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Not So Little
Thrash. Thrash. Thrash.
John Little let the rhythm of the scythes carry him away. He swung his own scythe hard and watched as the wheat fell from its stalks. It reminded him of the trees that had fallen in the great storm last year. He recalled the great oak—he used to be the only one who could climb it because he was the only one tall enough to reach its branches. It had held him for many years. Then the storm came, and it finally broke under the strain of the wind and the rain. They found it, its roots sticking up out of the ground. The wheat wasn’t like that—they cut that at the knees, but it still refused to grow back without another seed.
His father used to help him harvest the crop, but then he had left with King Richard on the Crusades. John had heard no word from his father in four years, when John was thirteen. Since then, John had lived alone, as his father’s sole kin, working the small farm he had alone. It was difficult—even as he reaped the wheat, he tried to ignore the gnawing hunger in his stomach—but he had survived.
The peaceful rhythm of his scythe was suddenly disturbed when something knocked John over from the side. He dropped the scythe, which flew back several feet away from him and whatever it was that knocked him down. He sent up a prayer of thanks that he had not landed on it. He got up and saw what had knocked him over: a young man, probably no more than twenty. The man was blonde, his face bear. He was short, and next to John’s monstrous height, the man looked like a dwarf. He was dressed in Lincoln green with a quiver on his back with a long bow in his hand.
“Sorry, friend,” the stranger said as he got up. “Don’t tell anyone you saw me!” he cried as he ran off into the field of wheat. The wheat was tall and the man short, so he soon disappeared out of sight. John walked a few feet and picked up his scythe. He was about to resume his reaping when he heard hoof-beats. He turned. It was the Sheriff of Nottingham.
The sheriff was known to be ruthless, but also successful. He tracked down his prey relentlessly, never resting until he had captured and, usually, killed them. John felt a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach—there was no way he was just telling the sheriff he hadn’t seen whoever this man was. He was too afraid of what the sheriff would do to him and his family if he found out he had lied.
“You there! Did you see a man in Lincoln green?” the sheriff called. John noted that he was almost as tall as the sheriff was when he sat on his horse.
“Yes, sir,” John replied.
“Where did he go?”
“He went into the field, sir.” The sheriff scanned the field, his cold, green eyes flitting here and there to find the outlaw. After a moment, he dismounted and picked up two flint stones. He began to rub them together over the wheat. He started a small flame that began to spread through the wheat.
“What are you doing?” John asked, shocked.
“Burning the devil out!”
“But that’s my crop! That’s all I have for food and taxes and tithes!”
“I don’t care!” John stared as the crop went up in flames. He watched helplessly as it engulfed his field, and began to creep towards his cottage. He watched the fire swallow up his cottage, and with it everything he had to his name. Gone. Everything was gone. And all for a stranger in Lincoln green who did not want to be found.
John stood in the same spot until evening fell. By that time, the fire had died down. The sheriff’s brutality yielded no productive results—he was still no closer to finding the outlaw than before. Indeed, John suspected that the fire had only given the outlaw an advantage by distracting the sheriff from finding his trail. With no further reason to stay, the sheriff had returned to his castle, leaving John to survey the wreckage that was once his home. When he finally moved again, it was with trembling, not from fear or cold, but from anger. Yet there was little he could do—the sheriff had the authority to burn down the cottage unless the lord protested, and as the sheriff was also John’s lord, there was little chance that John could lobby him for a protest.
All John could do was walk away. He was unsure of what he would do, how he would live, but he knew that he could not remain there. Perhaps he could offer his services to the king and join the Crusaders. Maybe he could travel to the sea and become a sailor. No, he could not think about it then. His head was still spinning from losing his home. He had no idea where he was going or what he would do, only that he had to get away. Get away. Get away. Get away.
The moon was high in the sky when John was finally able to begin to think again. He was not sure where he was—he was in the middle of a great forest, dark and thick. He had never ventured into the forest before. His father had forbidden it. Now he was lost in the woods, bears and wild hogs surely lurking behind every tree and rock—or, at least that was how it seemed to John. He stopped at a fallen tree and sat down. He realized he had not dropped his scythe in all the time between when the sheriff had burned down his home and then. He stood up and looked along the fallen tree. A long branch, about as long as John was tall, protruded from the great log. John took his scythe and proceeded to hack the branch from the tree.
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!
It was like the rhythm of reaping, but harsher, more raw—angrier. Unlike the wheat, the tree resisted. At times, it felt like the tree only grew stronger with each blow. Nevertheless, he refused to stop. The anger of the day needed an outlet, and the tree was unfortunate enough as to look useful to John.
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!
John imagined that he was reaping wheat. No, it was not right—wheat did not resist. Wheat grew upwards, so his thrashing should be sideways instead of up and down. He closed his eyes. As he brought down the scythe, he saw the sheriff staring up at him, terrified as the scythe fell upon his neck.
The branch fell off the tree trunk. John peeled the bark off—an easy task as the branch was quite dry. It was a good staff. It was long enough, which was a rarity considering John’s unusual height. The ends were jagged—the end that had connected the branch to the tree was half-cut, half-broken. The other end had obviously been broken off the tapered end of the branch when the tree fell. That suited John just fine as whatever had been broken off most likely would have come off the first time he tried to use the staff anyway.
John ran his hand over his new staff. It reminded him of the staff his father made for him when he was a little boy. His father, Peter Little, knew how to use a quarterstaff. It was part of the family reputation—any man who crossed a Little with a quarterstaff was a dead man. By the time he was ten, his father had taught him so well that John could beat any man within five miles of their home. John had not owned his own staff since before his father left—no time and no use.
Lying down on the fallen tree, John looked up at the stars through the trees. There was the big dipper, with the North Star off its handle. He remembered his father telling him he would use it to find his way through the Holy Land and back home. His father was looking up at the same star, under the same sky. He wondered if he was thinking about him. He hoped he would never come back—John could hardly bear to imagine having to explain what had happened to anyone, especially his father.
On the thirteenth day after the sheriff had burned his home, John set out, staff in hand, to find shelter. He did it as he was learning to do most things—haphazardly, aimlessly, hoping lazily that he would find something. It was not that he was incapable of finding a better, more effective manner of seeking a new home, it was that he could only bring himself to almost care. Alone in the woods with no money and no family, he would hardly last long with or without shelter. The only reason he bothered was because it gave him something to do while he waited for someone to kill him.
After a few hours, John found a stream with a fallen tree serving as a bridge. It was narrow and treacherous, though the stream’s current was slow and it did not look deep. Nevertheless, John did not feel like taking a swim that morning, and so he began to carefully plan how he would cross the stream. His plans were interrupted when he saw a figure on the other side of the stream, looking at him.
At first he thought it was the Lincoln green stranger—he wore the same clothes. However, a quick inspection of the figure proved otherwise. He had a different posture than the other stranger, walking and standing as one with pride and self-confidence, much like a nobleman. The proud stranger had brown hair, and a well trimmed beard covered his face. His face was round with well-defined cheek bones and a dimpled chin that looked like it was chiseled out of stone. He was also older than the Lincoln green stranger—probably in his early thirties. On his back, much like the Lincoln green stranger, was a quiver full of arrows, and in his hand was a longbow.
The stranger approached the other end of the fallen tree. He stood, as though waiting for something.
“Well?” John called.
“Well what?” the stranger asked, flashing a jaunty grin at John.
“Aren’t you going to step aside? I can’t cross with you standing there.”
“Me move? Au contraire, my friend, I must insist that you move!” The stranger’s brown eyes were twinkling, excitement brewing inside him. John, however, was not so joyous.
“I was here first—you move!” The stranger pulled an arrow from his quiver and drew it on his bow.
“Why should I?” John eyed the bow. He gripped his staff more tightly, his knuckles whitening.
“You let that arrow fly and I’ll go to you and thrash you,” John threatened. The stranger laughed. John was beginning to suspect that this man enjoyed fights.
“Oh, would you? You should know that if I were to let this arrow fly, it would hit you directly in your heart and you would be dead by the time you even began to move to thrash me!” John might have stepped aside at that point, for even as hopeless as he was he still wished to avoid death whenever possible, but the twinkle in his adversary’s eyes seemed to taunt him, dare him to come forward. John was almost certain: this man enjoyed challenges.
“That’s a coward’s play, threatening me with an arrow when I only have a staff. If you must fight me, come against me like a man, not from your safehouse on the other side of the river.” The stranger sobered suddenly. He took the arrow from the bow and put it back in the quiver.
“Coward—now that’s something I won’t stand. Alright, man, I’ll meet you on your terms. I’ll take a staff and we’ll fight it out on this bridge.” The stranger took off his quiver and put down the bow. He took his sword from its scabbard and used it to cut down a sapling nearby. He quickly stripped it, as John considered whether or not he should attempt to cross without fighting. It was an alluring thought, but something told John that this stranger would not simply let him off the hook. Eying the quiver and bow, John decided that fighting this stranger was his only option. He nervously wrung his staff with his hands. He calmed himself down by noting his adversary’s height—or lack thereof. The man was only about five feet tall. John had once measured himself—he was about six and a quarter feet, and he was still growing. This scamp was hardly anything more than a dwarf to John. It would be two swift blows and then the stranger would be in the stream and John on his way.
The stranger took his newly-hewn staff and then carefully stepped onto the bridge. John inched forward, careful not to fall in before the bout began. The stranger, being no coward, took the first strike. John blocked, but was surprised by the strength of the blow. The stranger swung his staff under John’s block and hit John’s stomach. He gasped as he stumbled backwards, almost falling off the bridge, but he regained his balance and his breath. John eyed the stranger grimly. He would not be so easy to beat after all.
John twirled his staff as he stepped forward. He swung his staff towards the stranger’s head. The stranger blocked. John shifted the staff so that the other end swung towards the stranger’s head. The stranger was a bit clumsy with his staff, and attempted to shift his staff similarly to block John’s strike, but was not fast enough. He hit John’s staff, but on the outside, so he inadvertently strengthened John’s blow to his head.
The stranger nearly fell off the bridge, but he bent over and grabbed the bridge with his left hand, holding his staff in his right. There was blood dripping from the stranger’s temple as he stood back up. The playful glint in his eyes was gone—now he was angry. Why did he start a fight if he was not ready for a thrashing, John wondered, especially a fight with a man over a foot taller than him?
Pulling himself up, the stranger rushed at John, trying to jab his staff into his stomach again. John ordinarily would have merely stepped aside, but as there was no place to step onto if he tried that, he brought his staff down hard on the drive, causing the stranger to bend over. John wasted no time taking advantage of the moment, twirling his staff around to hit the stranger in the gut. The stranger stumbled backwards, dazed. John swung the staff at the stranger’s head, this time hitting him on the other temple. The stranger wobbled, and John dealt the final blow. He swung the staff at the stranger’s feet, tripping his adversary. The stranger fell off the bridge into the stream with a great splash.
John walked across the bridge and descended to the edge of the stream to make sure the stranger was alright. The stranger was swimming towards the bank, his eyes cloudy, as though dazed. John helped him onto the shore when he reached the bank. The twinkle in the stranger’s eye was returning. He pulled a horn from his belt and let loose with three long, strong blasts. John was not sure what that meant, but he did not think it could mean anything good for him.
Sure enough, within seconds the area was teaming with men in Lincoln green, brandishing swords and bows with drawn arrows. John looked around nervously. The treacherous wretch! He had only agreed to the fight because he knew that if he lost he could call in his army of bandits to kill John.
“What is it, sir?” a voice from behind John called. John turned to see who was speaking. To his surprise, it was the Lincoln-green stranger from the fortnight before. “Is this scalawag giving you trouble?”
“No, no, Will, nothing like that,” the stranger said.
“What is the meaning of this?” John stammered out.
“I like you, friend,” John’s adversary said, wiping some blood off his head. “You’re good. I want you to run with us, to be a member of Robin Hood’s band of merry men.”
“Who’s asking?” John asked.
“Robin Hood is asking,” the adversary said, standing up proudly. John could have laughed out loud. Robin Hood was a living legend in Nottingham. His exploits against the wealthy of county were retold over fires at night, whispered lest the sheriff hear. When children were naughty, their parents told them that Robin Hood would come for them. Yet here he was, a mere five feet tall, sopping wet, beaten by a boy of seventeen winters!
“I-I suppose I could,” John stammered, trying to refrain from laughing. The men cheered.
“Wonderful!” Robin Hood exclaimed. “But what is you name?”
“My name is John Little,” John said. The forest echoed with laughter as the men guffawed at this. John smiled—he had seen the same reaction many a time.
“That won’t do,” the Lincoln-green stranger insisted. “We’ll re-christen you!” The men cheered as they advanced towards John. Robin Hood laughed as he watched his merry men seize the giant and dump him into the stream. John stood up in the water. The men laughed harder when they realized that the water that Robin Hood had nearly drowned in barely reached up to John’s chest.
“We now christen thee Little John,” the Lincoln-green stranger announced, imitating a pompous clergyman. Robin Hood took John by the shoulder and led him out of the stream.
“How old are you, Little John?”
“Seventeen winters,” John said. Robin looked surprised.
“Only a boy! And already you are one of the strongest men in Sherwood Forest. Don’t worry, Little John. I’ll teach you to hunt and creep through the forest, to fire an arrow straight and far--you’ll be the merriest of my merry men. I’ll teach you all I know.” Littlejohn smiled. For the first time since his father had left he felt that he had a friend.