Recipient's Name: lin4gondor
Title: As in Chess
Words: 2,388 + Notes
Request: At the Council of Elrond, Gandalf says, "Less welcome did the Lord Denethor show me then than of old, and grudgingly he permitted me to search among his hoarded scrolls and books." I would like a story about a time when Gandalf was more welcome in Minas Tirith. Bonus points if the story includes Gandalf interacting with both Boromir and Faramir.
Summary: Gandalf, Húrin of the Keys, Faramir, and a game of chess; or, personal politics by another name.
In life, as in chess, forethought wins. (Charles Buxton)
Gandalf turned the black-ivory chess-piece between his thumb and forefinger, tracing the fold carved in the miter up to its point. The set had a proper cleric, not a scholar with its more rounded cap. A Haradric set, then. That explained the craftsmanship, and indeed the ivory: as rare as mithril, or near enough, at least in the free lands of the West. He guessed the set was a diplomatic gift, or perhaps a tribute depending on the giver's point of view, but it was certainly no child's toy. That left one undeniable question: how came Faramir to dig it out of his toy chest?
Faramir was a study in contradictions. He had trounced first his uncle and then Gandalf, and across the chessboard he had had all the weight and seriousness of his father when Gandalf had first met him some twenty years earlier. And Denethor had been a captain and a diplomat by then, fully capable of representing Gondor's interests. Now, though, Faramir jumped from foot to foot, an impish grin stretching from ear to ear, as his vanquished foes now face off against each other. He looked first to Húrin and then to Gandalf before, apparently having come to a decision, ducking under his table and foisting himself on the table-edge at Gandalf's elbow, grabbing at the wizard's arm for his attention.
"Knight to B-5," he suggested (dictated). "Uncle favors his right-cleric, and if you threaten it he'll sacrifice all manner of pieces to protect it." Frowning, he looked over at Húrin quizzically. "Why do you do that?"
"Do I now?" Húrin asked. "Your brother never let on."
"You do," Faramir said. "As for Boromir, well, he sat across the game-table from Father often enough, but I'm not sure he ever truly saw how the game is really played."
That earned a smile from Húrin. "No, I'm not sure he did."
Gandalf looked at Faramir, taking in the hair tousled from when he'd run his hand through his hair, the tunic pulled askew and the fingernail half-bit off. He had played strategy games with kings and counselors, but just as often with their servants' sons, and he wondered which category Faramir fell into. He had not known Denethor as a child, nor with his grandfather, but his grandfather's grandfather, Túrin – he had known him as a child, known him well, had suggested the fortification of Ithilien and Cair Andros against the rising threat of the East (a threat that was at that point only a vague hint and had earned Gandalf a reputation for wisdom and even preternatural foreknowledge.
But before all that, when Túrin had been a child and Gandalf had been less wary, he had beaten him as thoroughly as Faramir just had – using, Gandalf remembers, the wizard's overestimation of his childishness until it was too late to counter the boy's attack. No; if his experience with the House of Húrin had taught him anything about its sons it was that they grew world-wise at too young an age and wore their youth much as he wore his advanced age: a cloak to fool those that might fall for it.
Which had somehow come to include him. Fool him once, fool him twice, but three times? No. Gandalf cocked an eyebrow skeptically, shook his head at Faramir, and pushed one of his captains three spaces forward.
"Oh, well caught!" Faramir all but squealed, strangely pleased that his ruse had been spotted. Not that it was such a difficult maneuver (why would he favor a stranger – honored guest or otherwise – over his own kin?) but Gandalf supposed that, at the young age of six, it must seem a clever gambit indeed.
Húrin studied the board and, after a moment, advanced his knight to block Gandalf's attack on his queen. Gandalf answered with his rightmost pawn, hoping to draw out the very cleric Faramir had warned him Húrin favored. That weakness exposed (if it ever were one), Húrin would be more vigilant against attacks against it and he might make an interesting move to protect it. At any rate, Gandalf could see no other useful maneuver just then, so he might as well see how this played out.
But as long as he must play out that gambit, well, in for a penny. Gandalf set the chess-man back in the line of pieces he'd won off Húrin. "This is a fine board," he said at last. "A fine set. Dáin of Erebor would give his beard to commission its maker." An exaggeration, yes, but not by much and worth it for the effect. "I was surprised to find it among a child's playthings."
"It was Boromir's," Húrin explained, "from his mother." He moved one of his own pawns to take the one Gandalf had just played rather than moving the cleric out of harm's way. Interesting, that. "Originally it belonged to their grandfather, to Adrahil, who had it fashioned as a ransom commission after one of his ships captured a particularly powerful Corsair captain. True ivory is hard to come by in these days, as is onyx, come to it. And Adrahil always had a taste for the game."
That explanation, made more sense than a true diplomatic gift being treated so carelessly. And yet...
"I thought your father packed away everything connected to your mother," Gandalf said. "Certainly I haven't seen any trace of Dol Amroth in what I've seen of the White Tower."
"Well, you can't have seen much of it, can you?" Faramir asked. "Father's quite occupied these days, and your own apartments are in the Sixth Circle." Húrin moved his bishop back to its position of three moves' back, playing (Gandalf guessed) for time. And in any case, the board is Boromir's, not his." Faramir pointed a pudgy finger at the piece. "Take it or he'll run you around in circles," Faramir suggested, earnestly this time Gandalf thought.
"Your father has had me around to the evening-meal most nights," Gandalf said. "He seems interested in the fruits of my research. Boromir, too; I was surprised not to see you. Won't he be upset to see you making use of the board, even if it is Boromir's to give as he pleases?"
Faramir pressed his lips together purposefully before shaking his head in quiet determination. "You must have it wrong," he said. "Father's quite busy, much too busy for that, and Boromir's with the guards. As for the board, well, he never comes here, so he'd hardly see it, and he's no just cause to complain if he did."
Before Gandalf could pursue the matter, Húrin tipped the contested knight on to its side and motioned for Gandalf to collect it. "Faramir, Cook was baking sweet-rolls for nuncheon. He may give you one if you ask him nicely." Faramir looked longingly at the board but nodded and took his leave. Once he'd left the room, Húrin said, "Some stories are best not told in front of virgin ears, and for all my nephew's affectations, he feels such things more deeply than I'd wish. Denethor has not deigned to see him since Mettarë, and I would rather Faramir blame his indifference on the situation in Umbar than his father's indifference."
Gandalf ran his thumb along his right-cleric's base, circling the lower rim idly as he let that thought make its way through his mind. Denethor had never been indifferent to anything of substance in his life, not that Gandalf had seen, and certainly he was not a cruel man. No, it was hardly indifference driving Denethor's absence
Húrin inclined his head, looking at the chessman now lifted off the board in Gandalf's hand, and the wizard swore under his breath. Now he was committed. He set the piece down again one space further back along its diagonal behind a pawn. Húrin took the pawn decisively, forcing Gandalf to use his next move to advance the cleric. "My brother by law is neither cruel nor uncaring, for all he can seem cold," Húrin said. "Finduilas's death has hit him harder than is well-known, certainly beyond the Citadel's walls. He sent Boromir off to the squire's barracks and left Faramir to his nannies until I brought him to my own house. He misses both his sons, of course, but his failure with Faramir weighs heavily on him, and he is not tied by duty to Faramir in the same way he is to Boromir. Faramir is not his heir."
He closed his eyes for a moment, and Gandalf would have sworn by all the stars in the heavens that Húrin struggled to swallow against a lump rising n his throat. When he opened his eyes again, though, he simply looked at the chessboard before him, abandoning the old conversation. He moved for his knight before seemingly remembering that it wasn't his turn. At last he shook his head, as if to clear the ghosts haunting his thoughts. "What can I say? Faramir is not the heir, and he has his mother's laugh."
Gandalf nodded acceptance but still found himself pursuing his lips. "He could have done worse by him," he said, moving a captain forward. "He did not send Faramir out of the City or enlist him with the guards. That is no small thing. But comfortable lies can have dangerous consequences."
"As can despair," Húrin countered. Gandalf moved a pawn back a space, forcing Húrin to play his next move while distracted. Húrin took a quick look at the board and moved a cleric to take Gandalf's right-captain. "The Healers would never agree to such a diagnosis," he continued, "and their diagnosis of a cancer of the womb is certainly a sufficient explanation for their art, but I sometimes wondered if that was all there was to the story. She seemed so lonely in those last years before she began to waste away, and Denethor's mood was darker then than when they were younger, once he took up his father's rod. I sometimes wonder, if she'd have been able to gather her full strength..." He frowned, letting his voice trail off.
"People do not die from a lack of good spirit," Gandalf said gently, "though sometimes they throw away lives from its excess, their own and others'. I was at hand for the Battle of the Poros Crossing, and Túrin welcomed my council before he sent for the Rohirrim. The Easterlings were testing your strength in those days, much as Harad does now."
"Umbar is rebuilding their docks," Húrin countered. "I have read the reports."
"As the Easterlings were their cavalry. I saw those reports as well. And at the time I would not have advised Túrin to do anything other than engage them. Ithilien was falling, and it seemed as good a place as any to turn that tide." He moved his cleric to within striking distance of the queen, a feint he had learned from Denethor on his last visit – an obvious trick, perhaps, but one he hoped Húrin would rise to. "But Túrin taunted the Easterlings into a full-scale battle because he was angry at them – and by the battle's end both of Folcred's sons lay dead. Rohan will not abandon her oaths, but neither will she rush back into battle on Gondor's behalf. And that battle did nothing to prevent Sauron's return."
"Now that's hardly fair," Húrin said. "You ousted a dragon and drove the Necromancer from Dol Guldur, and that did little but return Sauron to Barad-dûr."
"Ousting a dragon is no small thing, and well worth doing on its own," Gandalf replied. To say nothing of depriving a newly revealed Sauron of one of his greatest allies in the North, and breaking Shelob's twin danger before she could be brought against you. "But I did not speak of blame,. I advised Túrin to fight that battle, after all. The trouble is he would have welcomed it in any case, and for reasons much less noble than what I suggested at the time. And I would never hold Túrin or Denethor responsible for the turns of fate beyond his control.
Húrin advanced his knight back to take Gandalf's knight, leaving the path open to the very cleric Faramir said he favored. A foolish move, as Gandalf would never have made a move against the queen when her mate stood ready to avenge her. He moved his captain across the board easily and took his prize. "I just worry when Faramir hears the docks of Umbar blamed for his father's absence. Will he one day speak against them when prudence demands he wait?" Setting the cleric in his row of captured pieces, he added, "Checkmate in three."
"Faramir spends enough time around his mother's kin to see the actual men of Umbar who have come to Gondor for the opportunity our docks provide," Húrin said. "He sees they are not so unlike us, and he is intelligent enough to know they were like that before they crossed our border. One day Denethor will recall he has two sons of quality, and I would have Faramir remember a father who had done his duty by Gondor even in his grief, not one who abandoned him to what they should have faced together. Faramir is less given to passionate extremes than Boromir in any case, and certainly has been better inoculated than most of this city against seeing the men of Umbar as a faceless mass."
Against all explanation, Húrin smiled – grinned, in fact, like a schoolboy. "But that's the trouble with unproven soldiers, isn't it? There's no telling what they might accomplish, for good or ill." He turned the ring around the pawn's head indicating its first move had now been used and advanced the piece the permitted second space, taking the captain. "It's as the sages say: 'In life, as in chess, forethought wins.' Just not always."
At that, Gandalf threw his head back and laughed. He should have known better than to try to talk circles around a lord of Gondor: sometimes he doubted that Vairë herself could weave a better tale than they. And Húrin was right about one thing, at least: if the affair at Poros taught anything, it was that even the best-weaved plans oft went awry.
"Fair point," he said, and the game played on.
I have a headcanon that Húrin of the Keys married one of Denethor's sisters (implied by the reference in HoMe that Denethor is "the first son and third child of Ecthelion"), and that he became a kind of Lord of Minas Tirith and chief councilor and friend to Denethor, and the only extended family Boromir and Faramir had in the city. Every time I tried to work this detail into the story it weighed it down, so I have just assumed it.
The story with the battle at the Poros crossing is canon. Gandalf's involvement is my own addition, but it does seem like just the kind of pie Gandalf would have his thumbs in. Ecthelion needs some kind of reason to trust that gruff, bedraggled wanderer over the more lordly Saruman.
The details of the political implications of Thorin's quest are based on the really fascinating expansion of The Hobbit in "The Quest for Erebor" (in Unfinished Tales). It's told in the voice of Gandalf recounting to the four hobbits after the War of the Ring, how he came to be involved in that quest. As JRRT writes,
When you think of the great Battle of Pelennor, do not forget the Battle of Dale. Think of what might have been. Dragon-fire and savage swords in Eriador! There might be no Queen in Gondor. We might now only hope to return from the victory here to ruin and ash. But that has been averted – because I met Thorin Oakenshield one evening on the edge of spring not far from Bree.
Vairë is Námo's wife and the Valier responsible for weaving the tapestries recording and predicting the history of Arda.
This story is written for lin4gondor, with thanks for the inspiration. Also thanks to kayleelupin who read it before I shared it here.