He shifted his position a bit and made himself more comfortable. "What happened is that I killed my friend," he stated baldly.

His tone was such that Námo, who was about to utter his next move, stopped and gave him a considering look. "Legolas never blamed you," he said quietly. "If anything, he blamed himself."

Aragorn gave him a disbelieving look. "How could he blame himself? I'm the one who..." He scowled and looked upon his unseeing friend with great sorrow and regret. Námo could see how much the Mortal wished to apologize to Legolas but remembering the strictures of the game forbore to speak, biting his lips.

"Rochben umbar eneg," Námo said quietly and Legolas reached over to move the king's horseman out onto the board. "Tell me why you think you killed your friend."

For a moment Aragorn merely stared at the board, then he took up his tale again. "In spite of the fact that it's nearly Yule, I decided to take the war to the Khandians rather than wait for them to attack. My spies had informed me that the rebel army was planning to take the southern pass in the Ephel Dúath through which the River Poros flows. They meant to cross the ford and attack South Ithilien. I intended to meet them in the pass and stop them before they reached the ford..."

It was snowing in the pass, for the mountains, as far south as they were, were high enough. There was little shelter, though a stand of evergreen trees did give them some relief from the wind. The elves stood around on guard, seemingly unaffected by the weather, while Aragorn, Faramir and their men all huddled in their cloaks. Aragorn was beginning to regret his decision to meet the invaders in the pass. As strategies went, this was not one of his brightest and he was glad his brothers were not there to point out all the flaws in his plans.

"I'm glad Gimli isn't here," Legolas said suddenly with a smile, as if he had been reading the king's mind.

"Oh?" was all Aragorn could manage.

The elven Prince nodded, his smile widening. "He'll be too busy telling us all how daft we are to be of any use when the enemy attacks."

Aragorn found himself grinning in spite of himself, thankful for Legolas' bit of levity. "This is a stupid idea..."

"Nay, Aragorn," Legolas said, his mien becoming more solemn. "It is best we end this now before it escalates into something more than a few hundred malcontents wishing to make trouble."

Aragorn nodded and was about to comment, when one of Legolas' scouts came silently across the snowfield, leaving no trace. "They come," he said and at a wordless signal the Men and Elves readied themselves for battle...

"Calma vaba parma leben," Námo said.

Aragorn stopped his narrative to give the board a glance as Legolas removed his steward taken by one of Námo's warriors. They had continued playing even as he had told his story and now Námo had just captured his steward. In spite of the fact that several of his warriors were on the board, leaving his king somewhat exposed, Aragorn felt confident that the king was ably protected by the tower that now stood beside it. With one move he could hem in Námo's queen even more than it already was. The Lord of Mandos, he realized, had made a mistake in releasing his queen into play so soon without first seeking to control the center.

"Ungwë canad," Aragorn said, thus instructing Legolas to move a warrior forward, so as to threaten Námo's queen.

Námo moved his queen back another square out of danger, but Aragorn pressed the attack and moved the same warrior forward another square. Again, Námo moved the queen forward one square. It was the only safe place for her. Taking Aragorn's warrior would not have worked in the long run. At that point Aragorn decided it was time to play his own queen.

"Bereth umbar neled," he instructed Legolas and the silent elf complied.

"Rochen anga toloth," Námo said, thus sending his horseman back to its original position.

"Arannûr vaba umbar canad," Aragorn declared almost before Legolas had time to follow Námo's instructions.

Legolas moved Aragorn's remaining steward, removing the warrior protecting Námo's queen, leaving her vulnerable. It did not take Námo long to make a decision and he told Legolas to move his queen one square on the diagonal back towards the queen's own square. Aragorn sat contemplating the board.

"So you were saying?" Námo asked, attempting to prod the Mortal to continue his tale.

"We held the pass itself," Aragorn responded, "for we had gotten there before them. We had the advantage of ground, but the weather made that problematic..."

Aragorn, Legolas and Faramir moved out of the protection of the trees and climbed towards the top of the pass. The snow had not let up and the wind was now swirling it round, making seeing difficult, even for the elves, though they would not have admitted it to these Mortals, Aragorn knew. Eyesight might have been hindered, but not hearing.

"They're coming up along both sides of the path itself," Legolas said quietly to Aragorn. "I do not know why the path itself is being ignored."

It did not take them long to discover the reason. Dark shapes began to form just below them, struggling along either side of the actual path leading into the pass and on the path between them...

"Valar!" Faramir exclaimed softly. "Are they insane or just stupid?"

That, of course, was a very good question, as far as Aragorn was concerned. The Khandians were hauling a massive block of wood that was obviously meant to be used to break down the gates of Minas Anor. It was something like Grond, Aragorn mused, though smaller. It was strapped to a wooden frame on runners and was being pulled by ropes.

"Did your people see any scouts?" Aragorn asked both Legolas and Faramir and they both shook their heads.

"We wondered about that," Faramir answered. "We could not understand why the pass wasn't being checked to see if it were clear. Now we know why."

"Their arrogance and stupidity will be their downfall," Aragorn said with a nod. He was about to issue his first order when a horrendous screech rent the air above them. It had been forty or so years since any had heard that terrifying sound and they all ducked instinctively.

"Nazgûl!" someone nearby screamed.

"Nay!" Legolas shouted above the sound of terror, "for they are no more, but it is one of their fell winged creatures."

Then out of the swirling snow a terrible monster flew towards them and they all began to scatter. Aragorn suddenly realized why the Khandians had not bothered with any scouts. As they were running towards the stand of trees and shrubs that huddled off the path some hundred yards further down the mountain, Aragorn looked back and he felt his blood freeze with horror.

"Legolas! Watch out!," he screamed...

"Bereth vaba tinco min tefnen," Námo said calmly, interrupting Aragorn's narrative with the capture of a tower, putting Aragorn's king in check for the second time.

The King of Gondor and Arnor took a deep breath and studied the board more carefully to make sure he hadn't made any mistake in strategy.

He's a very good player, Manwë said to Námo as they watched the Mortal consider his next move, and an able strategist.

Námo agreed silently. He believes that what happened next was totally his fault and his flawed thinking led to the disaster which followed.

I hope you will teach him otherwise, brother, Tulkas said.

Not I, Námo countered. Legolas.

Ah... Oromë said, his voice full of approval. A good strategy, brother.

Námo smiled to himself. I learned from the best, he said, bowing mentally to Oromë and Tulkas, both of whom chuckled.

"Aran ando tâd," Aragorn said.

Námo nodded. "Arannûr vaba anga min."

Legolas moved Aragorn's king diagonally to Aragorn's left, then brought Námo's steward down to capture Aragorn's other tower. So far, Námo had captured five of Aragorn's pieces, including both towers and a steward, greatly diminishing the Mortal's strength. Nineteen moves into the game, Aragorn had only managed to capture two of Námo's pieces, both lowly warriors. Other than the queen, Aragorn's only power pieces were the two horsemen and the remaining steward.

"Ando leben," Aragorn finally said and now a warrior stood between his two horsemen.

"Rochben tinco min." Námo made his move and the horseman that had yet to be played was moved out.

"Rochben vab' anga odog tafnen." Now Aragorn was on the move, capturing another warrior with his own horseman and putting Námo's king in check for the first time.

"Aran quessë toloth," Námo decided, moving his king one square to his right. "So now we are getting to the end of your tale, I think," he said, giving Aragorn a wry grin, well aware what had happened.

Aragorn reddened slightly and sighed. "I turned around and saw that Legolas had stopped to shoot at the winged monster bearing down upon us. I shouted for him to watch out..."

At Aragorn's shout, Legolas started, his arrow missing its mark, though it did hit the creature, just not where it would have done the most damage. Then to Aragorn's horror, the elf, in attempting to avoid the beast's gaping jaws, appeared to trip backwards over something unseen in the snow and start rolling down the mountainside, gathering speed.

"Legolas!" he screamed again, trying to reach his friend while avoiding the flying horror at the same time. All around him elves and men were attempting to bring down the creature even as the Khandians were reaching the peak of the pass and preparing to join the fight. Aragorn ran after Legolas who was still careening down the mountainside at a fast clip, tumbling head over heels. Then the elf hit a snowbank and went up into the air, twisting a bit before falling into a stand of trees and shrubs.

Aragorn heard a strangled scream coming from the holt and ran as quickly as he could through the snow, finally reaching the place where his friend had landed. He stopped in horror when he saw that Legolas had impaled himself on a broken tree branch. From the way the tree in question was rocking back and forth, it appeared not to be any happier about the situation than the elf hanging there. He was looking down at the offending branch with a peculiar expression on his face. Then Legolas glanced up at Aragorn.

"Valar!" he whispered in surprise, "That hurts!" ...

Námo fought hard not to laugh at Aragorn's expression of embarrassment in relating the ignoble manner of his friend's death. "Let me get this straight," he said with a much calm as if he were discussing the state of the weather on Taniquetil, "a wood-elf skewers himself on a... tree?"

Aragorn glanced at Legolas who still sat there with his blank stare and nodded. "And it's all my fault."

"Probably," Námo said with great equanimity. "Your move, by the way."

Aragorn sighed, rubbed his hand across his face and pinched the bridge of his nose before taking another look at the board. His confession of being the chief cause of his friend's death had not relieved him of his sense of guilt and remorse and he wondered if he would ever be able to forgive himself. A moot point, he thought, if he did not win this game. He took a long hard look at all his options and then he saw it. He gave the Lord of Mandos a surreptitious glance then lowered his eyes back to the board, schooling his features to imitate stone. Námo watched with faint amusement.

He's figured it out, hasn't he? Varda asked, sounding both amused and please.

Yes, Námo said, feeling equally pleased, he has.

"Bereth umbar eneg tefnen," Aragorn said, then practically held his breath as Legolas moved his queen in position to check Námo's king a second time.

The Lord of Mandos made a show of examining the board with as much care as Aragorn had just done, all the while continuing the conversation with his fellow Valar.

How do you intend to... er... heal Legolas of his wound? Irmo asked out of professional curiosity. It was, after all, quite fatal. The only one who doesn't seem to accept that is the Mortal sitting across from you. Even Legolas allowed that it was an accident and that nothing could have saved him.

I was hoping you or Estë might have some suggestions about that, Námo said even as he gave Legolas his instructions. "Rochben vaba umbar eneg."

Legolas dutifully reached over and moved the horseman so as to take Aragorn's queen.

Already working on it, brother, Irmo replied.

Aragorn stared at the Lord of Mandos for the longest time before stating his final move, never taking his eyes off Námo. "Arannûr and' odog... aran gwann."

Silence reigned across the Máhanaxar for several minutes and then Aragorn heard clapping, faint at first, but slowly getting louder. He looked about and slowly rose in awe as he realized that thirteen of the thrones that ringed the area were occupied and their occupants were the ones applauding. The King of Gondor and Arnor, of the blood of Lúthien and Beren, Eärendil and Elwing, swayed in shock and Námo was quickly at his side.

"Be at peace, child," he whispered encouragingly as the applause faded along with the Valar themselves, "all is well. Time to return to your proper sphere."

Aragorn looked up at Námo. "Legolas..."

"When you return to Middle-earth you will deal with what you find there. As I promised, Legolas will be returned to you."

Aragorn looked over at his friend sitting calmly and unaware, his expression becoming one of grief. "He's dead, isn't he?" he asked. "Truly dead. The wound... I knew it was fatal and I could see in his eyes that he knew it as well, but I couldn't accept it. Even as I struggled to save him, I knew it was hopeless." He stopped, tears running down his cheeks. "I looked into his eyes and it was as if I were back on Amon Hen and it was Boromir dying..."

"Hush now, child," Námo chided Aragorn gently. "You cannot save him, but I promise he will be healed, but only if you go back now. Look you." He pointed towards the chessboard and a mist seemed to gather above it and then clear, revealing the same battle scene Aragorn had seen earlier but now he saw that Faramir and several other Rangers had managed to bring the flying creature down while the elves were still ranged around their fallen prince and the king.

"Time to go back, Estel," Námo repeated. "Time to return to your people."

Before Aragorn could protest he felt his fëa being drawn away back into his mortal frame. "Legolas!" he screamed even as the vision of his friend standing next to the Lord of Mandos faded from his eyes and he found himself back in Middle-earth looking down on the bloody body of the elven prince. All around was chaos as his troops continued to fight the Khandians. Thankfully, the snow had ceased to fall while he had been... elsewhere and the wind had died as well. Indeed, the sun was even now peeking out from behind clouds that were beginning to break apart.

Aragorn continued to kneel before his friend wondering at the fact that what had felt like hours while he had played chess with the Lord of Mandos had only taken a few short minutes. In spite of everything, Aragorn could tell from the sound of Faramir issuing orders that the Gondorian army had the upper hand and was even now overwhelming the rebel army. It didn't matter, though. All that mattered was Legolas lying lifeless in the snow. He wondered if the Lord of Mandos would truly release the elven prince and how ever would he heal him of his most fatal wound.

Even as these thoughts ran through his mind, above the sounds of battle, he heard the jingling of harness bells and the neigh of an approaching horse. Aragorn looked up to see the wood elves who were still guarding him and Legolas open up a space, their expressions ones of awe. The Dúnadan found himself rising in awe as well.

"Glorfindel?" he asked in disbelief.

And so it was. There was Asfaloth, gleaming whiter than the snow. Upon him sat the elf-lord dressed, somewhat incongruously, in an ankle-length hooded robe of deep scarlet trimmed with white rabbit fur. Beneath this he wore a surcoat slit for riding that was a deep forest green brocade with a diaper pattern of stars and scallop shells. His leggings were suede dyed a dark yellow and tucked into black leather boots. The shirt that showed at the neck and wrists was of white lawn embroidered in an intricate knotwork pattern of greens and gold. When the elf pulled down his hood they could see he was wearing a wreath of ivy, holly and winterberries.

Glorfindel smiled down at the Mortal. "Greetings, Estel. I see I've arrived just in time."

"In time? In time for what?" Aragorn exclaimed. "He's dead, Glorfindel. I tried to save him. I thought I had saved him, but..."

"Tush, child," the elf-lord said as he dismounted from his steed and went to embrace the king. "All is not lost."

"Why are you here, Glorfindel?" Aragorn asked. "How did you get here in the first place? You should be in Imladris."

"And so I was, but I had a... feeling that I was needed here so I left Imladris two weeks ago."

"Two weeks! You covered the distance between Imladris and here in two weeks?" Aragorn stared at his friend and mentor in awe and noticed that some of the wood elves were doing the same.

"Actually I made it to Minas Anor in ten days," Glorfindel corrected with a smile. "But, let us not concern ourselves with that. Legolas needs attention." Saying that, he knelt beside the still body of the elven prince, and shook his head in amazement, taking in the evidence of the cause of Legolas' death even as he examined the elven prince's body. "How is it that a wood elf allows himself to be skewered on a tree branch?"

"I'm sure Legolas didn't set out to do it on purpose," Aragorn muttered in frustration.

Glorfindel gave the Mortal a brilliant smile and then reached into an inner pocket of his robe and pulled out a mithril bound leather flask, handing it to Aragorn. "When I tell you, give this to Legolas to drink."

"But..."

Glorfindel shook his head, then laid his hands on the open wound, closing his eyes. Quietly he began to Sing and the hairs on Aragorn's head rose in shock at the Power behind the Song. All went still as the elf-lord continued Singing. Then, as Aragorn watched, it seemed to him that Others were there. There was nothing to see, but he felt Them and they seemed to be lending their own Power to the elf-lord kneeling beside him.

The Song continued to grow and then Aragorn gasped as he saw the gaping wound begin to close of itself. As Glorfindel's Song came to a final triumphant note, they saw Legolas' body arch and then he started breathing again, though he did not regain consciousness.

"Now, Estel," Glorfindel commanded.

Aragorn belatedly remembered the flask in his hands and swiftly unstopping it, raised Legolas' head as he pressed the flask to his blue lips and had the pleasure of seeing the still unconscious elf swallow.

"All of it," Glorfindel said and Aragorn continued to administer the drink to his friend until the flask was empty.

As he laid Legolas back down, the wounded elf's eyes fluttered open. He seemed to focus on Aragorn and Glorfindel, recognized them and smiled before falling back to sleep. Only then did Aragorn sense the Others fading, though not before feeling the brush of a hand on his brow in benediction. Glorfindel began to remove his scarlet robe.

"Let's get him wrapped in this," he said.

"Nice coat, by the way," Aragorn said as he helped Glorfindel bundle Legolas into it.

Glorfindel gave him a knowing smile. "Arwen seemed to have had her own prescient moment, for she pushed this on me just as I was about to leave Minas Anor, saying it would come in handy." He gave a merry laugh. "I think it's meant to be your Yule gift."

Aragorn gave the elf-lord a shocked look, then grinned at the thought. Soon he was laughing as well. Faramir approached just then to report that the survivors among the Khandian army had surrendered.

"None of our people were seriously hurt," Faramir concluded, glancing down at the still sleeping elf. "At least almost none," he amended.

Glorfindel and Aragorn nodded. Then the Dúnadan gave Glorfindel a deep bow of gratitude. "Thank you, mellon nîn. Thank you for Legolas' life."

"The pleasure was all mine, Estel," Glorfindel smiled warmly, holding Aragorn's face between his hands and kissing him on the brow.

"So what's with the wreath?" Aragorn then asked, giving the elf a questioning look.

"Why, Estel, it's Yule!" Glorfindel exclaimed laughingly. "Should I not wear something festive for the occasion?" Then before anyone could reply to that, the Reborn elf-lord began singing a joyous hymn to Elbereth. Soon all the elves and the Gondorians joined in and everyone was glad.

0-0-0-0

Everyone, that is, save the Khandians.

Edainion: (Sindarin) Scion of the Edain.

Isildurchil: (Sindarin) Isildur's Heir.

Máhanaxar: (Quenya) Ring of Doom.

Mellon nîn: (Sindarin) My friend.

A Note on the Game Played by Aragorn and Námo: The game itself is taken from the famous 1851 game in London between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky, appropriately (for this story) known as the 'Immortal Game' and can be 'played' online at www.chess.. Below is the actual game in its entirety. Readers unfamiliar with chess notation should consult any appropriate online website. An interesting annotated commentary of the Anderssen-Kieseritzky match can be found at . Click on "Instructions/Annotated Games".

1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Bc4 Qh4+ 4. Kf1 b5 5. Bxb5 Nf6 6.Nf3 Qh6 7. d3 Nh5 8. Nh4 Qg5 9. Nf5 c6 10. g4 Nf6 11. Rg1 cxb5 12. h4 Qg6 13. h5 Qg5 14. Qfe Ng8 15. Bxf4 Qf6 16. Nc3 Bc5 17. Nd5 Qxb2 18. Bd6 Qxa1+ 19. Ke2 Bxg1 20. e5 Na6 21. Nxg7+ kd8. 22. Qf6+ Nxf6 23. Be7+ 1-0