King’s Pawn

Prince Calder entered his father’s chamber. The king and his advisor sat by the fire, drinking and catching up. He didn’t want to interrupt, but there was nothing for it. If he wanted to prove himself to his father, he was going to have to talk to the man.

“Excuse me, sir.” Father was always ‘sir.’

“Eh?” asked Father, twisting in his seat. “Who’s that?”

“Calder,” Amaz admonished. “What are you doing here?”

“I — I was hoping Father and I could play chess.”

Amaz shook his head. “It’s late. You shouldn’t be bothering your father with —“

“Nonsense!” cried Father. “I haven’t had a decent match in months. Sit down, lad, and we’ll see if you’ve been practicing. You can be white.”

Calder pulled over the small table used exclusively for chess and took Amaz’s seat. The bone pieces were already lined up on the inset onyx board. Amaz had assured him they were elk, but the rumor downstairs was that the pieces had been carved from the bones of Father’s enemies. Fervently hoping for the deer, Calder slid his king’s pawn forward.

Play moved rapidly. Father always seemed to be three steps ahead of him. If Calder didn’t beat a fast enough retreat, his pieces practically flew off the board. Soon he struggled just to keep his king protected with only one knight, two bishops, and the queen. And his knight was in danger.

His queen moved to intercept the attacking rook.

His queen joined the other captured pieces.

Calder stared at the black castle that had replaced her. He hadn’t even realized she’d been in danger.

The game ended quickly after that. Father called checkmate only two turns later. As they reset the pieces, he chuckled. “It seems I’m still waiting for that decent match. What do you say, Amaz, care to give me a challenge?”

Calder obediently vacated his seat, numb with disappointment. He hadn’t proven anything to his father, except maybe that he ought to practice more. He turned to leave.

“Calder?”

“Yes, sir?”

“You have nothing to be ashamed of,” said Father. “You were at a disadvantage, considering you didn’t inherit my strategic mind. But you played well enough. For a civilian.”

A few days later, Calder convinced Amaz to alter his usual lesson. Father would watch him spar with Oron, and learn that even though his son didn’t have his strategic mind, he was skilled with the sword. He could still do this. He could still prove himself.

He took a deep breath and saluted his opponent. Oron had the advantage in age, height, and experience, but if he could just hold his own…

Calder leapt into offense. The clatter of the practice swords echoed across the training yard. Oron blocked his advances easily, but seemed content to let Calder wear himself out on the attack. Calder pressed on, searching for an opening.

There!

He lunged. Oron side-stepped the attack and then took over the match. Now he was on offense and Calder on defense.

He was too fast. Calder could barely get his sword up in time to block. He retreated, trying to get some room to recover, but Oron stayed right with him.

Calder’s sword flew out of his hand and landed in Oron’s.

It was over.

Father and Amaz clapped while he shook hands with Oron, but he just wanted to slink off and lick his wounds.

A heavy hand clapped his shoulder. “You should be proud,” said Oron. “You fought well.”

“You were taking it easy on me,” Calder objected. “You could have disarmed me in three moves.”

“Hmm…maybe four.” Oron smiled at his astonished expression. “You held your own a lot longer than some grown men I’ve fought. Keep practicing, and I’ll be honored to fight beside you someday.”

Calder beamed. That was the best praise he could have received. If only Father agreed.

Amaz beckoned him over. “Well done, Calder. Very well done.”

But Calder watched his father, awaiting his verdict.

“Shame he doesn’t have Oron’s innate talent.”

He wilted. It hadn’t worked after all. Even though he’d done his best, better even than he’d thought at first, it still wasn’t enough.

He trudged away toward the far side of the yard and ducked under the fence. He walked along the tree-line, away from the training yard and Father.

He was never going to prove himself. He was never going to be enough.