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Old Soldiers
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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1
Old Soldiers

Minas Tirith, Fourth Age 13

There were two chess sets on display in the Steward’s House. The first (very stately and mysterious, fashioned from metal and glass) had been the old man’s and, until his last years, one of his most prized possessions. These days it was never used. It stood in a bay window in the library, where visiting dignitaries and indigenous children could stop to wonder at the craftsmanship.

The second (of less antiquity but still significant historical interest) could be found in the Steward’s study. Nearby was a comfortable armchair, suitable for long hours sitting in quiet contemplation, whenever the opportunity arose (rarely, these days). This board invariably showed a game in progress. Most often this was in the Steward’s favour; sometimes (if the opposition was his cousin, Amrothos, or his Queen) a closer battle was underway.

“But surely neither of these,” said Amrothos, one day after the war, “is the one upon which you played me during all those years in the field, Faramir? Neither strikes me as particularly portable.”

They were sitting in the study round the chequered board, with a second chair pulled up and the endgame imminent. Perched on a stool beside them, a little boy with a long blond fringe glared at the game as if it held the secret of life itself. Outside, it was raining, very hard.

“Indeed, no,” Faramir replied, somewhat absently, fingertip straying between captain and pawn. “There was another set, suited for that purpose. Boromir had it made for me when I joined the company. He said he couldn’t bear to think of me without a chess set. Like the Sun without the Moon, or egg without bacon.”

“And does this set still exist?”

Swiftly, Faramir moved his pawn. He pondered the matter while his cousin considered his move. “Certainly I had it when we fled Ithilien, and it was not at Henneth Annûn when at last I was able to return. So I must assume it came home with me...” He shrugged. “Who knows where it may be now? For all I know it fell from my pack somewhere on the Pelennor. A shame,” he said, wistfully. “I would not have lost any gift of my brother’s.”

Amrothos took the pawn and Faramir promptly pushed a captain forwards. The little boy at their side drew in a breath. “My game, I think, Rothos.”

“Your game, most certainly! Lost to me from that error with the rook near the start...” They hunched over the board, putting pieces back where once they had been, examining the damage done. The little boy watching murmured their moves back to them.

“Perhaps we should find it,” Rothos said, after a while.

“Find what?”

“Your missing chess set.”

Faramir settled back comfortably in his chair and stretched out his legs. “Oh, that is long gone! Besides, I wouldn’t know where to start.”

“That is easy enough. You said it was in your possession when you left Ithilien—”

“More than a decade ago! A great deal has happened in the meantime.”

“So either you lost it on the journey home, in which case it is indeed gone for good, or else it arrived with you in the City, and likely has remained here ever since. In which case it might be found. We could still retrace your steps. What did you do upon arrival?”

Faramir turned to look out at the rain. “I met with my father. An unforgettable meeting. Then I slept, badly. In the morning the council met, after which I left for Osgiliath.”

“And where might your pack have been throughout?”

“My pack? Rothos, you understand that the City was coming under siege at the time and I had lately risen to the post of Captain-General?”

“Yet you are not a careless man. Where was your pack?”

“On my back, and then no longer on my back.” Faramir shifted forwards in his seat and began to arrange the pieces back in their starting position. “I know how you enjoy a puzzle, but I fear this one is beyond even your skill to solve. Much is lost in war that cannot ever be restored. And we live with that.”

“Still,” Amrothos replied, “I should like to try.” He glanced at the third of their company, who had been listening with care throughout, and the little boy nodded an agreement firm enough to set his fringe flying. “And so should Léof.”

Through narrowed eyes, Faramir studied his companions, who looked guilelessly back. “‘The Quest for the Missing Pieces’, is it?” He sighed and pushed himself up from his chair. “Very well. The rain falls, the afternoon stretches before us, and the Steward of Gondor – surely – has nothing better to do than go in search of a chess set that must by now be sunk deep into the mud of the Pelennor.”

They left the Steward’s study and went into the hall. The boy bounced on ahead, halting at the foot of the stairs and swinging round the lowest wrought-iron railing as the men followed.

“Where did you sleep that night?” Rothos said. “In the Citadel?”

“No, I came here. Home. I thought I might rest better at home.”

Amrothos tapped a long finger against his cheek. “But stopping at the Citadel first. It is possible that you left your pack there, I suppose—”

“I had much on my mind at the time.”

“But in that case it would surely have been sent after you. Whether you brought it yourself or it was sent, I imagine it must have come at last to your old rooms. They were up the west side, were they not?”

“They were indeed.”

The boy, needing no further direction, shot up the stairs. The two men followed more slowly, Faramir at the rear. “You might recall, cousin, that the house has been extensively remodelled in the past few years.”

“I do recall. I think your architect has done a marvellous job, and you and your lady wife have made impeccable decisions throughout. The place used to be so gloomy! Now it is exquisite, and to such an extent that I believe in a hundred years or so, these halls will be held up as exemplifying early Restoration taste—”

“By which I mean,” Faramir said, perhaps slightly sharply, “that the depredations of war notwithstanding, one stray soldier’s pack might not have survived the process of clearance and renovation which followed.”

“Nobody would throw anything out without your permission, Faramir. And since we have already established that you have not seen your pack to give permission for its destruction, we may proceed on the basis of its continued existence.”

Faramir, reaching the top of the stairs, paused and sighed. “Must you always make sense?”

“When I stop making sense, you may begin to worry.”

“Hmm.” Turning left at the top of the stairs, they headed towards the west end of the house. “‘Exemplifying early Restoration taste’,” Faramir said. “Is that to be my monument?”

“If you will not write your epic, Faramir,” Amrothos said testily, “it will have to do.”

Again the Steward sighed. “My epic? If only there were time...”

The corridor was long and passed at intervals through several archways. The walls were white, and hung with a series of small tapestries, in abstract designs. After the third archway, the corridor bent slightly to the left, an oddity of construction from when the west side was added to the main house. Three steps led upwards, and then the corridor continued on its way.

“You picked a distant corner of the house,” Rothos remarked.

“I liked the quiet,” Faramir replied. He reached down to brush his hand against the top of his small son’s head. “No chance of that these days!” The boy – a calm, unjudging child – gave his father a Look.

Faramir’s former bedroom, or what was in its place after the renovation, was now a pleasant guest room, with long windows facing north, and fine white drapes to block the summer sun. The walls were painted white, making a striking contrast with the ceiling timbers and the various pieces of furniture. Hanging above the fireplace was a tapestry worked in silver and white and black, another abstract design that nonetheless suggested twining leaves and branches. Faramir crossed the room to look at it.

“How could I have forgotten this? My mother made this, one of her last creations. I must have it taken downstairs and placed in my study...” He stood for a while, his hands clasped behind his back, contemplating the intricate art of the piece, until Amrothos said, “All very clean and orderly in here, Faramir. A tribute to the running of the household. But is there any sign that the Captain-General of Gondor once slept here?”

Faramir, turning, pointed to a large chest at the foot of the bed. “That was mine... is still mine... I mean, I used it regularly at one time.”

Amrothos and Léof advanced upon the chest. Faramir approached more slowly. Opening the lid, Amrothos began to rummage around inside. “Blankets,” he said, “and plenty of them.”

“It can get cold this close to the mountains, and this high,” Faramir said. He began a slow circuit of the room, coming to a halt by the window, and twitching the drapes to look out. The rain still fell. “Mid-afternoon. I should not be here...”

“Hush, cousin! Since you are here, might I prevail upon you to put these in orderly fashion upon the bed?” He gestured towards the pile of blankets by his feet. Faramir, with a sigh, did what he was asked, and then stood, arms folded, watching his cousin and his son explore the further depths of the chest.

Next to come out was a pile of shirts, well-made but plain and hard-wearing, suitable for a man who might find himself spending much of his time outdoors. Amrothos chuckled as he unfolded one. “I defy you to fit into this now, Faramir.”

Faramir smiled. “Since I am no longer living on ranger rations, Rothos, I can only be glad.”

The shirts were dumped unceremoniously on the floor. Carefully, Faramir picked them up and folded them again before placing them on the bed. Next to emerge was a blue counterpane, rather patched and faded, and then two sheets of music which, when Amrothos whistled the tune, turned out to be the middle section of a well-known ballad from Pelargir arranged for the Haradric oud.

“I didn’t know you played the oud, cousin,” Amrothos said, in surprise.

Faramir examined the pages. “I don’t. I’ve no idea where this came from.”

Two heads – one dark, one blond – bent over the chest once again, and then both exclaimed in triumph, as Léof, delving deep, brought out a weatherworn knapsack.

“Is this it, cousin?”

“Do you know, I rather think it might be.”

Amrothos and Léof huddled together over their new-found treasure. Faramir, coming down onto his haunches next to them, saw his son look up at him. “Go ahead,” he said, nodding, and the boy undid the clasps and tipped the contents out onto the rug. “Well, look at this,” Faramir said, wonderingly. “A stranger in a bag.”

There was a battered tin mirror and a folding knife. A comb with several teeth missing and a pair of grey woollen socks. Some oilskin that, unwrapped, turned out to contain a piece of charcoal. A tinderbox (this caused a brief halt in proceedings until its function was demonstrated to Léof’s satisfaction) and some string. And a small hinged wooden box covered with a chequered pattern and tiny holes.

“We have it, cousin!” Amrothos said softly. “We have it!”

Faramir reached out and picked up the box. His two companions watched him closely. He undid the clasp and, reaching inside, lifted out a handful of tiny pieces. He placed these in his son’s cupped hands, and Léof, receiving them, gave a small gasp of pleasure. Each was a small work of art, lovingly carved, and lovingly given. “See?” his father said. “The box folds back to make the board. And the pegs on the pieces fit into the holes.”

Amrothos looked down at the set in delight. “I never saw this before! All those years, you were playing with this set, and I never knew what it looked like!” He swung round onto his side, balancing himself on one elbow. “So,” he said. “Where were we?”

“What?”

“We were mid-game. We never finished. Let’s finish now.”

“Rothos, it was years ago! I can’t remember where we were!”

“And you call yourself a chess-player?”

“I barely had my mind on the game!”

“So you were losing. Convenient, then, that you can’t remember the state of the board.” Amrothos smiled. “I’m sure that between us we can reconstruct it.”

Léof began setting up the pieces, and then gazed up at his father expectantly. In fact, both son and cousin were giving the Steward near-identical looks – absolute confidence that a worn-out, grief-stricken man in the last stages of a hopeless battle would somehow have committed to memory the details of a game of chess abandoned as the world was ending.

“We finished the game before this one when I came to Minas Tirith for the Midsummer Court in ’fifteen,” Amrothos prompted. “Do you remember? It was my sister’s coming-out ball. Your father caused a stir, dancing with her.”

“I remember that! Of course I remember that!”

“I recall now that you left Minas Tirith before we did. You took my opening move with you. Ah, yes, this is all coming back to me! I opened the game, and you took the move with you! I think I opened with this.” He moved a pawn. “Does that seem right?”

“Rothos—”

“Summer of ’fifteen, Faramir. What were you doing?”

“What was I doing?” Tiredly, Faramir lowered himself to the floor, stretching out and propping himself up on one elbow. “What I did every summer since turning sixteen. Patrolling Ithilien...” He shook his head suddenly. “No, that summer I was hurt. I took a spear. The wound was not bad, but the fever kept me ill for several weeks. I wrote to you about it after the event, do you remember?”

“Of course I remember. I was beside myself.” They looked at each other sombrely. “What was your move, cousin?”

“I think... this.” Faramir detached a captain from the board and pegged it back in place.

“Yes, you like that opening. I wasn’t surprised to see you fall back on it, given the circumstances...” Amrothos moved another pawn. “Yes, yes – I remember now. Autumn of ’fifteen. Did you winter in Ithilien?”

“Yes, I think... Yes. Most of it. Back for a week or two around mettarë.”

“How was that?”

“Between us Boromir and I kept ourselves cheerful.” Faramir moved one of his own pawns forward. “I seem to recall that even at this early stage I had a strong sense of foreboding about my prospects.”

“It is true that your moves were increasingly poor. One might almost have thought your mind was elsewhere. We’re heading into ’sixteen now.” Amrothos moved another pawn, and then began to move several pieces from both sides. “You fired off a couple of responses in quick succession at this point, as I recall. Does this seem right?”

“I trust you implicitly, Rothos.”

“But does it seem right?”

“I think so. Yes. I think I remember that.”

“And then you went quiet until the autumn.”

“’Sixteen... that was the long hot summer. Yes. Which brought many Haradrim along the road.” Faramir glanced at his small son, who looked back at him calmly. “I had other business that summer.”

They each made a move. “’Seventeen was more of the same,” Faramir said. “I fear this is where my game declined precipitously.”

“You were dreadful. Better during the winter. Where does that bring us? Ah. The summer of ’eighteen. The battle for Osgiliath. I came to see you that summer, as I recall, Faramir,” Amrothos said lightly. “You took me swimming in the Anduin and we blew up a bridge.”

Léof looked up sharply, his eyes nearly popping from his head. Faramir reached across the board to clasp his cousin’s hand. “I’m sorry,” Faramir said softly. “I wish that I had not—”

“And I am glad,” Amrothos said firmly, “that you did.” Releasing Faramir’s hand, he turned his attention back to the game. “You went very quiet after that.”

“Boromir went away. Father required me close at hand. And I spent the latter half of the year riding out to the fiefdoms to ensure that when the time came we would have the numbers to defend the City.”

“Which is why we saw you in Dol Amroth that winter.”

“Did we play much that time, Rothos? I don’t think we did.”

“You spent most of that holiday asleep in the library. One of us would go by every few hours to see if you were awake yet or in need of watering. Usually you were still asleep.”

“How ungracious a guest! I am sorry. But I was so tired.”

“We didn’t mind! We were glad to see you. We didn’t know when we would see you again. If we would see you again.” They stared at each other. “You brought a move with you,” Amrothos said. “And you took one away with you. New year. Thirty-nineteen.”

Faramir looked back at the board. His hand hesitated over the pieces. “I was back and forth between the City and Osgiliath at the start of the year. Then, briefly, to Ithilien, at the start of March. Home again, under shadow. And then... And then...”

Words failed him. In the chimney, the wind howled. Faramir’s hand, hovering, began to shake. Amrothos felt his heart twist in his breast. If there were truly Powers in this world, he thought, they would come to my aid now.

“Papa,” said the little boy, watching the game and not his father, “it’s your move.”

Slowly, Faramir withdrew his hand from the board. He reached out to touch his son. Tenderly, he stroked the fringe that fell over the boy’s eyes. The child, looking up, gave him a sunny smile. Faramir studied him gravely. “You’re right,” he said. “My move. But I fear this game was lost a long time ago.”

“You won earlier,” the boy pointed out. “And you can always play again.”

Now Faramir smiled, beautifully, and Amrothos had to look away. Hand covering his face, he thought: We will defeat this, cousin. Piece by piece, we will bring you back to yourself. If it takes an age, we will restore you to yourself.

“Yes,” Faramir said gently. “I can always play again.” Then, suddenly shifting his weight, he sat up straight. “Will you take my surrender, Rothos? We do not need to go any further.”

“Of course, Faramir. Of course.”

Slowly, they began to remove the pieces from the board. Léof held the box open for them as they dropped the pieces inside for safekeeping. “May I take the set, Papa?” he said, when they were done.

“Of course you may.”

The boy picked up the knife and the tinderbox. “And these?”

The rain hammered hard against the window. Faramir leaned over to kiss the top of the boy’s head. “In a few years, perhaps,” he said. “But not yet. Not yet.”

~~~

I have borrowed extensively from stories written by my wonderful partner-in-crime, Isabeau of Greenlea.

For Amrothos’ proficiency on the oud, see Liquid Numbers.

For the significance of Faramir and Amrothos’ chess games, see Doggerel.

For Lothíriel dancing with Denethor at the Midsummer Court, see Shall We Dance?.

For Faramir’s spear injury, see Blackbow.

For Amrothos’ part in the destruction of the bridge at Osgiliath, see The Blasted Bridge and Consolation.

For Faramir’s journeys about Gondor in the winter of 3017, see my own A Pale Light Lingering.

Altariel, 28-29 September 2011


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