Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Ballad of John Little

The Ballad of John Little

He’s not the only one with a story, you know. Sure, everyone knows his the best, Robyn of Loxley, Earl of Huntington, comes home from the crusades to find his lands have been taken by the Church and the Sheriff of Nottingham, and becomes the famous outlaw known as Robyn Hood. It didn’t take him long to gather a band of like minded outlaws to fight against the injustices of the Sheriff and Prince John, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, and generally making a legend for himself. And a legend he is. He’s my best friend, and I believe that he should have stories told about him. But, as I said, he’s not the only one with stories. My name is John Little, and I’m here to share some of those other stories with you. I’m starting with my own.

I was born John Naylor, son of Richard and Mary. My father was something of a lazy cad, according to my mother. I never knew him, he left before my second birthday, and I’ve never missed him. In fact, when I got older, I insisted that people call me John Little, my mother’s maiden name. The one thing my father did do for us was leave us the farm. Until I was old enough to run the place myself, my mother had trouble hiring help, so we struggled. We managed, mostly through the help of an old man I remember from my childhood, named David.

I first remember David from when I was about ten years old. He came to the farm looking for work, and was happy to take room and board as payment. I was instantly curious about him. His only possessions were a small sack, a bedroll, a hunting knife and a quarterstaff. He stayed in the barn with the animals, and seemed happy to do so. He taught me a lot during his time with us. He taught me how to milk a cow properly, how to get just the right kind of split in the soil when tilling, and how to plant crops so that they take as much advantage of the land as possible. But, he taught me other things as well.

David figured that any boy living without a father would get into lots of fights, and he was right. I got into scrap after scrap with the other kinds in the village, over every slight, real or perceived. Well, David, he taught me to fight. The first rule he taught me was that in fighting, there are no rules. The goal is to win, to survive. And in survival, anything goes. He taught me fisticuffs, how to dodge and where to punch a man to do the most damage without breaking your fist in the processes. I took his lessons to heart, and promptly picked a fight with the biggest bully in town, kicking the snot out of him in record time. I didn’t get picked on again after that.

David was always teaching me, anything I was willing to learn. And I was a sponge, willing to learn it all. But my favorite lessons from him were the quarterstaff lessons. Every day, after we had finished our chores around the farm, David would take me into the woods. There, he taught me how to find foods to eat, track animals for hunting, and how to fight with the quarterstaff. He did it out there in the woods because he didn’t want my mother to see. Inevitably, I would wind up battered and bruised. David always made sure to hit me someplace my mother wouldn’t see it when we returned, and as time went on, I was giving as good as I got.

One day, out in those woods, he decided to test me some. He clonked me on the head hard with his staff, knocking me on my arse for a time. When I cleared my head, he was gone, and I was in a part of the woods I had never been in before. I needed to find my way home, and quick. The sun was near to setting. I used that fact to help me determine what direction to head back home in, as I knew what direction the forest was compared to the farm. I hadn’t been traveling for long when I ran into the bear.

Now, I should take this moment to state that, even as a young boy as I was when this happened, I was big. At eleven, I was as tall as your average man, and pretty broad due to all the work on the farm. But, even at this, the bear dwarfed me. It was truly huge, at least ten feet in length, with claws that looked as long as my forearm, and teeth the size of fingers. The only benefit I had was that it was sleeping when I came upon it. It was quieter than I had expected, having always imagined that bears snored like old men in the cold. But this one, while breathing heavily, was only making noise like leaf rustlings.

It was breathing in deeply and slowly, and looked like nothing more than a small mountain. I held my own breath for fear of awakening the beast. After a few tense moments of waiting to see if it was truly asleep, I started moving as slowly and quietly as I could, in a wide arc, around the bear. I had just about made it half way across when, of course, I took a moment to look away from the ground and towards the bear. This proved to be my undoing. I stepped on a twig, creating a loud snapping noise that echoed through the immediate area. The bear snorted and started to wake.

I didn’t wait to see what it would do, I simply ran. I pushed my legs as hard as I had ever, and ran through bushes and low hanging branches, gathering cuts like a starving man would bread loafs. Sadly, the bear knew the land better than I did, and managed to cut me off at a stream not far from his napping ground. It reared to its full height and let loose a sound that I can only describe as a cry of pure anger. I am man enough to tell you that I have never been more terrified in my entire life than I was at this point. I thought for sure that I was dead.

I closed my eyes, prepared for the lunge that was coming, when a thought of my mother sprang to my mind. She would be left alone if I died, and would surely loose the farm. I found that I couldn’t allow that to happen. I snapped open my eyes just as the bear lunged down towards me. All the training I had received in fighting from David came into focus just then. David was not a big man, and he had taught me not only how to use my size to my advantage, but how he could use it to his. He also taught me how to defend myself against someone else trying to use my size against me. In this case, I was the smaller of the two fighters, and realized that I knew how to use the bear’s size against him.

I stuck up my quarter staff and pushed it out right in front of me, punching the bear right in the nose. This caused him to try and rear backwards, but it was too late, the lunge had too much forward momentum to stop. Off balance, the bear’s attack was thrown off enough for me to dodge to the right. Now at the side of the bear, I took the opportunity to smack it with my staff one more time on the rump. In retrospect, that may have been a mistake. It took the bear’s concentration off the pain in its sensitive nose and back to me.

I realized that I should stick to my original desire to get home, and not to defeat the bear. It was in this fight that I learned that not all fights need to be won; you just need to be able to walk away from them. I did a pre-emptive duck from a swing of the bear’s paw as it turned around and got in another shot at its face with my staff. I didn’t hit him in the nose again, but I did get a solid crack on the jaw, and even managed to see a tooth knocked out. Again, the bear reared up, this time in pain, and I took advantage to run off again.

This time, I took a jagged path instead of a straight line, getting myself lost in the processes, but getting away from the bear. I had survived, and I had done so by use of my mind combined with my muscle. I was elated, and couldn’t wait to see David so I could tell him all about this adventure. It took me another two hours to find my way home, mostly because I wasn’t using all that David had taught me until a good hour into it. When I got to the farm, it was dark, and both my mother and David were waiting for me.

I had never been in as much trouble as then, and I noticed that even David was in trouble, which surprised me. I had never seen an adult in trouble with another adult like that before. Still, it didn’t last long. Punishments from my mom usually were more work around the farm, which I never minded. I loved the farm. And I loved David, even though he did leave me in the forest. I understood why he did it. I learned valuable lessons about survival out there, lessons that he couldn’t have taught me in any other way.

David stayed with us for a total of two years, far longer than any other hand had. He became the father I never knew I wanted, and like a brother to my mother, who was in desperate need of the adult companionship. On my twelfth birthday, David had to leave us. It was a day I would never forget. David had left me again, tracking through the forest to find him before we were both late to dinner. This had become something of a game for us, and I had become very good at finding him over the past few months. I found him easily this time as well, standing at one of his favorite places to hunt for food, a clearing near a stream.

He was talking when I came up behind him, which made me pause. I didn’t think he had heard me, so he wasn’t talking to me. He had a rabbit in one hand, and the other was held out, palm open, to show it was empty. His knife was sitting on a rock nearby, and his staff lay on the ground. I couldn’t figure out what was going on, because that was all I could see. I moved around to get a better look at the whole clearing, and that’s when I saw the real reason he was talking.

On the other side of the clearing were three men. They were all armored, and had tabards that marked them as the Sheriffs men. Two held halberds pointed at David, and the third had a bow, drawn and aiming straight at David’s chest. He didn’t even look tired, and I remember thinking that it looked like he could hold that pose all day long. I froze, unsure what to do, so I just listened.

“Poaching rabbits in the Kings Forest,” one of the guards was saying. “That’s a serious offence. A hanging offence.”

“I’ve done far worse things than poaching,” David was saying. “I think you know that, Bernard.”

“Yes,” the guard replied back. “Yes I do, David.”

I had no idea what they were talking about. Poaching? Kings land? Something worse? How did these two know each other?

“David Smith,” the guard named Bernard was saying, “for the crime of poaching on the Kings land, and for the crime of murdering Rose Smith, our mother, I am placing you under arrest. You are to be taken back to the castle at Nottingham, where the Sheriff will decide your final fate.”

“I’m not going to resist, Bernard,” David was saying. “Just let me gather the few things I have here in the woods, and I’ll go with you to face my punishment.”

Something was horribly wrong. I some how knew that if David went with these me to the Sheriff, that the Sheriff would hang him. He would die. I couldn’t allow this. I leaped out of my hiding place, and put my self between the guards and David, my quarter staff at the ready.

“No!” I cried.

“Stand down!” Bernard shouted back at me.

Somehow, David remained calm throughout my arrival. I think he knew I was there, and was expecting exactly this kind of bonehead move. He reached out and touched my arm. I’m not sure why, but this calmed me down, and I looked back at him. His eyes were sad.

“You can’t go, David,” I said, trying to cut off any attempt he was about to make to talk me down.

“I have to, John,” he said.

“This your accomplice, David?” Bernard asked. “Is he helping you poach the kings game?”

“He’s just a kid, Bernard,” David cried back, pulling me behind him as he did so. “His mom owns a farm near by, and I worked on it for a time. He had no idea what I was before coming here, and he was not helping me kill game. He’s innocent, Bernard. Send him home, you already have me. Send him home.”

Bernard seemed to be thinking this over. After a while, he nodded.

“Okay, David,” he said, “I’ll let him go. But only if he goes now. Any resistance on his part, and we arrest him as well.”

“John,” David said, turning to face me. He was holding both my arms, looking me straight in the eyes. He looked so sad then, but also something else… frightened.

“John, I want you to go no,” he said. “Run, and don’t look back.”

I wanted to protest, but he shook his head, as if reading my mind.

“No,” he said, “you cannot fight them. Go, now, before he changes his mind. Think of what would happen to your mother if you got arrested with me.”

Like that day with the bear, something inside my head snapped. I realized that I needed to not fight, but flee. Tears were beginning to well up in my eyes, and I couldn’t speak for fear of crying out right. I could only nod. He smiled and nodded back.

“Good boy, John,” he said, and pushed me on my way.

I turned and ran, then. I ran as hard as I could, and, like he said, I never looked back. I ran all the way home, and when I reached the farm I collapsed in a heap into my mothers arms. I was crying hard, and when she tried to ask me what was wrong, all I could get out was that David was gone, and that he was never coming back.

Despite the grief over the loss of someone that we both had come to consider important over the last 2 years, life went on. So, mother and I continued to work on the farm as best we cold, sell our goods in town when we had them, and attempted to stay one step ahead of the tax collector.

Life went on for another few years like this, until I was fourteen, and officially a man. I took over the farm from my mother at this point, and set about the important business of finding a wife. This wasn’t difficult for me. Lizzy was the blacksmith’s daughter, the only girl in a family of five brothers. She was a beautiful girl, plump, with curly red hair and freckles. I’d been in love with Lizzy for the past three years, and so it came as a surprise to no one when I asked her father for her hand in marriage.

A year later, after lots of planning and payments made between our parents, the wedding happened at the church. The whole village was there, which was no real surprise for our town. Weddings were a big event, and everyone loved going, especially when food was provided. Thankfully, my cousin was the baker, so food was provided.

Lizzy became an excellent addition to the farm, and with the help of three of her brothers, the farm bloomed again. She had an excellent eye for organization, as well, and things running smoothly in no time. And best of all, a year and a half later, Lizzy gave birth to our son, whom I insisted be named David. Life was looking good for the first time in as long as I could remember. And it continued being good for the next four years. David grew to be a strong young lad, and was everything a father could want. The farm continued to do well, and Lizzy’s brother’s brought their wives into the family, making it even easier to keep up with chores and tasks.

The only bad thing that happened during this time was my mother’s death. It was sad for both Lizzy and I, and I mourned for a full six months. But, it was a quiet and quick death, dignified, exactly how my mother wanted it to be. We were quiet for those months after her death. However, with not only David, but also the new children from Lizzy’s brothers, it was difficult to stay sad for very long. Life moved on again, and we went with it. Then came the day when everything changed.

Derrick was a sergeant in the Sheriff’s guard. He believed he was a big man, and by most standards, he was. He was a little less than six feet tall, and broad shouldered. He was also well muscled, a real solid rock of a man. Not to brag or anything, though, but by this point in my life, he was tiny compared to me. And this bothered him to no end. He couldn’t stand the idea that there was someone out there bigger than him, and so he used his position as a guard to prove that he was a bigger man than me.

For the most part, I never really minded. He was a small-minded bully, who thought that being in the guard made him the person with power in town. But, really, that’s all he wanted, was power in our little village. Like I said, small-minded. So, his bullying me around was something I could easily take. I had everything I wanted in life, everything that made me happy, and I thought that there was nothing he could do to take that away from me. I was so naive.

When Derrick first realized that nothing he was doing was truly bothering me, he changed tactics. It was common knowledge that Derrick had a thing for Lizzy. So he started threatening her. First, he tried subtlety, by indicating that if I didn’t do what he wanted, like pay extra for taxes, than something bad might happen to her. The first time he did this, I went ballistic. My vision turned red. I remember punching him and punching him and punching him, over and over, until the red in my vision was all over his face.

The next thing I remember was being attacked by his guard buddies. It wasn’t often in my life that I ever got a beating, but this was one of them, and it was one of the worse. I couldn’t move my right arm for a week out of pure pain. I woke up in Nottingham Castle’s prison, and thought for sure I was going to be hung. Instead, I got a visit from Derrick.

“You made a huge mistake, John,” he told me through a broken nose. “A huge mistake. I can’t hang you, much as I want to. But, I can guarantee you that you will live to regret that you ever laid a finger on me.”

At first, I didn’t know what he was talking about. But, a few days later, I was released, and was able to go home. For the next few weeks, I thought that everything was back to normal. Lizzy was a little off, somehow, scared maybe. I figured it was just because she had never seen me be that violent before. It wasn’t until at three weeks after the event, I noticed that I hadn’t seen Derrick. And Lizzy’s fear only got worse.

I decided to try and find out what was going on. I left the field early one day, and snuck home to do something I still don’t feel good about doing to this day. I spied on my wife. It took a couple of days for me to see anything, because for the most part, nothing was different from her normal routine. But one day, Derrick came to the farm to pay a visit to Lizzy. I didn’t know what he was up to at first. I stayed as hidden as I could, but that left me too far away to actually hear them. Lizzy was crying, but the two just spent time talking. I figured that he was threatening to send me back to the dungeons, or to hang me, if she didn’t do something, give him some information.

Turns out, I should have thought more simply than that. After some hesitation on Lizzy’s part, Derrick stood like he was about to hit her. I was ready to charge in right then and there, but I waited, to see what Lizzy would do next. She stood, her head down, tears still streaming down her face, and began to undress. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. If before I went red, this time I went black. I could only think of one thing. Murder.

And murder was what happened. I charged into the house, grabbed Derrick by the neck, and threw him into the wall. I held him there and then squeezed. I felt his windpipe crush under my hands, and kept squeezing. I closed my hands around his neck until I could feel everything in there break or crumble. I wanted his eyes to bulge out of his head and roll onto the floor, so I could squish them too. I wanted to kill him in so many different ways, I couldn’t believe the thoughts running through my head.

When it was done, it was like waking from a dream. I looked at Derrick, dead in my heads, and was in shock. I released my grip, and his limp form fell to the ground with a sickening thud. Lizzy threw up right there, and I wanted to join her. She looked up at me, fear in her eyes, and started apologizing.

“I’m so sorry, John,” she said, through sobs, “I’m so sorry. He told me that if I didn’t… if I didn’t do what he wanted, he would have you hung. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t want to loose you.”

I crouched down and took her up in my arms and hugged her. I told her to hush, that it would be all right. We would hide Derrick’s body, and claim that we hadn’t seen him in since the incident if anyone asked. But she just kept shaking her head. Finally, she explained to me why that wouldn’t work.

“He usually doesn’t show up alone. Two more guards, usually the same two, come with him. They stand guard at the door, to make sure you don’t return. Sometimes, they don’t come, like tonight, but they’ll know he was here. They’ll suspect something happened. They’ll find a way to hang you for this.”

I started to try and tell her that we still had time to hid the body, that without it, they couldn’t really arrest me, but I knew that this wasn’t true. If Derrick taught me anything, it’s that the guard can do whatever they want. The Sheriff didn’t really care about local village politics, and public hangings were such great spectacles, why would he do anything different? Still, I was determined to not give up.

I didn’t have much choice, however. As if we were in some kind of play, and this was their cue, we could hear the marching boots of a couple of guards, heading up the walkway to the house. We both knew who it was instantly. There was no time to hid the body, and I would be arrested and taken away from my beloved Lizzy and David. I gritted my teeth and prepared to fight. I’d be damned if I would go down without taking them down with me. But, Lizzy put her hand on my arm. With ears in her eyes, she told me to flee.

“Run,” she said. “Become an outlaw, live in the woods. You can easily avoid the Sheriff’s men in the Sherwood. I can tell the guards a story about how this happened hours ago, and they will leave me and the farm. They will start to hunt you, but at least you will be alive. Some day, this will be forgotten, and you can return. I know it.”

I knew she was right. I had to leave. I had to run. And I had to do it right now. I gave Lizzy a kiss, stood up and left. On my way out, I grabbed a hunting knife and few tools. I snuck around the back of the house to make sure that the guards didn’t see me. I took a moment to look into the house and watch Lizzy, tears in her eyes, tell the guards her story. I nodded, and made a vow that some day, I would return. I would be there to raise my son and protect my wife. I’d be back, Lizzy. I’d be back.

And with that, I turned and fled to Sherwood Forest. Upon entering the wood, the first thing I did was carve myself a quarterstaff. I found that living in the forest was easy. There were nuts and fruit aplenty, and game was plentiful. I spent the next week in there, hunting and living, finding places to bed down for the night. It was a simple life, but a good one. I couldn’t stay happy for too long, though. I was alone, and felt that burden every single night. I started to form a plan, on how to get back to my Lizzy, at least for a little while.

It didn’t take much to make a disguise for myself. I found that if I covered myself in a large cloak, and hunched over, people thought I was a hunchback, and no one paid me any attention. I was able to sneak around all over, from Nottingham to my home village. I found out as much information as I could on the happenings of my village, and discovered that the Sheriff had raised taxes again. I knew that Lizzy wouldn’t be able to pay. I had heard the stories that were beginning to circulate about Robyn Hood at that point, new stories of an wolfs head in the forest that was robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.

It was an excellent idea, even if the stories were not true, which I believed at the time. I found that my size made stealing from people easy, and after finding a few rich travelers that were trying to skirt around the woods, I had enough money for Lizzy to pay the taxes and keep the farm. Using my disguise, I did just that. I returned to the farm as a local beggar. I knocked on the door, and Lizzy answered. I gasped, she was still so beautiful. She, of course, recognized me right away.

“John, what are you doing here?” she said in a harsh whisper. “Go, now, before anyone see’s you.”

“Alms for the poor?” I said, in my best old man voice. I winked at her, and whispered, “No one knows it’s me. I’ve come with a gift.”

She looked confused, but when I handed her the pouch with the money in it, her eyes widened.
“Robyn Hood?” she whispered again, looking at me with new awe in her eyes.

I shook my head. I explained that I had heard the tales, and thought it was a good idea. Knowing that she couldn’t pay the new taxes, I decided to use the idea and make sure she could. I may be an outlaw, but I’d be damned if I wasn’t still going to take care of my family. She smiled, nodded herself, and accepted the money. She hugged me and cried.

“Thank you, John,” she said. “I love you!”

I returned to the forest, then. I spent the next few days just wandering, feeling good about myself. It would be a good life indeed, if a little hard and lonely. Then came the day that everything in my life would change once again.

I was walking in the forest, and came to a small log bridge that rode over a flowing river. I prepared to cross when I saw a stranger on the other side. Not many people walked in this part of the woods, and this man was wearing a kelly green costume, making me believe he was an excellent mark for helping Lizzy make her next tax payment.

“Ho there,” he said with a smile on his face, “Stand aside! I would cross this bridge.”

“As would I,” I said, a smile of my own crossing my face. “It is you that should stand aside, stranger.”

And the rest of that story, I believe you all know.

The End

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