Forbidden Forest: The Story of Little John and Robin Hoodby Michael Cadnum
Little John lives a lifetime of adventure—from humble ferryman to legendary outlaw John Little is strong enough to be a knight, but he knows he is destined to life as a thief. He spends his days on the river, poling nobles back and forth on a wooden ferry, the master of which robs the passengers blind. When an arrogant knight draws his sword to protect/b>… See more details below
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Little John lives a lifetime of adventure—from humble ferryman to legendary outlaw John Little is strong enough to be a knight, but he knows he is destined to life as a thief. He spends his days on the river, poling nobles back and forth on a wooden ferry, the master of which robs the passengers blind. When an arrogant knight draws his sword to protect his purse, John defends his unscrupulous boss. The struggle leaves the knight dead, and John becomes an outlaw who must flee into the forest to hide from the king’s justice. John thinks his life is over, but his adventure has just begun. In shadowy Sherwood Forest, John meets a mysterious bandit dressed in green, who goes by the name Robin Hood. At Robin Hood’s side, John Little becomes “Little John”—friend of the poor, defender of the weak, and scourge of evil men across Nottinghamshire.
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The Story of Little John and Robin Hood
By Michael Cadnum
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Michael Cadnum
All rights reserved.
Flood spread out over the fields.
Gusts of wind blew cold across plow land silver with water. This was the first sunny day in weeks, and the mud hens swam across the pastures.
A mole tried to make its way across a puddle, flushed from its underground hiding place. Instead of paws, the earth dweller — a soft-furred, eyeless creature — had dark, glovelike appendages, and it struggled, floundering silently in the brown water.
John Little knelt and picked up the struggling animal, no bigger than his thumb. The snouty, helpless creature lifted its head, its heart thrumming wildly in John's palm. In the dark earth, John knew, the animal had a silent, undisturbed kingdom. Here in daylight it was easy prey for fox and cat.
John gently tucked the mole into a mound of turf.
"Hide safely, friend," he said as the mole vanished, tufts of wet soil kicking up in its wake.
A step splashed beside John as he surveyed the wide river. A merchant with two gold rings on his sword hand paused on the sodden bank. "Is it safe to ferry across the river this day?" he asked.
John straightened and looked the merchant up and down. A wool man, by the look of him, garbed in a blue mantle, his kid-leather leggings spotted with mud. John was much taller than the merchant, who drew himself to his full height and looked around for his companions.
"My master and I," said John, "gamble our lives on the river with every crossing."
The current churned. Stones rumbled deep within the river. The angle of a peasant's roof, narrow skeletal timbers, tossed and spun as the river carried it past. A fisher had drowned upriver some three days past, his body stuck in the branches of a drift tree that had carried him by this very bank. John had watched him float by, ravens struggling over his body.
"We'll wait," said the wool man, "for the river to go down."
"It won't go down until Easter," chortled Simon the ferryman, John's master; the holy day was still weeks away. "Come aboard, my lords, all of you."
The travelers hesitated — wisely, John thought. There were four merchants and a sturdily built knight, as well as their horses, placid, stalwart cobs. Months of winter and late winter rains had forced merchants to keep within city walls. Now that spring was here, such men hurried toward London, carrying gold and heavily armed.
Simon chuckled. "We won't let you feel a drop."
The travelers stepped onto the ferry, clinging to their horses and eyeing the tumbling river. At the last moment, as John pushed the ferry away from the bank, another passenger hurried breathlessly onto the vessel.
He was a leathery, quick-moving man with a scar along his neck.
John poled the loaded ferry away from the wharf into the afternoon sunlight. Only a young man of strength could have propelled the vessel forward so steadily. A branch swirled and bobbed in the current. John hefted the pole free of the muddy bottom and plunged it in again, levering the ferry into the middle of the river. This was far more dangerous than any of the well-muscled merchants could guess — one slip, one instant of inattention, and the current would wrestle the ferry downriver.
"Speed, John, right speed or I'll rake a leather strap to your back," said Simon in a cheerful voice.
John gave a nod and sank the ferry pole deep. Simon always threatened dire discipline when passengers were present. But as payment for John's labor, Simon let him sleep in the cottage corner on a rush pallet each night, with broth of eel, river fish, and warm loaves of bread to sup upon, as much as John could want. The ferryman knew rhymes, danced to pipe and song, and could steal the buckle from a burgher's belt while wishing him good day.
John used his strength to propel the ferry forward, closer to the opposite bank, still a far-off gathering of low cottages with thatched roofs, cooking smoke sifting out across the river. It took a strong will and a deft eye to keep the ferry angling toward the staithe, a wharf along the water. The ferry groaned and shrugged as it floated over a half-submerged log, and John set his teeth at the rumble that ran through the vessel.
"John's a hearty lad, but he needs a stout kick to keep him wide awake," said Simon with a laugh, looking at the ferry passengers around him. The merchants chuckled without humor, eager to be free of this lurching ferry.
No other vessel was crossing during this wet, windy season, the rains heavy and the standing water deep, the dairymaids hiking skirts and wading after their herds in the pastures. Only men with a great need to be on the road would be traveling in this early spring wet, and these were men of coin, their sword sheaths chased with silver.
"A right proud gang of rich folk, aren't they?" said Simon in John's ear.
"With purses ready to be lightened," said John in a low voice, accustomed to his master's habits.
"I'll ease that load for them quickly enough," said Simon.
The ferry master coughed richly, pursed his lips, and spat well into the wind so that the morsel of phlegm kissed river current away from any of his passengers. The cautious men huddled together mid-ferry, feet planted solidly, trying to look more confident than they were. John and Simon fell silent at the knight's approach.
John knew what it was like to be far from home, and he could not help feeling a grudging compassion for Simon's patrons. John knew, too, how rough and hard he himself must appear to these soft-handed city men. John was broad shouldered and very tall, with a short, sandy-colored young man's beard and close-cropped mud-blond hair. He was called John Little, with the same logic that had his drinking companions call Simon, who was entirely bald, Simon le Hair.
If John still lived in York, folk would know him as John Edwardson, or John Tannerson, or even John Hide, after either his father's Christian name or his trade. His father had been an honest man, dead of a fever three summers past. John had never known his mother, buried in the Fishergate churchyard eighteen winters ago. Now John was a wanderer and a cutpurse, robbing when he was hungry, learning thief-craft from experienced men.
The Crusades in the Holy Land had taken the best knights and squires for many years now, leaving castle hirelings like these travelers. Some were capable gate men or aging squires, but many were mere house servants hastily trained to wear a sword.
The knight stood close to John as the big youth poled the ferry, and although this man was a head shorter, John could feel the traveler's weight shift the ferry. John pulled the ferry pole from the current and plunged it deep again.
"It takes an iron arm to fight such a flood," said the man-at-arms.
This swordsman had tarried with men of quality, by the sound of it, and had picked up some of the lilting, courteous speech of a castle. John did not like the arrogance and vanity that made men learn gentle accents.
"I could do it easily enough myself," said the man-at-arms agreeably. "But most folk would not be strong enough."
Simon shouldered his way through his passengers, bumped one with a quiet apology, nudged another. Then the ferryman winked at John. The wink was a signal and meant that Simon had already pinched a purse or two, and John clenched his jaw, wishing that Simon had waited until they were closer to the opposite bank before stealing from his passengers.
"You could serve a crusader, ferryman," the knight was saying, making his position in society clear. Only a knight would address another man with this well-intended disdain. "A strong youth like you could surely carry a lance or saddle a horse."
The words gave John a moment of pleasure and pride. Sometimes he had thought that he might have made a good fighting man, given the chance. But John knew that he was destined to be a robber, and little more.
He glanced up at the empty blue. Then he hunched forward and peered across the simmering, stone-dark surface of the water. Unhap, it was called, an accident woven into the warp of events. You could feel it coming, even when you couldn't guess what it was.
And then he saw it.
A great tree bristled out of the brown river.
It was a huge thing, dark, with the spiky stumps of lopped branches among the growth of new green. It was evidently the work of a sawyer who had hoped to trim and haul this grandfather oak, but lost it to the flood. The surging giant shot out of the muscular river, and John hurried forward, ferry pole ready and gleaming in the afternoon sun.
John tried to tell himself that this was just another bit of drift timber spun along the river by weeks of rain. But he felt his pulse quicken as it coursed closer.
"Saints save us," prayed one of the merchants.
John caught the monster as it leaped from the water, and thrust the ferry pole into the branches, fending the tree away from the vessel. The force of the struggle drove the ferry sideways, and all John's effort could not shove the giant wide. The huge tree rode up, free of the gleaming ferry pole and lifting high, casting a spiked shadow down over the travelers. Even Simon, a veteran of the river, began the first syllables of a prayer.
John swung the massive ferry pole up and held it across his body. The drift tree fell, and he caught it on the staff, but with a sharp and sickening sound the pole broke in two.
The oak giant fell upon John.CHAPTER 2
The wool men shrank back, retreating to the far side of the vessel.
Simon stepped forward, one arm out, uttering a further prayer. Only the knight stayed where he was, feet planted wide against the bucking motion of the craft.
John's knees buckled, but he remained standing. His arms embraced the oak, although the girth of the tree was too wide for an encircling hug. John closed his eyes, his cheek pressed flat against the tree. He stood there, silently bearing the weight that pressed all air from his lungs.
John knew that each tree hid within its pith a sprite, a tree soul. He could not guess if this oak still carried its genius within its span, but the young man spoke in his heart, wordlessly, Help me. Spare this ferry, and I'll do a deed in return.
John wrestled the log along the length of the ferry, straining, grunting. The effort made his sinews burn and dimmed his vision.
He cast the tree into the boiling current.
"Heaven be praised!" said one of the travelers, his voice shaking.
John fell to his knees. His rough-spun tunic was wet, and scales of bark clung to his sleeves. His breath came in ragged gasps.
And now the promised gesture was required.
He took Simon's hand as he climbed to his feet, and pulled the ferryman to the ferry's rail. "Give them back their silver," whispered John.
"What are you saying?" hissed Simon. Then, for the benefit of the merchants and the knight, he added, "I'll buy a pitcher of the finest spring ale for you tonight, John, for your brave effort. And a pot of mead."
A spare pole, a flimsy length of wood, was strapped to the rail, and John could not speak for a moment, in a hurry to free the pole and dig it hard into the river bottom, driving the ferry ever closer to its destination.
John levered the ferry hard, and said, keeping his voice low, "Give them back what you have taken."
A figure stiffened nearby, the knight just close enough to catch John's words.
"Quiet, John," Simon hissed.
Then he made a show of laughing, like a man at ease. But the knight turned and murmured something to his fellow travelers. The merchants began a hurried inventory of their purses and cloak fastenings, and more than one of them gave a bitter exclamation.
The knight lifted a hand and let it fall on Simon's shoulder, seized him, and lifted him, one foot dangling like a market-day puppet.
Just then the ferry lurched, and the wharf assistant, a quiet man habitually half paralyzed with ale, tossed a loosely knotted rope in John's general direction.
The young man caught the rope and hauled the vessel close to the wharf. The ferry bumped the pilings hard, but the knight had thrown Simon onto the deck and planted a knee on the ferryman's chest while he searched the pockets and hiding places of Simon's loose-fitting tunic.
The knight's searching fingers brought out a dull silver pin and a sack fat with gold marks, the gold making its distinctive chuckle within the leather as the man-at-arms tossed it in his hand.
Simon protested that these treasures were his own, but two outraged merchants identified their possessions, and the knight reached into his cloak and brought forth a long, slender blade — a finishing knife, the customary weapon for cutting the throats of the half-slain.
John could not see far enough into the future to know if the knight was going to cut Simon's throat. Surely the blade pressed Simon's flesh, and the indented skin reddened, blood starting.
John seized the knight by his bright hair and yanked his head back, hard.
The man-at-arms rose halfway to his feet, his eyes round, hands reaching out into the air. The blade fell clattering to the deck as the rig-bone within the knight's neck gave a snap. At the ugly sound, John released his hold on the man. The knight dropped to the deck, his eyes wide. The knight's feet jerked and spasmed, and a pool of piss spread out around the body.
John straightened. All his life he had heard firelight tales, heroes slaying ogres and errant knights. He had never committed such an act himself. John uttered a prayerful "Blessed Mary!" and gazed down at his own two hands. John's horror kept him standing where he was, unable to make a further sound.
Simon knelt beside the knight, feeling the body for pulse, for breath. The ferryman said, hoarsely, "He'll be well — have no cares, good wool men. Disembark, and God speed you."
John could not swim, and he dreaded the thought of his body sinking down into the current. But he heard the low, promising voice of the river: Come away, come away.
The ferryman looked up at John and said, for the benefit of the travelers, "The good knight needs room, please; stand back."
John could hear the voice in Simon's soul, the urgent message, Run!
The merchants had John in their arms before the young man could move. John accepted the justice of this. He had taken the life of a man of quality, and the blows fell on John's shoulders and arms — fists and then sword butts, and then the flats of the swords as the merchants freshened to their task.
The sweating wool men shoved John up the riverbank, laboring at him with their swords, nicking a shoulder, drawing blood from a knee. Each bite of steel cut a little deeper into flesh. John stumbled over tree roots, treading through puddles.
The riverside hamlet was called Stoneford, a place where men and pigs lived in neighborly contentment. Now the village stirred, men and women interrupted in their afternoon labors by the curses of the merchants. A woman with a wort paddle, in the midst of brewing beer, gaped at the sight of a young man accepting punishment without complaint.
Suffering was best endured in silence. John knew this, as did every well-churched soul under the sky. Heaven sent us pain to let us experience what Our Lord knew, a spike through each blessed hand. Illness and injury: each buffet sent by Heaven was a gift. Especially in a case like this, when John knew that the punishment was entirely fair. A man-killer deserved the harshest justice.
And yet John was growing angry.
"Easy, good sirs," said a nearby wife, portly in her apron. "Whatever the crime this giant lad has committed, let us fetch the sheriff's men."
"No need," said the stoutest of merchants, drawing back his blade. John wrapped his hand around the sword-wielding arm and gripped hard. The merchant grinned with effort, but his hand released the blade. John picked up the weapon, the hilt warm and moist with grip sweat. John was not accustomed to hefting a sword, but the weight of the weapon was pleasing.
He broke free and began to run, splashing through pig soil, hens squawking, geese fleeing. Grass whipped his leggings, and a village dog, a yellow creature with a tight-curled tail, ran along with John, barking. John left the dog far behind.
Excerpted from Forbidden Forest by Michael Cadnum. Copyright © 2002 Michael Cadnum. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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