The checker-board lies flat and horizontal on the table. Such is the nature of game-boards. So, since the world is the largest game-board of all, it is fitting that the world is horizontal; and yet this fact astonishes Maedhros still. He remembers feeling similarly surprised once, when, stepping off a ship, he found the ground beneath his feet confusingly steady. But that was long ago, at a time that now seems impossibly remote, and the feeling has faded. Perhaps this one will, too, in time. For now, Maedhros finds it comforting to sit over Maglor's checker-board and survey the pieces from up high. He knows it is the comfort of the familiar. Maedhros is amused.
Maglor's pieces are boring: simple rounded stones of two colours. When they move, they all move in the same way. The pieces Maedhros is planning to slide across the game-board of the world have wildly diverse powers and properties. Currently, they are not even his to control; he has been away from the game too long, and many no longer see him as a player. They are very wrong. Maedhros, used to taking a lofty view, can see far further than anyone -- several moves ahead. He knows exactly how to win over the crucial pieces. He understands their needs.
The easiest piece to recapture is his brother Maglor, who brings the checkers and a ready sympathy. Maglor needs to see Maedhros' trust. The best way to show him trust is to show pain and weakness. Maglor believes that he understands these two things well, because the way the game of the world is played hurts him, and yet he knows himself to be powerless to change the rules. Maedhros has a more practical understanding -- a hands-on understanding, one might say -- and does not mind sharing this with his brother. Why should he? He has no false pride to lose. So, he explains to his brother how his captors treated his body as yet another game-board, with his nerves for squares, and how, little by little, the board was theirs.
There was a second board, his soul: of that, they took only certain parts, ones he is not unhappy to have lost. In fact, as he feels his body recover, he sometimes hopes that his soul will prove less resilient. But he does not talk to Maglor about his soul. He knows that Maglor, with his limited understanding, would over-react, crumble, and he wants Maglor strong. His brother is a useful piece, capable of inspiring others.
Cousin Fingon, the second piece, longs for forgiveness. Maedhros finds this need foolish, as there is nothing to forgive. True, he was angry at first at being forced to live, but then he saw how aimless his brothers had been in his absence, how little hope they had of meeting the objectives of the game, and he realized that it was either life or the Everlasting Dark. That is not a real choice. As for the hand, he misses it less than he misses his matted hair, shorn in the name of hygiene. He has not used the hand in years, while the hair has kept him warm. Besides, looking at his brothers again puts it all in perspective. Two hands are needed for the lute, for the forge, for the hunting bow: for the frivolous pursuits that have kept them from doing their sworn duty. The game can be played with one.
But Fingon, problematic Fingon, cannot follow such direct reasoning. So, instead of the forgiveness he cannot give, Maedhros offers him a penance: the task of helping him learn to fight again. It is not a waste of time, for Maedhros knows he will need the ability to make his next move. It is an appropriately painful penance, because Fingon hates to see him lose, and Maedhros loses every time.
"You used to lose to me all the time, when we were younger," Maedhros reminds him.
"Not this calmly." Fingon stares at him, clearly searching for some other Maedhros. He wants to find him so badly that he attempts to forge a chain of words and memories binding the old Maedhros to the new. "Remember the time I threw your rapier into the lake?"
Maedhros remembers; but the memory does not touch him as it touches Fingon. He recalls a time when he tried to use childhood memories to sustain him, but even this recollection fails to stir him, for good or ill. All his memories seem dim and colourless now, like Valinor after the draining of the Trees. The simile appeals to him. He wonders if Maglor would like it. He does not share it with Fingon, who finds him too morbid as it is.
Instead, Maedhros applies himself to his lessons, and to feigning frustration at the appropriate moments. He has one of his good ideas: he makes Fingon switch hands, so they can learn together. The first time he wins, he feels inappropriately happy, as if more than the game was at stake. The feeling, shared, is his gift to Fingon. It is a good gift; their awkwardness is gone. Maedhros decides to offer Fingon other gifts, at intervals. He remembers that this is friendship.
Maedhros' hair touches his shoulders now, and he feels strong enough to attempt his next move: that of reclaiming his younger brothers. They are important pieces, even if he suspects that a couple have a tendency to move very far when played, perhaps much further than intended. In contrast to Maglor, the remaining five need a show of strength. Right now they pity him, unaware that he pities them even more. He hears them discussing his sorry state, debating his fitness to rule, scheming to take his place. He watches Curufin watch him with a craftsman's appraising eye.
"Do not worry, it will grow back in full," Maedhros says, and is amused by the horrified glance at his hand, by the embarrassed silence. At last, he relents and explains that he meant his hair. His brothers do not find this exchange as amusing as he does.
One day he walks into the council room during a particularly involved argument and informs them that he is reluctantly taking the leadership of the family back in hand.
The statement works perfectly. Celegorm hedges a bit, says they need a war-leader. Caranthir elaborates, blunter: "How do you plan to fight with *that*?"
Maedhros duels with them then: calls them out one by one, in the dirt at the center of the camp. The people -- soon to be his people -- gather to watch.
Maglor yields. A practiced performer, he plays to the crowd: he kneels, offers up his sword. Maedhros remembers the gesture. He will need it, one move ahead.
Celegorm is known as the best warrior among them, but this is only because he is the best field tactician. He has a hard time adjusting to a left-handed opponent. Once disarmed, he recovers quickly. Not one to kneel, he offers a brotherly embrace. "Glad to have you back," he says.
Caranthir has had the most practice, for he is fierce and loves to cross blades. But Maedhros smirks when he fights him, laughs at his wild swings. They grow wilder. When his sword falls in the dust, Caranthir storms off, leaves it there. He will return.
Curufin watches all this, smiles, and straps his shield to his right arm: he has prepared for this fight. But, though he wields a self-wrought sword with a left-handed grip, Curufin is not Fingon. He looks down the blade pointing at his throat, his eye appraising as ever. "Take my weapon, brother," he says. "And may it serve you well."
The crowd is beyond cheering now, shocked into silence. Maedhros knows there will be no more midnight departures for Fingolfin's camp. The twins will not fight him, now, not even both at once. He is glad, for he is very tired.
Maedhros is a king now. At least, he has followers who call him such, and a crown. He also has an uncle who disputes his claim, and a cousin-friend who refuses to discuss the subject -- although his eyes say, "I am glad you are well enough to make trouble."
Maedhros twirls his crown around in his hand. He remembers his father. Mostly, he remembers looking up at him: in a forge, at the court in Tirion, at the prow of a ship. The memories amuse him, for he was taller than his father even before the Enemy raised him so high. Now he thinks, Feanor: he played the game quite well, but he had one weakness, a tendency to let important pieces slip away. Those burnt ships, lost for ever, and the Fingolfinian host. And young Maedhros was a hot-headed idiot, but he did one thing right: he opposed his idolized father the one time it mattered. He should have done more, but what he did has won him some trust. Maedhros will build on that trust, and fix his father's mistake. He will reclaim the lost army. It will be a reluctant piece, to be played only in emergencies, but he knows those emergencies will come.
Fingolfin is the key. Fingolfin needs a crown, and aid offered without pride. What a coincidence: Maedhros has a crown, and aid to offer. As to the pride, he will see.
He gathers his brothers, and explains that being king is not one of the objectives of the game, that the responsibility would only divert him from his true purpose. They are predictable as ever. What about pride, they say. He replies that being stripped of pride does not kill a son of Feanor. His words fall from his height with a clang, heavy with the weight of experience. His brothers have no words to outweigh them.
Maedhros does not need a crown to lead his own kin.
Fingolfin gets what he wants, and it is far more than he expects. The ceremony is simple and moving, like all of Maglor's compositions. Maedhros will have his army when he needs it.
Back in his room, Maedhros pulls out a map and lays it flat, horizontal, on the table. He takes an eagle's-eye view of Arda. His finger moves, taps three times, rests: the Thangorodrim. It still amuses him to find himself so far above it. Is it too morbid to say, "I have transcended it?"
He lifts his hand, taps again. Himring. Maedhros likes hills. He leans in towards the game-board. He has many pieces to place.