Willoughby and the dragon
Willoughby was a final year at St George’s School for Knights. His family was very much of the “with your shield or on it” persuasion, and in this respect, Willoughby was considered the black sheep of the family. In the normal course of things, being a third son, he would have been destined for the church, which would have suited him down to the ground. It was not so much that he was bookish, which the family could have tolerated, no, it was the continuous parade of animals large and small that were nursed back to health after being extracted from the jaws of a cat or dog, or found at the bottom of a tree with a broken wing, or – well the opportunities were endless really.
So, at the tender of age of eight, Willoughby was packed off to train to become a knight. The chivalry bit came easily, and he was always near the top when it came to the theory – and always at the bottom when it came to the practical knighting (except for ‘Care of Your Horse’).
Willoughby looked out of the Library window and sighed. He was completing an assignment for Heraldry, which he normally quite enjoyed; most of friends were off on a field trip for “Advanced Questing” though, and he was feeling quite blue. (It wasn’t that he envied them the time away, but he’d all but failed the pre-requisite General Questing course, and this was a reminder of his general inadequacy as a knight). He sighed again and then turned as first year coughed politely and said, in a piping treble:
“Excuse me, sir, but Sir Edric would like to see you.” The youngster turned away, and then turned back “Right away”, he added apologetically.
Sir Edric was Willoughby’s Personal Tutor, and the school’s Exams Officer. He was relatively new to the school, having joined the teaching staff the year before (hence having been handed the less than plum job of Exams Officer). Sir Edric was berry-brown from twenty years of crusades in hot climes; settling back into the damp weather of home had made him rather irascible.
“AH! Willoughby!” Sir Edric boomed. “Sit down, sit down, don’t stand on ceremony!”
Not one for pleasantries, Sir Edric came straight to the point: “We have a problem, Willoughby. Your overall exam grades mean that you can’t graduate, even if you ace your finals.”
“Oh…that’s certainly a problem for me, but I don’t see that it’s a problem for anyone else.”
“You’ve been here long enough to know that schools such as ours are reviewed every five years, if we want to keep our licence. This year is a quinquennial, and it is also the centenary of the school: we are expecting the King to come and visit and perhaps even to present us with an ‘Honour’.
“That sounds like a great…honour?”
“It is indeed. However, that will not happen if we don’t have a licence, and our licence will not be renewed if do not maintain certain standards. Suffice it to say I have several difficult conversations to endure today, but yours is perhaps the most challenging.”
“I’m sorry to have put you to such trouble, Sir Edric.” Willoughby said this without a trace of irony or resentment, the old knight waved the comment away.
“Part of the problem is our completion rate, and you Willoughby put us just on the wrong side of the threshold. Therefore, there are two options. The first is that you leave the school, now, forever, and forsake the chilvaric arts; the second is that you undertake a quest of sufficient magnitude to allow us to compensate your grades in other courses.”
“Well, of course, I’d be very happy to oblige you if I could, but I don’t think my family would be very happy if I just left the school.”
“No, I don’t believe they would, and of course one of your uncles is on the Board of Governors – it would look bad for him if you left.”
“What sort of task will I have to do?”
“Well there’s a look-up table for this sort of thing. Just review this for me would you and check that you agree as to the aggregate shortfall. Shortfall did not actually do the underperformance in key areas due credit. Long plunge might do better. They looked at tables and subtables and tried to assess what would need to be done. Clearly assisting a pilgrim across the road would not cut the mustard in this situation. Sir Edric looked over his half-moon spectacles at the lad before him.
“Well Willoughby, it looks as though you’ll have to take on a dragon. I’d let you do ten rounds with Fizzlewick, but it needs to be a category 3 beast, and the school mascot is definitely passed his best these days.”
Willoughby looked pale, but not actually sick. Still a category 3 dragon for an untested, and, by his grades, poor knight was tantamount to murder.
“I suppose that if I fail, the school would still be off the hook?”
“Only if you die, or are so badly injured that you could not continue to attend the school” said the old knight, not unkindly.
At that moment the duty squire ran in and with a lack of decorum breathlessly spilled out his message:
“There’s a peasant in the courtyard, Sir Edric, he say’s that a huge dragon has settled on the slopes of Mount Orison!”
“Well!” Sir Edric rubbed his hands together. “No time like the present!”
“No sir.” The reply was less enthusiastic.
It takes a little time to get that sort of expedition together, but as quickly as they could the small cavalcade set out: Willoughby, the overeager first year as his squire, a couple of yeomen to do the heavy lifting, Sir Edric and a few others as observers. They made good time to Mount Orison, set up a small camp at the base. The next morning, Willoughby and his squire set out.
Edric and his cronies knew that nothing would happen for a while, but the youngsters in the party kept their ears open, hoping to hear the sounds of battle joined. It was something of a surprise then, when the squire came crashing back into camp in the late morning.
“What…what… was the…ex-act wording of the task?” he stammered breathlessly.
“What?” Sir Edric exploded. “What’s that got to do with anything? Isn’t one of them dead yet?”
“Please, Sir Edric,” the boy said, unapologetic in his excitement. “Willoughby says it’s very important.”
Sir Edric pulled out the parchment, huffing as he did so, muttering. “Hmmm…it says that the candidate needs to defeat a category 3 dragon.”
“That’s all it says, sir? No caveats?”
“Defeat a dragon, I said, and defeat a dragon is what is written here!”
“Oh, that is good news!” The squire ran off and rummaged in some saddle bags, and sprinted off back up the mountainside with something clutched in his hands.
“O, to be young again” Sir Edric said, to no one in particular.
Some of the younger knights wanted to see what was going on straight away, but more experienced heads prevailed, and they actually set off once luncheon had time to settle. They walked cautiously up the wooded hillside, but a party of knights, squires and all the rest do not walk quietly, and so Willoughby’s assistant had ample warning of their arrival. He met them, at the edge of a clearing and put his fingers to his lips.
“It’s a very delicate stage” he whispered, “two games each, one to play.”
They stared out into the clearing where a large, winged dragon lay sprawled on the ground, looking for all the world like a tapestry rendition of a hunting hound. Close enough to feel the dragon’s exhalation from the cavernous nostrils, which, incidentally continually plumed thin tendrils of steam, Willoughby sat awkwardly in his armour. Between the two combatants was a board. A nine mens morris board. Each contemplated a move, placed a stone and waited for the other. occasionally a piece was knocked off the board.
“It was incredible, ” the first year exclaimed to Sir Edric, “Willoughby challenged the dragon, and then offered to parley. The dragon agreed, said he’d not had a decent conversation in twenty years. They chatted and the dragon said that he was an undefeated champion at stones, so I ran back to check about the wording. They agreed to a five game tourney. If Willoughby loses, the dragon eats him. If the dragon loses, he has to come and be the new school mascot!”
Speechless, Sir Edric gaped at the scene, his jaw dropping even lower as the dragon suddenly rolled over its back, paws over its muzzle. Willoughby got stiffly to his feet and started as he saw the crowd at the edge of the clearing.
“I’m not sure what your father would say, but you have completed the letter of the quest which you have undertaken, and that’s good enough for me. Mind you, I’m not sure wha the Board of Governors will make of it either – that dragon is going to be a lot more expensive to feed than Fizzlewick. It was at that moment, that they realised that several of the part were down on one knee. They turned: the King had arrived unnoticed, and so they joined the rest of their group in obeisance.
The King’s clenched armoured fists bashed down on Willoughby’s pauldrons – first the right shoulder and then the left. “Well done, Sir Willoughby” His Majesty said as he handed the new knight a sheathed sword.
© David Jesson, 2018
It was killing me. My Ma had made me promise I’d not get into any fights, and I didn’t know what else I could do. Finally storming out, I threw dirty looks at them villans as I went, before slamming the door behind me. It still killed me for I knew they was doing wrong, and that poor kid … how must he’ve been feeling? Still steaming, I raged round the playground, kicking an old coke can as I went – but it didn’t help. Problem was, there was no pleading with my Ma that I’d good reason to defend a kid being bullied, she’d just tell me “there’s always another way Sean, now be off with you.”
Thing is, when I was smaller, I was that kid. Small, skinny, spotty – the only thing I was missing was a pair of specs. They’d picked on me mercilessly. There were no broken bones to point to, only a bit of pushing ‘n shoving and loads of tripping me up as I walked past – it was more what they said. They were pretty nasty. They made me feel an outcast, that nobody liked me. It was lonely and miserable, and I hated coming to school because of them. The thing I didn’t understand was that they weren’t secretive about it, most times they made sure they had an audience for their nasty work. And that’s what really hurt – ‘cos when nobody helps, when nobody stands up for you or beside you, then what’s a lad to believe other than they don’t like you? You don’t get they’re relieved they aren’t the target for the bullies and if they say anything at all, they’ll be next. It’s not nice, very not nice.
The teachers and the headmaster, they did nothing either, ‘cept shrug and say “chin up” or “you’ve got to stand up to bullies”. Yeah, loads of help that sort of advice. So I went to see my Uncle Stan. He runs a gym. I knew My Ma wouldn’t be happy but, what’s a lad to do? You can’t allow ’em to get away with it, can ya? He helped me get fit, build up some strength, get some muscles … then he taught me to box. It didn’t take long to put that lot flat on their backsides. They learned to leave me alone soon enough.
But there’s always another victim just waiting in the wings ain’t there, and soon they had another target for their nasty behaviour. ‘Course, I couldn’t stand by, could I? I had to weigh in, tell ’em to be off ‘n all that malarkey. They were grateful, the erstwhile victims, and soon they were all trooping into Uncle Stan’s gym too. Then the bullies upped their game by recruiting from the local gangs. That’s when the fights started … and they quickly got out of hand.
Those of us who was caught got suspended from school, and my Ma – well, she hit the roof. She’d never liked my Da’s brother Stan and now she banned me from going to the gym. I begged her – I’d no shame at all – I just all out begged. It took a good long while but by the time my suspension was over, I was allowed my gym visits. It’d cost the strict promise that I’d stop fighting and it didn’t take long for that to get round at school … so the bullies started up again. As my Uncle Stan would say “it’s enough to break a geezer’s bleedin’ heart”.
A week or so later and I’d almost decided to start bunking off school ‘cos I couldn’t stand watching the bullies wrecking havoc again, when Uncle Stan popped round. I’d spilled the beans to him about how not being able to do something about the bullying was doing my head in, and he’d had an idea. Much to my surprise, my Ma thought it was a good idea too – never been seen before, my Ma and Uncle Stan on the same side. They both went to see the headmaster and he’d agreed to give it a go. They wouldn’t tell me what it was, just persuaded me to give school another go from the next Monday.
Monday dawned and I saw the usual picking on smaller kids happening on the bus, so I got off and walked. Still couldn’t get away from it, ‘cos different bullies were pushing ‘n shoving kids on their bikes so that drivers were shouting at the kids too. By the time I got to class, I felt like my head was exploding. Doing the register was the usual zoo, so it took me a while to notice him. He was stood next to Mr D, wearing a good suit and a great watch. He didn’t smile, just his eyes went round the room, taking in all the nonsense that went on every day. As Mr D was asking for quiet to introduce him, he held his hand up and strode to the back of the classroom. It was then I noticed they had one of the littlest kids in the corner and that he was crying. “Enough!” He didn’t shout, but the classroom went silent immediately – even Mr D! “What do you think you’re doing?” he asked the bullies. “Think this makes you a big man do you?” A couple of them had the sense to look uncomfortable, the rest shrugged, but Moz – ever the ringleader – said “so, what of it?” The man drew the little kid to his side “come sit at the front by me” and “you!” pointing to Moz, “you’re going to be the first in my lesson.” He’d never raised his voice throughout, yet he’d sounded gentle to the little kid and deathly serious to Moz. That’s when he caught my eye “alright Sean?” and with a nod and a smile like you’d never believe you’d see from a hard geezer like him, he sat down. That’s when it hit me – he was Uncle Stan’s solution.
The rest of the morning passed peacefully. If Moz or any of his lot started with the smart remarks, one look from him was all it took to shut ’em up. We learned more in that half day than in weeks. In the last lesson before lunch, Mr D introduced our visitor “This is Charles and he’s here to talk to us about making choices.” Moz had started with his usual jabber when our visitor said “excellent, a volunteer, up you come then.” He then proceeded to tell us a story. A story about a young man who thought he was the business. A young man who was physically strong and learned that he could get his own way by using that strength. A young man who found the kind of people who wanted to be his mates were as he put it “the kind of geezers you wanted beside you in a fight”. This geezer made a good name for himself as a cage fighter and had lots of money to splash about. You could see Moz nodding – he liked the sound of that, even better, he thought Charles was telling him he could be just like that geezer. Till Charles told him how the day came when that geezer’s friends didn’t stand beside him. When he lost a fight ‘cos of too much hard living and not enough training, when he kept losing and had no money to splash about. His mates didn’t want to know no more. They wouldn’t even offer him their sofa for a night after he lost his place. Like he said, he could take care of himself on the street, but … what a come down, what a life, what a miserable existence.
Then one day, someone whose face he vaguely recognised from school spotted him huddled in a doorway. This guy took him home, ran him a hot bath, gave him some spare clothes and shared his evening meal with him. Then he gave him pillows, a duvet and blankets, even a spare pair of pyjamas and wished him a good night’s sleep on the sofa. And he’d had one. Probably the first one in ages. In the morning, the guy cooked breakfast for them both and then invited him to stay while he was out at work. Told him to help himself to food, to watch TV, to rest, to read, just asked that he leave his daughter’s room alone as she’d be staying at the weekend. Amazed, Charles had asked him “why?” to which the guy had answered “because you needed it.”
Charles stayed that day, then the weekend, watching his friend spend time with his young daughter, joining in when he felt it was right. The next Monday, he asked his friend if he could use his address to apply for some jobs. His friend had simply nodded and smiled. Clean and smart, he got the first job he applied for. It wasn’t anything special, but he’d done it to the best of his ability. He kept getting work, he gave his friend money for rent and food, and watched his friend put the money into a big pink pig moneybank. As time went on, it struck him that he liked knowing he was contributing to the future of his friend’s daughter. The jobs he was offered got better, for he was getting good references. He kept his nose clean, he worked hard, he listened and learned.
One day someone recognised him and offered him a fight. He said no. But he did return to a gym – my Uncle Stan’s gym – and he started to train. This time round he started to encourage the other gym users, to teach them what he knew. In no time at all, Stan saw he had the potential to become a coach and suggested he get proper qualifications. While he was looking at courses, he spotted some about self-development and life coaching. And he’d done those too.
He lived in his own small place now, but he still spent time with his friend, he still put money into that pink moneybank which his friend had accepted reluctantly, but now did with a smile. Then he met someone – a fiesty, intelligent woman – and they got married, having two children quickly. All this time, he was working as a coach – developing young people both physically and mentally. He started to give talks, to tell people about his life, and about the choices he’d made – both bad and good. These days he was what was called a Motivational Speaker. “And guess what?” he asked them, “I earn more money doing that than I ever did fighting.” The classroom was abuzz, before he made his closing remark “Make good choices. If you’re strong, help those who are not. If you have plenty, share with those who have nothing. Moz, the first lesson is yours, the rest of you, put your name on the sign up sheet.”
Someone from Moz’s gang raised their hand – a first – “what you going to teach us Sir?” He smiled that huge smile again “technically it’ll be martial arts, but you’ll also be learning discipline, hard work, patience … and how to make good choices.”
As we all filed out into the corridor, Moz sought me out “How come you never said you knew such a cool geezer?” I grinned. For there was no doubt that Charles had physical presence, but they were all listening because he was cool.
© Debra Carey, 2018