It was, he thought, his worst nightmare – watching on helplessly as the black hordes drove towards him, sweeping away his men, relentless, unstoppable, unmerciful. No counsels of wizards or guidance of Peredhil could aid him here.
‘Do you play chess?’ he had said earlier.
‘A little,’ the younger man had replied, weighing one of the pieces in his hand.
Challenge made, they had taken their glasses, and settled down opposite one another, and Aragorn had accepted the advantage of white—
Now glasses were drained, and the king surveyed his armies.
‘I do believe,’ he said, contemplating his ravaged defences, ‘that you have not been entirely candid, Faramir.’
‘But it is true that I hardly play any more.’
‘Perhaps because people refuse to play against you?’
Faramir helped himself to a white pawn. ‘Perhaps.’
After some little delay, Aragorn advanced a foolhardy knight. Faramir quickly ended its misery.
‘Chess is not a game to be found in Rivendell,’ Aragorn admitted, bringing his surviving captain back to relative safety. ‘I learnt to play later in life; here, in Minas Tirith.’
‘Is it not much played amongst the Dúnedain in the north?’
‘It seems not to suit such a solitary way of life.’
Faramir sat and considered one of his rooks for a long time before drawing it back a square or two. ‘My father taught me chess,’ he said at last. ‘We played a great deal at one time. A family tradition. A tradition in the city.’
‘The city...’ Aragorn turned his attention back to the board from where it had wandered. ‘I left it, years ago, and I may have forgotten its traditions – if, indeed, I ever fully understood them.’
He pushed forward a hopeless pawn but held his steward’s gaze. ‘For instance, I was surprised, after the meeting of the council today, to find myself the object of wrath for one of my counsellors.’
Faramir looked up sharply. ‘Who was that?’
He leaned back in his chair, folded his arms, and stared in frank disbelief. ‘Minastan confronted you?’
‘I am not in the habit of imagining such things.’
‘But what could he be thinking...?’ Faramir frowned, looking past the other man into the fire. ‘He must know that my father would have... He cannot think that I would not...’
A slow smile crept across the steward’s face. He bent over the game once more, relishing the confiscation of a white rook more than it perhaps warranted. ‘I shall speak to him in the morning. You need not trouble yourself over Minastan again, my lord.’
‘I think,’ the king replied softly, ‘you might tell me why.’
‘I happen to know that Minastan...’ Faramir replied, ‘was once unwise – very unwise. And would benefit, it seems, from being reminded of my father’s... circumspection at the time.’
‘I think,’ the king said once more, and this time the crack of the whip was clear, ‘you might tell me why.’
‘Neither, sire,’ Faramir replied, after a moment, ‘would that be wise.’
Their eyes held for a while longer, and then Faramir looked back down at the board. He pushed forward his king’s captain, taking the white queen that stood in defence. ‘The king is—‘ He stopped himself. ‘Well,’ he concluded. ‘I believe that that was the final move.’
The silence between them lengthened, broken only by the sound of the fire crackling in the hearth. Then Faramir reached out to touch one of the black pawns with the tip of a finger.
‘Arandur,’ he murmured. ‘King’s servant. And yet also, now, by his grace, a prince of the realm.’
He looked up at his king, who looked back.
And then nodded.
Faramir picked up the piece, and examined it closely. It was ancient, of a strange metal, durable and hard. ‘This is a beautiful set,’ he said, his admiration undisguised. ‘The oldest, I would think, in the city. I have wanted to use it for a very long time.’ He placed it back upon the board. ‘Shall we play again?’
‘Set up the pieces.’ Aragorn handed him the white knight. ‘This time you will have the advantage!’ – but Faramir, it seemed, had something else to say.
‘I made...’ he stopped. ‘It is indeed a long time since I have played chess. And I made an error, which could have turned the game in your favour.’ He smiled, just a little. ‘Would you like to know how you could have won?’
Aragorn smiled his assent, and they set the board back as it had been. ‘Watch that rook,’ Faramir instructed him.
They played a new game later. The White forces overran the board, utterly defeating their enemy.