The King is Dead
Once, when his younger son was no more than four years old, Denethor had watched him slowly walk the length of the garden and then, thoroughly engrossed in the book he was reading, trip over a small wall that set off the lawn from a flower bed. While his older brother roared with laughter, the boy had looked down at the wall as if genuinely perplexed as to where it had come from and then, smiling, had allowed himself to be swung up in his mother's arms. Finduilas herself had been laughing too and, whilst this in itself had made her husband glad, he could not help but wince inwardly at yet more evidence of the nature of his younger son; a nature which, it seemed to his father, could only sit at odds with the duties this boy would have to perform as a man.
So it had gone on. While the older boy quickly showed his strength and his physical excellence, the younger one was too easily absorbed or distracted, by a book or some other solitary pursuit. It was true that, when commanded by his brother, he would fall in with whatever schemes were being planned, but this seemed to his father only further evidence of his compliance. And indeed there was no doubting the boy's intellect, as he read shelf after shelf of books, conversed confidently with his elders in Sindarin, or amused himself by learning Quenya. But one day, Denethor knew, this quiet and even-tempered boy would have to command men in battle. And so, on Faramir's eleventh birthday, and almost in desperation, his father had presented him with a chess set.
It was an instant and a profound passion.
The library was raided for books on strategy and play. His older brother, home for a fortnight over mettarë, was coerced into playing each day - and was being soundly beaten before he fled back to Osgiliath, in search, he said, of some peace. Undaunted, Faramir had looked around for a new and worthier competitor - and had settled upon his father. And so each evening, for almost a month now, and after they had eaten, the Steward and his second son retreated to the warmth of his study, and played game after game of chess.
Faramir had not yet won.
Each afternoon, his lessons done and his training-at-arms finished, he had pored over the books he had collected from the library, preparing to launch a fresh assault on his father. And night after night, Denethor had withstood it.
They usually played without much conversation, instead dissecting their games minutely when they were done, but tonight the silence was heavy in the Steward's study as Faramir pursued his victory with a single-mindedness that became fiercer the likelier it seemed, and the Steward of Gondor himself contemplated the unhappy prospect of defeat in a game of strategy at the hands of his eleven-year-old son.
The fire crackled in the hearth. Stifling a sigh, Denethor leaned back in his chair and gazed at the darkness outside, listening to the rain beat upon the windows. Then he looked back at his son, who was sitting completely still - except for his eyes, which were darting across the board, and his mouth, as he silently described scenarios to himself.
'This set,' Denethor said at length, 'has been in the family for more than a century.'
The boy did not answer, but set his finger upon an exquisitely carved rook; then frowned and withdrew his hand.
'It belonged to your grandsire's grandsire, Túrin,' Denethor continued. 'He took it as spoils of war after defeating the Haradrim at the crossings of Poros. What date was that, Faramir?'
'Twenty-eight eighty-five,' his son muttered absently, staring now at the opposing king's captain as if he wished to interrogate it.
'That's right,' his father replied, perhaps covering a smile with his hand, before continuing to muse out loud. 'Your grandsire learnt to play chess from Túrin, and I learnt to play from him. It seems that when Túrin came into possession of the set, there were three pieces missing. He had replacements made from ivory taken from mûmakil slain in the battle.'
His son did gaze up at him then. Is that pity? Denethor thought. He looks as if he were wondering whether I have at last entered my dotage.
'You told me that when you gave me the set,' Faramir remarked, then looked down again, and moved his queen, taking his father's king's captain. Denethor surveyed the carnage for a moment, and then retreated his knight to his king's defence.
'I often wondered why a soldier, even a captain, would be travelling to war with such an elaborate set,' he said to the top of his son's dark head.
'Perhaps it was an heirloom in his family too,' the boy mumured, before pressing on the assault with his queen.
He really is going to win if I don't do something soon.
'Túrin was a master of the game,' Denethor said eventually, having had to spend several minutes contemplating his defence. 'Which is more than I appear to be this evening,' he added ruefully, and saw his son suppress a smirk. 'He also knew a great deal about it. In the library there is a history of the game, which he wrote. It has a green leather binding,' he added helpfully.
Faramir's head shot up, his eyes alight. 'I found that!' he said, moving his queen quickly.
'And did you read the accounts of the game's invention?'
'There seem to be two,' Faramir said eagerly. 'One is that it was made up to teach the strategy of war to Haradric nobles.'
Denethor moved a cautious knight.
'But I prefer the other account,' Faramir confided, relieving Denethor of the knight with his rook.
'Which is?' Denethor brought his other knight into play.
'The story seems to come from Khand. There was a long war there,' Faramir said, plainly warming to his theme, 'between two ruling families, and so many men were killed that in the end they had to make peace. But still they did not know who was to rule them, so the wisest men from each family together devised a game and then they played it, and the victor was named ruler.'
'And why do you like that story better, Faramir?'
The boy seemed nervous. 'It seems... a more sensible way to settle matters. One that would save lives, not lose them.' He stopped for moment. 'I wish that we might do the same.'
'So do I,' Denethor replied softly.
They gazed at each other for a moment, and then Faramir ducked his head in confusion and looked down at the game. He had a choice now, between his father's rook and his father's queen. Very quickly, he picked the queen.
Denethor pushed the knight forward.
'Check,' he said.
Faramir stared at him in complete shock. His hand was trembling a little and his face paling as he reached again for his queen - for he knew now as well as his father that the game was lost to him. And so it was, only a few minutes later.
'I aran fern,' said the Steward of Gondor. The king is dead.
Faramir looked down at the board as if his dreams had been reduced to ashes.
'Chess,' said his father gently, 'is meant to teach strategy to nobles. Who should watch not just the game, but also their opponent.'
Faramir lifted his head sharply. A slow flush began to creep up his throat and cheeks, and his eyes burned.
And now he knows just how well he likes to win.
'You distracted me on purpose.'
'Which isn't fair.'
Denethor shook his head, and watched his son's face closely as the boy slowly digested this information.
'Then let's play again,' Faramir said abruptly, reaching for the pieces - then looked up at his father, and gave a knowing smile.
And Denethor smiled back.
A/N: Thank you to Dwim for the challenge, Chathol-linn for checking my Sindarin, and James for checking my chess!