The McCollough household was bedlam as usual. Sarah and Rachel were screaming and yelling at the tops of their voices, overexcited about the coming party while Angela was chasing after them, loudly complaining all the while that it was not her job to look after the little girls and that she would be late for her date. Mrs. McCollough tried to ignore the noise and the screaming as she concentrated on the conversation she was having on the telephone. Jonathon watched her closely. She had promised him that tonight, as soon as she had dropped the twins off at their little friend's house, she would come straight home and spend afternoon with him. Jonathon did not like to be thought of as a cynic, but he always took such promise from his mother with a pinch of salt. And the way the conversation was going, he was beginning to think that he would be right to do so. Again.
"But really, Geraldine, it's for too short notice. If you had only given me just a few days…", there was a pause as the person on the other end of the line made their point, and from the look on his mother's face, made it forcibly. "Yes, I understand that, Geraldine dear, but you see…", once more she listened.
Jonathon turned away. The outcome was inevitable.
Angela had managed to get the two little girls into their party frocks and into a somewhat calmer mood. Though she complained constantly of having to look after her younger sisters, the plain fact was that she was rather good at it. As Jonathon walked over to where the three girls stood, waiting for their mother, Angela looked over at him and smiled almost desperately.
"Jonathon, please, could you just watch them for me while I get changed? Casey will be here any minute and if I have to wait for mother…"
Jonathon laid his head to one side and considered his older sister carefully for a few moments. Although at fourteen she was in his eyes, almost adult, she was still not so much older than him that they could not deal. It was just a question of figuring out how high she would be prepared to go. Pretty high, thought Jonathon.
"Maybe," he said.
"Oh, come on Jonny, just this once."
Jonathon smiled, she never called him that unless she was desperate. He had her.
Just then Mrs. McCollough came into the room.
"Angela dear, could you do me a favour, that was Geraldine, Mrs Gray on the phone, she's been let down and I've agreed to give her a hand with the food at the party. It shouldn't be long but could you just stay here for a little while and keep an eye on Jonathon while I'm gone?"
"I know you were supposed to be going out with Casey today, but just for an hour or two? You're an angel." And with that she ushered her two youngest before her and hurried out the door, giving neither her son nor her oldest daughter time to object.
Angela glared at Jonathon, Jonathon stared back, just waiting. Angela had almost opened her mouth to speak when the doorbell went.
"That'll be Casey." Angela pouted in frustration then spoke again, almost pleading, "look, just make yourself scarce 'til mum comes back home. If we can't go out, at least we can have a quiet day in, alone." And she turned to answer the door before Jonathon could reply.
Casey was not good looking, thought Jonathon critically. His arms and his legs and his neck were all too long and his clothes hung off him like a tent on a scarecrow and his face looked like a field of miniature volcanoes. Jonathon's face twisted in distaste as his sister threw herself into the arms of this raggedy almost man. He would have no problems with leaving them alone, he had no wish to see them get even more soppy than they already were.
"Cas, I'm sorry," said Angela once she had broke for air, "I have to watch the brat for a while, at least an hour or two."
"But the film, it starts in less than fifty minutes. Can't he look after himself for a once?"
"Oh come on, he can't look after himself for five minutes without getting into trouble, just look at what happened last year with the tree house."
At this point Jonathon, whose face had clouded up at the mention of the word 'brat', broke in.
"You go watch your film, I'd rather not have to watch you mooning about each other anyway, it'd just make me feel sick!" and with that he stormed away down the hall and through the back door. Casey made as if to chase after him, but Angela caught his arm and held him back, calling after her brother gently instead.
"Jon. Oh Jonny."
Jonathon heard her calling but ignored her, walking straight through the door and then turning immediately sharp left into the garage.
The McCollough garage had never seen a car, instead it was a kind of combined storeroom and junkyard, a grave yard for defunct household machinery and deceased toys, some left over from previous occupants of the house and left to the pack rat McColloughs to throw away. Or not.
Jonathon loved the garage, the smell of slightly damp cardboard and fabric mingling with the distant ghost smell of oil and spilled petrol. And most especially the treasure trove of memories and surprises, most of which his mother did not know of. Jonathon had once found, hidden in a box, entire regiments of green plastic soldiers from every conceivable war. The soldiers were sadly no more, dog chewed or boy chewed or just lost, but they had provided grisly entertainment throughout an otherwise long and boring winter. Hoping for more such finds Jonathon decided to search the garage, as he had searched and researched each box, bag and bail countless times before.
Jonathon soon lost track of time and his annoyance as he searched the old junk piled around the crowded garage. He did not see when his sister poked her head carefully round the edge of the door, nor did he see her smile of satisfaction at seeing him quietly and seemingly permanently occupied among the junk. She quietly closed the door and went back to what she was doing knowing that Jonathon was safe and out trouble. Almost as soon as she had closed the door behind her, Jonathon found his old bike. It had been a good bike, even though it was now far too small for him. Jonathon knew that he was not supposed to go out, but a quick ride up and down the road wouldn't really count as going out, and it would be good to see if his old bike still worked. He could say he was testing it out for Rachel and Sarah. They would be needing bikes soon.
So Jonathon decided he would take the bike just to the bottom of the road, just to where the path led down into the old railway cuttings. But not into the cuttings, oh no, just to the path and then straight back.
The old railway cuttings were like a wide flat bottomed miniature valley. The steep earth sides kept the bottom cool even in the hottest of summers and the thick plantings of trees kept all but the most persistent wind away. Save for the occasional dog walker or blackberry picker, this was exclusively a boy's place and the numerous trails which criss crossed the base of the small valley were invariably made by boys. The paths crossed and recrossed the half buried fossils of the long gone railway. Jonathon enjoyed very much darting to and from along the twisting turning pathways, and enjoyed even more the occasional misses when his bike would leap into the air as he launched it off the bump of a long buried rotting railway sleeper. Once the last house had been passed the cutting ran through nothing but farmland and half wild woods. Jonathon could make as much noise as he wanted with nobody to complain about it.
After a few miles the cutting started to shallow down. Here there was a path clinging to the gentle slope and leading to a country road that in turn led to a steep rise known locally as 'fortune mound'. The rise up the hill did not interest Jonathon as much as the steep winding road down the other side. Jonathon leant into the handle bars of the bike and pumped for all he was worth up the slope and onto the road, breathing heavily and soaking himself with the sweat of his effort. After a brief respite along the short flat of the road he was once again straining up hill as he climbed fortune mound, slowly losing the speed he had built up on the flat but pumping valiantly to avoid the ignominy of having to get of and push. Slower and slower he approached the summit of the small hill, the bike wobbling precariously beneath him as he put his whole weight on first one pedal and then the other. Finally, with the last of his momentum, he reached the top. And stopped.
Jonathon looked down at the winding road before him, seeming to drop like a cliff face down the side of the hill.
With the last of his momentum he reached the top
He rested for a moment, holding the bike rested on one foot and breathing like a long distance runner. Then he took one deep breath and pushed off, heading down. Faster and faster Jonathon went, at first pedaling but soon just letting the slope and his own momentum carry him, ever faster, downwards. The wind was streaming into his face and whipping tears from his eyes but his heart sang with the hum of the rubber on tarmac of his wheels and a jolt of excitement shocked through him at every slight bump and rattle in the road. The first bend was approaching, not steep but too steep for the speed he was already traveling. Jonathon put slight pressure on the brakes. Nothing happened.
A surge of fear shot through him. Now he remembered why he had given up the old bike! A breathless moment then he took control of himself once more. The bike pulled back a little then there was a groan and a grind and the bike surged ahead once more, unhindered , unslowed by anything he could do. Now the world was bright and clear, his vision sharp and every tug of the wind felt like the hand of an angel, trying vainly to slow him. Jonathon could smell his own fear. Desperately he threw himself into the bend, leaning so far that he almost scraped his knees along the tarmac, but he made it, one bend down, many more to go. Knowing now the limitations of his machine, Jonathon picked his line carefully for the second bend, taking it as shallowly as possible. Even though the bend was sharper than the first, the line he took made it shallower and he took it easily. The third bend was no problem, a long slow sweep to the right and he almost laughed as he rounded it. By now his fear was fading and he was left with a growing exhilaration. He was beginning to enjoy his game, looking forward to the next bend, and the next, each a little easier than the last. Then Jonathon rounded one bend with a brief look back and looked forward again. To see a long, straight run down the last of the hill to the T-junction at the bottom.
"Oh, shit!' screamed Jonathon, as a solid stone wall approached like a fist. It couldn't miss.
Screaming, Jonathon tried desperately to turn, flinging himself sideways. An open gate flashed across his eyes. More by luck and instinct than by skill, Jonathon pulled the bike round to head for the gate. For a moment the smooth glide of the tarmac gave way to the bump and judder of rough grass verge, then there was a jerk and the sky turned beneath him, white flecked blue filling up his world.
The world was black. And soft. And somehow prickly and full of a dust that made Jonathon want to sneeze as he slowly climbed back into consciousness.
"Oh man, what a ride," whispered Jonathon into the darkness. And the darkness answered.
"You all right, boy?"
Jonathon jerked his eyes open and stared up. At a knight in shining armor.
Jonathon's jaw dropped and his eyes shot wide. He blinked and looked again. The knight was still there, his shining breastplate half covered with a kind of apron and red feathers rising from the top of the close visored helmet. Jonathon stared.
The knight raised a gauntletted hand to his visor and opened it to reveal a face, bearded and not unkind, then he lowered his hand and offered it to Jonathon. Jonathon took the hand and allowed himself to be helped to his feet. He looked around.
Jonathon was in a field dotted around with gaudily coloured tents and haystacks. Horses casually chewed on the haystacks and men wandered around dressed as knights and soldiers. To one side was the same gate he had entered, and halfway to it, the mangled remains of his bike. Jonathon took a few steps towards it and looked down at the ruined metal in dismay.
"About had it, I reckon," said the man from behind him, "Reckon you were lucky you came off so lightly." A metal shoed foot reached out to poke at the wreckage. "I'm Mark Beardsley, by the way, or for this weekend, the viscount Grünwald.
Jonathon almost spoke, closed his mouth and then screwed up his courage to ask, "umm, when exactly am I?"
"When?" the man looked puzzled then, as realisation dawned on his face, he threw back his head and laughed.
Jonathon, after his surprise wore down, glared at the man.
"Hehehe, 'When am I?'" the man slowly got over his mirth, bending almost double to catch his breath, "don't worry boy, you haven't found yourself a time machine, we're still in the good old twentieth century. We," and here the man straightened up and gestured expansively to the crowd of onlookers that had started to gather, "are The Noble Society Of The Knights of The Cross. Every weekend we gather to recreate all the most glorious battles of the Ages Of Chivalry. This weekend we recreate The Battle of Fortune Mound."
"You mean, you play soldiers? I didn't think grown-ups did that."
"Well," said the man with a weak grin, "maybe some of us aren't so grownup as we would like you to think."
Jonathon grinned back, "great, can I play?"
The man pulled back, "oh well, I don't know about that, we should get you home, your mother will probably be worrying."
"Please," said Jonathon, and gave the man that look that he had learnt worked so well in situations like this. The man looked flustered and ummed and ahhed a while, waving his hands in confusion.
"Well, I mean, we really should get you home. And besides, we've got everybody here. Apart from the drummer," the man looked again into Jonathon's puppy-dog pleading eyes and continued, flustered. "You see, my son usually does that but he's…."
"Great !" said Jonathon, with a big wide grin, "I can do that, I'm a brilliant drummer. Where do I go?" The man looked at Jonathon uncertainly, and then turned to the crowd for support and found no takers. Hidden in the crowd, somebody sniggered. The man gave in.
"Well, maybe, just for one battle, then we must get you home." The man turned back to the crowd and singled out one man. "Bob, could you see to the boy? Get him a costume and a drum?." The man was pretty sure it was Bob who had sniggered.
From the crowd a man stepped forward, youngish, tall and slender. He held himself slightly crouched, a self effacing posture but there was a twinkle in his eyes. He gestured to Jonathon to follow and turned away. Jonathon looked back at his knight but the man had already turned back to the gathered people and was gesturing them to return to their business. Jonathon followed the young man, Bob, hurrying to catch up.
"What's your name, kid? I can hardly call you 'boy' if you're going to be on our side, can I?"
"Jonathon," said Jonathon, "Jonathon McCollough."
"Bob Denton," said the man, "Corporal Bob Denton." And he stuck out his hand. Shyly, Jonathon took it.
"In here," said Bob, as they came to a gaudy red and white stripped tent, just like the ones Jonathon had seen at jousting tournaments in films about medieval knights. They entered.
Inside the tent there was a large pile of suitcases and bags of every size and colour. Bob started looking through the disorderly pile, shifting cases and bags back and forth with abandon.
"It's here somewhere," he muttered to himself, "or at least it was this morning."
While his new friend searched, Jonathon looked through some of the open cases. They were filled with brightly coloured cloth and wooden swords and shields and mysterious bits of leather and metal. Jonathon wished he knew what half of them were for.
"Here it is!" called Bob, Holding up a bright red jacket and white trousers, "should be a perfect fit too, Robert's about your size."
Soon Jonathon was dressed, the red jacket was crossed by two white bands, matching the trousers, that went from shoulder to hip, crossing in the middle. A small drum hung from the shoulders of the bands by two more strips of the same cloth, the drumsticks tucked behind the bands at Jonathon's chest. Jonathon wished he had a mirror, he was sure he looked fine. Bob thought so too. He looked Jonathon up and down and then nodded in satisfaction.
"Come on, let's not miss the action!"
The camp was virtually deserted as they walked through it, the few women left were gathered around a large barbecue range and trestle tables set up near. Jonathon felt his stomach rumble but he followed his new friend through the camp. Bob stopped of at one beat up old ridge tent for a moment and leant inside to emerge after only moments with a sword and helmet.
"I get to use a sword 'cos I'm a corporal," said Bob," last year I was only a private and had to use a pike." He led the way through and out of the camp, rounding an outcrop of the hill. Ahead, the soldiers were gathered in small groups around the slightly larger group that contained Mark Beardsley, the man who had found Jonathon in the haystack. Everybody around him wore armor of some kind and most had horses. All listened to him intently. As Bob and Jonathon approached the group, it was beginning to break up, with nods and handshakes all round so that by the time the two arrived, there were only a few well armored people left, all holding horses by the reins.
"Sire," said Bob, bowing low and nudging Jonathon to do the same. "I present master Jonathon, thy drummer."
Jonathon went down on one knee and bowed low toward the man, but keeping his eyes on the man's face. For a moment Mr. Beardsley seemed surprised and a little nonplused but soon recalled himself. He looked a little uncertain for a while and seemed as if he was about to speak. For a moment Jonathon panicked, thinking that the man might be regretting allowing Jonathon to join in his games. Jonathon thought quickly and remembered some words from a film he had watched with Martin only the week before.
"I pledge my life and my honour to my lord."
For a moment a quick smile flashed across the man's face and Jonathon worried that he might have got it wrong but the smile quickly vanished and the man replied with seriousness.
"Arise master Jonathon, you are welcome. Come and I shall explain your part in this glorious battle." The man gave Jonathon an approving grin and held out his hand to help him up. The man led Jonathon and Bob along a little way until they had a good view of the landscape around them and then began talking in a more normal voice.
"The enemy is camped in a little valley just behind those trees. In the days of the original battle that was a thick forest but there's not much left of it now. What we do is to sneak through the trees and line our forces up at the edge of the valley, then at the signal we all march down and set upon the enemy. Your job is to sound the advance. When we are all in position, I'll give you the nod and you start drumming. You should march out ahead of us until you reach the big rock. I'll point it out to you when we get to the trees. Once you get there, you let us overtake you and keep up the drumming from behind. Once the fighting starts, just stick with Bob and try to keep out of the way. OK?"
Jonathon frowned a little at the last part but nodded anyway. Once the fighting started he figured everybody would be too busy to keep an eye on him anyway.
Mr. Beardsley turned to Bob. "You keep an eye on the boy. Make sure he doesn't get hurt, right." Bob nodded.
Mr. Beardsley once more turned to look at Jonathon, this time eyeing his uniform with a somewhat critical eye. He reached out and gently straightened the collar of Jonathon's jacket then nodded in satisfaction. When he spoke again, it was in his 'Viscount Grünwald' voice.
"Go then and prepare for battle, far today we gain glory or death." Bob bowed and began slowly backing away, still bowing. Jonathon followed suit.
Once out of the august presence, Bob turned and started hurrying down the field toward the trees. "Come on, most of the others will be there already, if we don't hurry, we'll be late for the start."
Jonathon was already panting trying to keep up with the long strides of the tall man ahead of him. "Don't worry." He panted, "I'm the drummer. They can't start without me."
Bob slowed and looked toward the last of the soldiers disappearing into the trees. Then he shrugged and slowed. "I guess that's true at that." He smiled.
Once Jonathon had got his breath back he asked a question that had been on his mind for some time. "Do you do this all the time? Playing soldiers?"
"Well, not every week," said Bob, "but we usually manage to get out at least once or twice a month, and during the summer we usually get a whole week in, for one of the longer battles."
"What, around here?"
"Grief, no. We go all over the place. We've even been abroad a couple of times, that was fun, taking a load of swords and pikes through customs."
"But do you fight round here a lot?"
"What looking for more battles already? Maybe you'd better wait until you finish this one first." Bob grinned at Jonathon, Jonathon grinned back. "We usually fight this one every year, and a couple of others near here when we can."
"You mean you've fought this one before? Do we win?"
Bob stopped and turned to grin at Jonathon. "That, you'll just have to wait to find out. Quiet now, we don't want the enemy to hear us."
They had reached the beginning of the trees now. Carefully, the two picked their way through the branches toward the line of brightly dressed men at the far end.
"Of course," whispered Bob, "in the old days the forest was a lot thicker, wild and overgrown. The men would have been completely hidden from view."
When they reached the edge of the trees, they carefully looked out through parted branches. The land sloped gently away from the edge of the trees down into a little valley where the enemy was camped, a motley collection of brightly coloured pavilions and modern tents. The enemy soldiers were strolling about the camp seemingly oblivious to the men in the trees above them, although with the bright clothing the soldiers were wearing and the thinness of the branches it seemed strange to Jonathon that they could not be seen. About half way to the camp, there was a large rock, shaped somewhat like a horse's head. This, thought Jonathon, must be the rock he was supposed to stop at. While they were waiting, staring down the slope at the enemy camp, there was a rustling sound behind them. Jonathon looked round to see Mr. Beardsley sneaking up, leading his horse.
"Ready with your drums, boy? Good. We're all in place. You see the rock there? Yes? Good. You lead us as far as that rock then you let us pass and follow on behind. Now, just let me get on my horse and we're ready to go." There was more rustling as Mr. Beardsley, Viscount Grünwald, struggled aboard his horse. "Ready? Of we go!"
Jonathon stood up and started down the slope, beating his drum as he went. "Barum, ba-dum, barum, ba-dum." Loud and clear across the afternoon stillness. Behind him, the woods erupted in brightly coloured soldiery, on foot and on horseback, all following the sound of his drum. Jonathon stood up tall and stuck his chest out. The drumsticks were flying in his hands, bouncing up as high as his chin and then beating down again, just like in a military band. "Barum, ba-dum, barum, ba-dum." Ahead, in the valley, the enemy, stood, shock still and stared at the approaching army. Then they ran, here and there, to their tents, collecting their weapons. They had been caught completely off guard.
Jonathon strode, slow and steady, down the hill in time with his drum beats until he got to the horse headed rock where he stopped, silent, drumsticks poised. Then he gave a long loud drum roll that echoed of the sides of the hill, ringing clear across the valley, building up in both volume and tension until the sound filled the ears of all listening, paralyzing the opposing soldiers and making the horses and men of his own side dance to its thrumming. Then he stopped. As if rehearsed the silenced beat of the drum was taken up by the thudding of the horses hooves as they thundered past him, followed by the men, down the slope. The enemy archers managed one weak and misaimed volley before the attackers were on them, beating shields with the flats of swords and cutting great swathes through the enemy lines. The play-dead lay all about amid the mock carnage of the battle filed, some wounded groaning theatrically.
Bob Denton strolled up behind Jonathon.
"Right, that's it for us, we just wait here until it's all over." Jonathon looked him up and down then grinned.
"Yeah right," said Jonathon, "we just wait here." And then he took of at a run down the hill towards the battlefield.
"Hey, wait," shouted Bob behind him, then cursed and ran to follow the oblivious boy.
Bob had caught up with Jonathon by the time the boy had got as far as the edge of the battlefield and grabbed him by the arm.
"Wait up, Jonathon, you can't go in there, you'll get hurt."
"Why not," answered Jonathon pointing across the camp to a boy not much older than him waving a wooden sword almost bigger than the boy himself, "if he can do it , then I can."
"Yes, " said Bob, "but he's done it before, he knows what to do."
"Well, then", said Jonathon with a winning smile, "just tell me how to play." There was a chuckle from the ground at their feet.
"Give it up, Bob," the corpse said, "he'll win in the end."
"Yeah," said Bob, "well then he'll win with your gear." And he quickly bent down and grabbed the corpse's helmet and sword (which, luckily, was wooden).
"Okay," said Bob, over the corpse's weak protests, "just remember, if you get hit on the arms or legs, you're wounded, on the head or body, you're dead. Our colours are red and white, theirs are gold and black, just whack anyone wearing gold and black. And try not to kill anyone for real." Bob frowned.
"Okay," said Jonathon, jamming the oversized helmet on his head, and he rushed towards the centre of the camp where the battle still raged.
Jonathon was spotted as he approached the melee and a large man with a fierce black beard left the fray to yell and charge at him, swinging a wicked looking pike. Jonathon froze for a moment, almost regretting his desire to join in the battle, then the pike shuddered to a halt on the edge of Bob's sword and Jonathon, in panic, rushed in a swung his sword at the man's chest. There was a metallic clang and the man went down with a theatrical groan and a quick wink at Jonathon. Jonathon felt his chest expand with pride. Bob grinned.
"Well done, hero, sliced him right open. Come on, there's lots more." And Jonathon followed him into battle.
For the next half hour or so Jonathon and Bob fought, mostly round the edges of the melee. They made a good team. Bob would hold the enemies attention while Jonathon looked for his chance, and then slipped in, under the man's guard to catch him unawares with the flat of the wooden sword. Jonathon really tried to hit the men gently but he was sure that not all the groans he heard were acting. He was sure that some of the men had been saved from bruises only by the steel armour that they wore. Nevertheless, he was caught up in the excitement, eyes shining as he bounced from one fight to the next.
When finally Jonathon looked up from his fifth 'kill' of the day, he found that there were no longer any enemies nearby for him to fight. The camp was littered with men playing dead (although Jonathon had never before seen a corpse smoking a cigarette, he thought that came before!) most of the dead were in the black and gold of the opposition with only a few red and white among them. The few black and gold left were at the far end of the camp, making one last desperate stand against the obviously victorious red and white. Jonathon and Bob looked at each other and grinned, breathing deeply.
"Well, that's about it now." Said Bob, "we've got them on the run." Bob gestured towards the other side of the camp where the few surviving enemies were making their stand. "Shall we be in at the kill?" Jonathon nodded and the two set off. As they walked Jonathon slipped an arm around Bob's waist and looked up at him. Bob grinned down at Jonathon and laid his arm over the boy's shoulders giving him a quick hug. Arm in arm the two comrades walked the battlefield.
As the two walked toward the fighting the last of the black and gold, one for every two of the red and white, fell back and formed a line around their leader, a tall thin man whose jet black armour was topped off with a gold plume, and their was a small pause in the fighting. During the pause, Mr. Beardsley, unhorsed but unmistakable, looked around the battlefield and spotted the two figures marching towards him and came forward to greet them. Seeing their opportunity, the enemy made a surge and quickly cut him off from the rest of his men. The enemy troops stood in a line with their weapons pointed at the red and white ranks while the tall black armored leader strode forward with his sword raised and challenged Mr. Beardsley. By unspoken consent the two armies held themselves ready while the leaders circled each other warily and sparred cautiously, each probing the others defense. Jonathon and Bob stopped rigid, breath held.
The two leaders were oblivious to all around them as they circled, staring deep into each others' soul. The swords flickered between them, never making contact, always drawn back at the last possible moment, daring the other into an over hasty, fatal response. Suddenly there was a blur and a clash of metal on metal. None could say who made the first real attack of that bout but after that first, snake quick strike, the swords flickered and struck like lightning, an awestruck breathless exchange of thrust and parry and counter thrust, each attack countered and returned and re-countered, the tide of battle going first one way and then the other as each opponent first gave ground and then pressed forward. And always the clash of sword on sword, neither weakening, no mistakes. Then the breath was knocked out of Jonathon's body as Bob crashed into him in the wake of a black and gold blur.
Jonathon recovered his balance and looked up to see the back of the enemy soldier heading determinedly toward the two fighting knights. He looked down at Bob, lying now on the ground.
"Quick do something."
"Sorry, Jonathon, I can't. He got me. I'm dead."
Jonathon looked up again to where Mr. Beardsley was now trying to focus his attention, and his defense, on two assailants at once. A furious frown came over Jonathon's face and his teeth bared themselves in a deadly expression. Then Jonathon was moving, already as fast as a bullet and accelerating.
Mr. Beardsley was being pushed slowly back, further away from his men and slowly losing his command of the fight, beginning to know that he was going to lose, when there was a crunch and the black and gold newcomer was thrust forward, straight into the black knights attack, tangling his sword arm and pushing him off balance. Mr. Beardsley reacted by instinct alone in making that one all or nothing thrust, an insane attack against a prepared man, but one which worked in this case, against a man off balance and surprised. His sword point evaded the wild attempt at recovery and touched his opponent with a thud, straight over the heart. With a smile, the black knight went down, raising his sword in salute as he went. There was silence as the 'body' hit the ground. All eyes were on the small red and white figure now slowly raising itself from the ground and rubbing its sore head. After a moment the silence was broken, first by the clatter of metal as the defeated black army threw down their weapons, and then by the rising cheer of the red and whites. Jonathon looked around groggily then focussed on the nearby blur that slowly resolved itself into the bearded, armored form of Mr. Beardsley. Jonathon grinned up at him, weakly. Mr. Beardsley stared down at him for a moment and then threw back his head and roared with laughter.
"That, boy," he said once he'd recovered his breath, "is what I call really using your head."
There was nothing better, Jonathon reflected later, than sausages and burgers cooked over a bonfire. And with that thought, he reached out with his fork and speared a couple more of each. The other three men left around the fire stared in awe as Jonathon started to eat.
"Good god, Jon, where do you put it all." Said Mark Beardsley
"Burns it all off rescuing knights in shining armor", said Bob.
The third man around the fire, Mike Talbot, chuckled softly. Mike Talbot, the former black knight, did everything softly. He was a well spoken Englishman who claimed descent from the original black knight of the battle, though he grinned and winked as he said it. "Reminds me of my own boy, eats everything and never shows any of it. Well, speaking of families, I'd better get back to mine." He stood up and brushed off his hands, then offered one to Jonathon. Jonathon took it smiling. He liked Mike Talbot, when he wasn't being the black knight, the man had a talent for telling jokes, totally straight faced and serious, so that you had to think twice before you realized that this was a joke. Next, Mike shook Bob's hand. Mark Beardsley got up and walked him to his car.
Jonathon watched the two for a while until they disappeared into the gathering twilight and then leaned back to look into the darkening sky at the stars that were just beginning to make their appearance on the purple stage of the evening sky, beckoning the sparks from the fire to rise up and join them. This was a time of day that Jonathon had always enjoyed, a brief period of lassitude after the exertions of the day and before the battle to gain re-energising slumber. He chewed in companionable silence with his new friend, lost in the depths of the stars, warmed and ruddied by the crackling fire.
"Bob," said Jonathon.
"You'll be here next year as well, won't you?"
"Of course. We're here every year about this time."
"If I were to come next year, I mean would I be able to..."
Bob leant up on one elbow to look at his young friend and chuckled. "Of course, we wouldn't think of having the battle without you. Who would we get to save us from the black knight if not you?" He smiled. Jonathon turned his head toward Bob and smiled back. At that moment, a movement caught Bob's eye and he turned his attention back to the path down to the car park. Jonathon's eyes followed his.
Mark Beardsley and Mike Talbot were returning up the path, just emerging from the darkness, looking conspiratorial even at this distance.
"Jonathon," said Mark, as soon as the two were within hearing distance, "we've been thinking and we don't think it's right for people to know that the Black Knight was defeated by a drummer boy who wasn't even a proper member of the society." He paused and Jonathon's heart sank a little. "So we've decided that we have no choice but to make you a knight and an honorary member of The Knights of the Cross." And with that Mark held out his hand, the firelight glinting redly of something held within it.
Jonathon took the small piece of metal from Mark's hand. It was a small silverish shield, inscribed with a heraldic device, the copy of the design emblazoned on the chest piece of Mr. Beardsley's armour. Mike Talbot brought his hands from his back and Jonathon saw that he was holding a sword.
"Kneel Jonathon." Said Mr. Talbot. And Jonathon did so, facing Mr. Talbot, a few feet in front of him. Mr. Talbot gently rested the sword for a few moments on each of Jonathon's shoulders. "Arise, Sir Jonathon of Fortune Mound, and forever uphold the ideals of courage and nobility of the order of the Knights of the Cross."
Jonathon rose, grinning widely as he did so, still feeling the light touches of the sword on his shoulder. Impulsively, he rushed forward and tightly hugged the man in front of him. Mike Talbot looked uncertain and slightly embarrassed for a moment and then immensely pleased as he returned the boys embrace. After a while, Mark Beardsley harrumphed gently, his amusement showing in his voice.
"Well, now that that's over with, we'd better see about getting you home, it's getting late you know and summer holidays or not, your mother will be wondering where you are. I'll give you a ride home, I don't think your bike will make it."
Jonathon grinned up at him and then left Mike Talbot's arms to hug first Mr. Beardsley and then Bob Denton. Both men blushed with pleasure and some slight embarrassment. Finally, Jonathon left his new friend and stood up in front of Mr. Beardsley. "OK, ready when you are."
The ride home was quiet, apart from the directions Jonathon gave to his friend. Jonathon spent most of the time turning his medal over and over in his hands, memorising every curve and facet of the small piece of metal. He had Mark set him down at the entrance to his parents' housing estate, over the man's objections. For some reason, he did not really want his family to know where he had been today, or what he had been doing. It was he felt, something for him alone, a private triumph. Instead, he wheeled his bike the short way from the main road to their house, the bent wheel squeaking rhythmically. As soon as he turned the corner into his mother's road and saw the police car in front of his mother's house, he knew he was in trouble and was doubly glad he had elected to walk from the main road.
Jonathon laid his bike quietly in the corner of the garage and, after checking that the coast was clear, tried to sneak into the house through the garage door.
"Jonathon, is that you?"
Jonathon froze but his mother was already coming through the living room door. As soon as she saw him she rushed to him and drew him into her embrace, with Jonathon weakly trying to ward her off.
"Jonathon, honey, thank god you're safe, I've been so worried, where have you been." And then she stiffened and held him out at arm's length by his shoulders, giving him a little shake, "where have you been? Do you know what time it is? It's half past ten! Do you have any idea how worried we've been? Well? What have you got to say for yourself, young man?"
"Give over, mom. I just went for a bike ride, that's all."
"A bike ride? But you haven't got your bike here!"
"I found my old one in the garage."
"But that doesn't have any brakes," wailed his mother, "you could have been killed." Jonathon sighed in exasperation. Mothers!
"I take it," said a voice from the living room doorway, "that this is your missing boy?"
Over his mother's shoulder, Jonathon could see a remarkably young looking policeman, and behind him, his sister looking unashamed daggers at her little brother. His mother let go of him and turned to the policeman, putting an apologetic look on her face.
"Um, I'm terribly sorry officer. Yes that's him. I'm terribly sorry to have dragged you out here for no reason."
"That's okay, ma'am, better to be safe than to be sorry, yes?"
Jonathon tried to sneak out while his mother was busy.
"You stay right where you are, young man," said his mother, darting a glance at him which said 'later!'. Jonathon sighed again.
Once the policeman had gone, after refusing repeated offers of cups of tea and accepting repeated apologies, it was Jonathon's turn to endure interrogation. Despite everything all Jonathon would say that he had just gone out for a bike ride, employing that air of injured innocence that worked on everybody except his mother. Eventually, he was sent up to bed without supper, which did not really bother him as he was stuffed with burgers and sausages anyway.
Later that night Jonathon lay awake, turning his medal over and over in his hands. Jonathon McCollough, the hero of fortune mound. Well, he sighed, even heroes have mothers. And he turned over and went to sleep.