A short bit of fic inspired by asexualscripps wondering about the Peninsula Boys when they were very young. I read a book many years ago where the youngest characters are playing at soldiers while the older characters watch them in secret, so this is also inspired by that.
The boys are playing at soldiers again. The mothers pause in their companionable chatter over the mending basket and peep over the garden wall to see them pass.
Young Colley has his wooden sword drawn as he leads them in procession to the woods, their leader since Arthur was sent to school. He has his best red jacket on again, a woolen scarf tied around his waist like a sash and a tall hat folded out of paper. “He’s very proud of that coat,” whispers his mother as he goes by, “sometimes I think I’ll never get him out of it even at bedtime.” She’s quietly grateful though, that he minds his clothes more than the most boys and she can trust him to keep an eye on the others.
Jonny is carrying a big silver dish, borrowed without permission from his mother’s dresser, and his pockets are bulging with hard-boiled eggs and apples. “Little rascal,” says his mother fondly. He’s been demanding stories about the Raven King every bedtime for a month and decided to give up soldiering to be a magician (before that he was going to be an explorer, before that a knight). He has his copy of ‘A Child’s History of the Raven King’ tucked under one arm. His mother tried to make him leave it at home, for fear of it being torn or lost or dropped in the mud but he insisted a real magician needed books, even if he hadn’t quite learnt to read them yet.
The dish is too big for Jonny to carry without tripping over his own feet so Jeremy keeps trying to help him with it and offering to carry his book. Poor little Jeremy, his mother thinks but does not say in front of the other mothers, always a little more ragged than the other boys, always following Jonny about like a shadow and wanting to be noticed. He doesn’t have a sword like the others, only a branch from the garden with some of the twigs torn off and no father to make him a better one. It won’t be much good for sword fighting and he will be left out again. She worries about him even though he’s as good a boy as any mother could want. She wishes she had more to give him, so he could be equal to his friends.
Ned jogs along the road, catching up with the others with much puffing and panting. His mother groans quietly, covering her face with her hands while the others laugh, because his breeches are torn across the knee again and his bootlaces are in knots. She loves him so much, but she cannot understand how he can be so hard on all his clothes. Half the mending in the pile is his and Colley’s mother has been quietly alternating between his clothes and Ned’s to help out. He always seems to be running after something, always busy, coming home to announce ‘me boots is broke again’ and shying away from her maternal affection. Her little soldier is growing up already.
At the back of the group, Little William toddles manfully after the others on his chubby infant legs. He’s always been so determined to keep up with the older boys from the moment he could walk. His paper hat drags over one eye and his wooden sword is much too big. He is being left behind already and his dimpled face is all scowls and determination, with his lower lip sticking out. “It’ll end in tears,” his mother says, “it always ends in tears, but I haven’t the heart to stop him going with them.”
The boys turn off the lane and into the woods, their voices fading as they disappear between the trees. The mothers go back to the mending, because growing boys wait for no woman and the work is never done.
A few hours later, a wail is heard from the woods and William’s mother starts up from her bench. “That’s William crying, I know it is!” The other mothers flock with her to the garden gate. The party of little soldiers is coming back in disarray. Ned’s clothes are torn, Jeremy is laden down with sticks and swords and the book and Jonny’s dish has a big dent in the rim that his mother will scold him for later. Colley has a black eye coming and is carrying William. Poor William is the worst of the lot. His face is scratched across the nose and dirty, only clean where his tears have washed it. His knees are grazed and he looks as though he has been rolled in mud.
The boys gather around like a rowdy flock of birds. There was a fight, the mothers learn, with bigger boys from the next village who left them no choice at all but to fight back. Jeremy saved Jonny’s book, even after the other boys knocked him down, and is a hero for it. Jonny doesn’t know if he wants to be a solider or a magician now and wonders if there are any stories about fighting magicians. Ned never meant to tear his shirt across the shoulder, but he knows his Ma will think he did the right thing defending his friends. William was ever so brave for a little lad. Colley feels bad because he should have known what would happen, and kept a better eye on the others, but in the end, it was alright, wasn’t it Mother?
And in the end, all is well, because these are the usual scrapes of young boys and shirts can be sown, dents in dishes can be undone and bruises and scrapes can all be mended with kind hands and kisses. William’s mother shushes his crying and bathes his grazed knees. The soldiers are home safe from the wars and all can be forgotten when they become boys again and are sent in, by their mothers, for tea.