Cletus wandered through the forest until he reached a road. He followed the road for a long time, moving out of the forest, through towns, over rivers, and through smaller patches of trees. Cletus merrily greeted young ladies, old women, fat monks, and shining knights as he passed them on the lane. He took a path into the trees that led to a pebbled stream. A single log formed a bridge across the waters. As Cletus drew close to the bridge, he saw a stranger coming from the other side. Cletus had never seen a larger man. The stranger stood nearly seven feet tall, broader across the shoulders than two tree trunks, and nearly four feet around his waist. While Cletus walked faster to cross the log first, so did the stranger.
“Step back and let the better man cross first,” Cletus said.
The stranger said, “Then stand back yourself since I have to say that I’m the better man.”
Cletus drew a bow and arrow. “Stay where you are or I’ll show you how men from Nottingham play by sending a shaft between your ribs.”
“I’ll tan your hide until it’s as many colors as a beggar’s cloak if you so much as touch the string of that bow.”
“You sound like an ass. I could have this arrow in your heart before you can ask God forgiveness.”
“From my side of the stream, you sound like a coward,” said the stranger. “You stand there with a bow to shoot me from afar while I have nothing but a staff to beat you with.”
“Can’t say any man’s ever thought me a coward,” Cletus said. “I’ll lay the bow aside, and come at you with a cudgel.”
“I’ll wait here for you to go cut an oak branch and joyously whip you when you return.”
Cletus set his bow and arrows on the ground. He pulled a black pin from his ear and shook it out to transform it into a larger, iron staff.
“What wizardry is this?”
“Just a parlor trick,” Cletus said. “This is my good staff. It’s made from a tough iron and lusts for blood like no man ever could. We’ll fight until one of us falls into the stream.”
“The idea makes my whole heart warm,” the stranger said as he twirled his staff above his head, making the wood whistle in the wind.
Never had another soul met in a harsher fight than did those two men. Cletus feinted and bashed at the stranger’s head with a blow that could kill a man. The stranger deftly blocked the blow and returned one twice as hard which Cletus knocked off target. The men fought on the log for over an hour. Many blows struck their mark and left the men covered in bruises and gashes. Neither behemoth cried for the fight to end. The match seemed unlikely to finish by either man falling from the bridge. From time to time, the men stopped fighting to catch their breath. Cletus knew in all his life he had never seen a man so talented and brutal with a staff, and the stranger thought much the same about Cletus.
Finally, Cletus bashed the stranger on the ribs with such force that dust rose from the stranger’s jacket. The stranger came within a hair’s breadth of falling, but he quickly regained his footing. The stranger cracked Cletus on the forehead. Blood rushed down his face. Cletus snarled as anger filled his bones. He swung his staff at the stranger with all his might. The stranger warded off the blow and again whacked Cletus in the head. This time, the staff caught Cletus in the temple and sent him heels over head into the stream.
“Where are you now, good lad?” the stranger shouted, roaring with laughter.
“Floating downstream it would seem,” Cletus said, but he couldn’t help but laugh at himself.
The sound of bees hummed in his head. Cletus waded to the bank. “Give me a hand out of the water. I need you to be aware that you are the bravest, sturdiest man I’ve ever known, and you have the hardest swing with a staff I’ve ever had the misfortune of feeling.”
Cletus drew a horn from his belt. He pressed the end to his lips and blasted an eerie melody that echoed through the forest. Cletus remembered fighting Enkidu. He remembered the struggle of facing a man actually his better. Cletus looked at the tall stranger and remembered that feeling of challenge and burning desire to be better in the face of that adversity. “There’s no man between here and Rome that could beat me like that.”
The stranger pulled Cletus from the stream and said, “And you take a beating with a brave heart. You’re the stoutest little man I ever knew.”
Distant twigs and branches snapped with movement in the forests. Nearly forty men in dark green tunics burst out from the trees. “Good master,” said the man at the head of the swarm, “what’s happened here? You’re drenched to the bone.”
“Well, Will,” said Cletus, “the fellow over there tossed me into the water and gave my hide an impressive tanning.”
“Then he shall be beaten himself,” said Will. “Have at him, lads!”
The men pounced upon the stranger, but they found him ready to fight. The stranger striked right and left with his staff. When the green-clad men finally overcame the stranger through sheer numbers, many stepped away with broken bones and bleeding skulls.
“Stop, boys!” Cletus shouted, still laughing against his sore sides. “He’s a good man. Any harm that falls to him will be doubled back to you.” The men released the stranger. “Young man, will you stay with me and my band? I can’t offer much. You’d get three suits of lincoln green each year, a one-time pay of forty marks, and you’d share with us whatever good shall befall us. You’d eat the sweetest venison and drink the stoutest every night. You’d be my right hand man.”
“I do not know,” said the stranger, anger seeping into his voice. “If you handle the bow and arrow as poorly as you do a cudgel, I can’t see fit to call you my master, but if any man here can shoot better than me, I will join you.”
“I will bow to you like I’ve never bowed to a man before,” Cletus said. “I’ll stoop down to the level of playing games to decide.” Cletus turned to Will. “Stutely, cut a piece of white bark the size of your hand and place it eighty yards downstream.” Will Stutely did as asked. “Now, stranger, hit that to see if you can call yourself an archer.”
“I will,” said the stranger. “Give me a bow, and if I cannot hit it, choke me blue with the bowstrings.”
The band of men sat or lay upon the grass and watched the stranger shoot. He chose a bow from one man’s back and an arrow from another. The stranger drew the arrow to his cheek and loosed it down the path. The shaft shot to the very center of the white bark chunk.
“Beat that if you can,” the stranger said.
“Impressive,” Cletus said. “I can’t beat it, but by the blessing of Artemis, I can more than match it.”
Cletus took up his bow. He nocked an arrow with care and shot with the greatest skill. The arrow flew straight and true. The arrow hit upon the stranger’s own and shattered the shaft into splinters. The band of men leaped to their feet and shouted for joy.
“I’ve never seen anything like that in my life,” the stranger said. “I’ll be your right hand man.”
“Than I’ve gained a great man,” Cletus said. “What’s your name?”
“I’m called John Little back home.”
Will Stutely laughed. “Nay, little stranger,” said Will. “I don’t like your name, and I won’t pretend to. Indeed you are quite small though. Therefore, we’ll call you Little John, and I will be your godfather.”
Cletus and all his band laughed aloud until John Little grew angry.
“You keep making fun of me,” John said to Will, “and you will have sore bones right quickly.”
“No,” said Cletus, “bottle your temper. The name fits you well. No man would fear Little John until it’d be far too late to escape you. Little John you shall be called henceforth. Come, my merry men, we will prepare a christening feast for our fair infant.”
Turning away from the stream, the merry men disappeared into the forest. The men traced their own steps back to where they dwelled in the depths of Sherwood. In the woodland, the merry men lived in huts of bark and branches around a grand oak. Here they found the rest of the band roasting deer over great fires. When the feast finished cooking, they all sat down in the moss and grass or on stones and logs. Cletus sat upon a mossy boulder beneath the oak tree with Little John at his right.
As the feast ended, Will Stutely said, “It is now time to christen our tiny babe, merry boys.” Laughing and joyous shouts echoed through the woods in response. “Then we need sponsors!”
Little John sprang to his feet as Will approached with seven other men. “Lay a finger on me and you shall rue it,” John said.
The men seized Little John by the limbs and held him tightly despite his fight to free himself. A bald man dressed in dirty robes stepped forward with a pot of ale.
“Who brings this babe before the church of theft and merriment?” the fake priest asked.
“I do,” said Will Stutely.
“What name will you call this boy?”
“Little John I will call him.”
“Little John,” said the mock priest, “you have lived till now just to get through this world. From now on you will truly live. Little John, I christen thee.” With that, the priest dumped the pot of ale over Little John’s head.
All the merry men yelled with laughter as ale washed over Little John’s hair and beard. At first he looked angry, but the mood of the other men infected him. John bellowed with laughter while licking beer from his mustache. The men stripped Little John. Cletus clothed the sweet baby boy from head to toe in green and presented Little John with a bow of his own. As John grasped the stout wood, he officially became a member of the merry band of thieves and ruffians.
Will Stutely clapped Little John on the shoulders before departing. Will apologized to Cletus, but he had a prior arrangement with a young lady in Nottingham. Cletus shook Will’s hand as the man crept into the shadows. Back in the fire light, Little John’s baptism party continued throughout the night.
Days later, Cletus stood under the grand oak thinking of Will Stutely. Men of the band were free to come and go, but Will had no other home to go to. As Cletus worried, two men ran toward him with a busty young lady. Cletus recognized the woman as the barmaid of the Blue Boar in Nottingham. His heart fell. Cletus knew they bore ill news of Will Stutely.
“Will Stutely has been taken by the Sheriff,” the men said as they came to Cletus.
“And you bring me this woeful news?” Cletus asked the lady.
“Ay,” she said. “I saw it all. He’s wounded. One of the Sheriff’s men stroke him so hard it tore his head open before they bound him. I came running when I heard the news they’d hang him tomorrow.”
“He won’t be hanged tomorrow,” said Cletus.
Cletus blew three blasts from his horn, and men came running through the woods until over one hundred stood around him.
“Listen!” Cletus shouted. “Dear Will Stutely has been captured by the Sheriff. He has risked life and limb for all of us. We shall risk life and limb for him.”
The merry men craftily left Sherwood Forest in groups of two and three. At midday, the disguised men entered Nottingham and mixed with the people. Merry men pressed as near city guards as they could. Cletus and his men stayed hidden in the town, watching each other and the Sheriff’s men. When the sun dipped into the western sky, a bugle sounded from Nottingham castle. Crowds shifted through the town as rumor spread that the famous Will Stutely would be executed.
The castle gates opened, and the Sheriff led his men on a noisy parade. At the center of the guards, a cart pulled the shackled Will Stutely. Blood clotted in his blonde hair and on his pale face. Will begged the Sheriff to set him free to fight rather than kill Will like a coward. Cletus met Will’s gaze. Color sprang to Will’s cheeks, and he fell silent.
“Now, stand back!” a guard shouted.
Little John pushed through the crowd of guards to reach the cart. “What do you rats mean to push upon us?” a guard asked. “Stand back I say.”
“Stand back yourself,” Little John said.
Little John bashed the man on the side of the head. The guard fell dead instantly. John leaped upon the cart where Will lay. Little John tore the cage open with his hands and ripped the shackles from Will. “Leave the rest of us here, Will,” said John. “If you stay and fight, you will most likely die. I wouldn’t want you to die for I couldn’t ask for a nicer friend.”
Will jumped from the cart.
“Rebels!” screamed the Sheriff. “Guards, take him!”
The Sheriff kicked his horse toward Little John and swung his sword. John ducked the blow and rolled under the horse’s belly. “Sorry, Sheriff,” said Little John. “I must borrow your sword.”
Little John dragged the Sheriff from his horse and snatched the blade from the Sheriff’s hand. He tossed the sword to Stutely. “Will,” said Little John, “the kind Sheriff has given you his sword. Thank him for his gift and defend yourself!”
The Sheriff bellowed like an angry bull. He rushed at Will and Little John with no weapon. A strange horn sounded, and an arrow whistled within an inch of the Sheriff’s face. Curses filled the air as the merry men attacked. Swords and staves clashed, and arrows soared through the streets.
“Retreat! Retreat!” the Sheriff shouted.
The guards tore through the crowd back to the castle gates. Cletus commanded his men to stand down and let the guards flee.
“Stay!” said Will Stutely. “You can’t catch the dastardly Robin Hood if you never fight the man face to face, Sheriff.” Will laughed and turned to Little John. “Little John, my true friend, I did not think I’d see your face today or meet you this side of Heaven. I think now I may love you more than any other in the world.”
Cletus gathered his band in a tight group around Will Stutely and disappeared back into Sherwood.
Spring passed away, leaving its flowers and rain. Summer too faded away with its scorching days and mellow nights. Fall came. Cletus and his men brewed ale, smoked pigs, and stored away food for roasting when winter would bring its winds and snow. Seasons passed and passed again. Leaves grew lush and green, and then crumpled to flat brown before falling, year after year.
“This is too nice a day to sit idle, Little John,” Cletus said one April morning. “Gather a group of men and go east. I’ll go west. Each of us will bring back a guest to dine tonight beneath our greenwood tree.”
Cletus brought along Will Scarlet, Allan a Dale, and Midge the Miller’s son. Men stayed behind to prepare a homecoming feast while others left with Cletus or Little John. Cletus and his group left the forest and wandered the highway through villages. At noon, Cletus stopped the men at a crossroads lined with large hedges. The men hid behind and beneath the giant bushes to rest and eat in the soft grass.
As the sun began to dip toward the western sky, a knight slowly rode over a nearby hill and toward the spot where Cletus and his men hide. The horse walked with a hanging head to match its limp rider’s brooding demeanor. Cletus walked into the road. As the knight passed, Cletus grabbed the reins and pulled the horse to a stop. “Hold, Sir,” Cletus said, “I beg you to wait for a short while. I have a few questions I’d like to ask you.”
“Who are you to stop a traveler like this on his Majesty’s highway?” asked the knight.
“That’s hard to say,” Cletus said. “Some would say I’m kind. Some call me cruel. Some might call me a murderer or a thief. Few may even call me good and righteous. There are too many eyes to judge a man. It depends who’s looking at me what I may be. People in this time and place call me Robin Hood.”
“Truly, good Robin Hood?” said the knight with a smile. “I hear much good of your name and little ill. What do you desire from me?”
“If you would come with me to Sherwood Forest, I will give you a merry feast greater than you have had in all your life.”
“You are too kind, but you will find me a sorry guest. It’d be best to let me be on my way.”
“No, I can’t let that happen. We keep a home in the depths of Sherwood, but so far from the roads and paths no one comes to visit. My friends and I have to seek them out when we grow bored. Although, I will say, Sir Knight, that our guests pay a fee for spending their nights with us.”
“I understand you,” said the knight, “but I am not the guest for you. I have no money at all.”
“That so? And if I don’t believe you?”
“I am ashamed to say that I have only ten shillings with me. That is every dime Sir Richard of Lea has to his name in this world.” Sir Richard handed his purse to Cletus.
“Put it away,” Cletus said. “I don’t doubt you. No one so pitiful would waste time lying to me. I’ve been many things in life, but I realized long ago that as a young man I made the wrong choices. Now, I seek to bring the proud down a peg or twelve, but I try to help the downtrodden whenever I can.”
“That’s what the stories say,” Sir Richard said.
“Come with us, Sir Richard,” Cletus said. “Warm your heart with us in the greenwood. Hopefully I can help you.”
“You mean to help me? I don’t think that you can, but I will go with you into Sherwood.”
Cletus called forth his men. Cletus stood on one side of Sir Richard’s horse with Will Scarlet on the other. The rest of the merry men fell in behind the knight. The group trotted into the woodlands to Sherwood forest. Cletus and Sir Richard continued to speak as they moved through the trees. Sir Richard suffered many debts to the point that in three days he would lose his castle and all his lands if he could not pay his debts in full. His money and property would forfeit to the church where Sir Richard would never be able to regain it.
Sir Richard lost his money by paying a ransom to the friends and kinsmen of Sir Walter of Lancaster. In a jousting tournament, Sir Richard’s son killed Sir Walter. To keep his son from prison and death, Sir Richard pawned his lands to the church to raise the money for the ransom. Sir Richard sent his son to Palestine to fight as a Christian for the Cross and to avoid the ill and hatred of Lancaster’s kinsmen.
“What more do you owe them?” Cletus asked.
“Four hundred pounds,” said Sir Richard.
“Your entire life will be forfeit over four hundred pounds?”
“It’s not my life I worry for, but my wife’s. When I lose my lands, she will have to return to her parents and live on the charity of her family. I will break her heart. For myself, I will join my son overseas to fight for the holy sepulcher.”
Will Scarlet asked, “Will your friends not help in your dire need?”
“While a rich man, I had many friends that spoke of their love for me,” Sir Richard said. “But like animals escaping a falling tree, they left me when I lost my money and gained powerful enemies.”
“You say you have no friends, Sir Richard,” Cletus said, “but many men have found Robin Hood a friend in their need.”
“So the stories go,” said Sir Richard. “I assume Robin Hood is a title? I’ve heard stories of your deeds since I was boy, but you are younger than me, good Robin.”
“The truth is more mysterious than that, but I’ll let you believe what you want.”
Night had fallen when Cletus led his band to the grand oak. From the distance, Cletus saw Little John and his men had returned already. When Cletus came near, he realized Little John had grabbed the Lord Bishop of Hereford as a dinner guest. The Bishop paced beneath the great tree while three Black Friars stood close behind him. Six horses stood hitched to the branches of the oak. One horse wore silken white and gold cloths while the others carried massive packs. The Bishop tried to flee upon seeing Cletus approach.
“Don’t run away, Lord Bishop,” Cletus said loudly. “I will be at your side soon. I could not have asked for a better dinner guest in all of England.
“How dare you treat a man so high in the church as I this way?” the Bishop asked. “Seven feet high heathens attacking a man on—
“Stuff it, Bishop,” Cletus said. Cletus patted Little John’s shoulder as the crowds of merry men snickered. “Is this the man who hurt you, Lord Bishop?”
“Yes, the naughty fellow.”
“Have mercy on me, master,” Little John said whimsically as everyone began to laugh.
“Little John,” Cletus asked, “did you hurt his lordship?”
“He called me travesties,” the Bishop said. “Fat priest, man-eater, greedy usurer.”
“Little John, did you call his lordship a fat priest?” Cletus asked.
“And a man-eater?”
“How about an usurer?”
“Ay,” said Little John so sorrowfully the crowd stopped laughing.
“Sadly,” Cletus said to the Bishop, “all these things must be true, you fat, greedy bastard. Little John is the most honest man I’ve ever known.”
Laughter rang into the air. Even Sir Richard joined the uproar.
“God will punish all of you monsters in time,” the Bishop said.
“Nay, Lord Bishop,” Cletus said. “Yahweh actually likes me quite well. We are ruffians, but we are not the evil men you think we are. No harm will come to you while you’re here. However, there are no kings nor bishops nor betters of any kind among us. All are equal men here. Sit down, Bishop, while my merry men prepare a woodland feast for us.”
Cletus bade his guests be seated. Fires roared. Men played games of archery and wrestling and drinking. Food cooked. Many men played instruments, and Allan a Dale sang magnificent songs. Allan’s songs told of love, war, glory, and sadness. Allan sang to the guests of a tale of man who lived forever, a lonely wanderer that began life as a murderous king but slowly softened his heart. Allan sang his ballad into the night.
When the full moon hovered over the great oak, Cletus led his guests to where steaming dishes filled the clearing with mouth-watering aromas. Plates covered a white cloth spread over the grass. Torches cast red and orange around the clearing. Men sat upon grass and moss around the linen table. On a signal from Cletus, men fell upon the food. Merriment filled the woods with rattling plates, talking, and laughter. As the feast dimmed to a close, men passed wine, ale, and cakes briskly about the circle. Cletus called for silence as everyone drank, and all fell quiet.
Cletus told the men the story of Sir Richard and his plight. As Cletus recounted the tale of death and debt, the Lord Bishop’s face lost color and grew stern. Over the course of the feast, the Bishop had become comfortable and had laughed with the merry men. As Cletus talked of Sir Richard, happiness left the Bishop to be replaced by a serious scowl. The Bishop set aside his wine. He fidgeted and constantly glanced about him as Cletus spoke.
As Cletus finished his tale, he looked to the Bishop and asked, “Lord Bishop, do you think this is not evil for any man to do to another, let alone a churchman?”
The Bishop did not answer but glared at the ground.
“Lord Bishop, you are the richest clergyman in all of England. Could you help Sir Richard?”
The Bishop still did not answer.
“Little John and Will Stutely,” Cletus said. “Bring the pack horses here.”
As the two men followed orders, Cletus obtained the ledger of goods from the Black Friars. John and Stutely scattered the packs at the center of the circle where the food had been. Cletus handed the ledger to Will Scarlet. Loud enough for all to hear, Scarlet read, “Three bales of silk to the mercer at Ancaster.”
Picking at his fingernails with a dagger, Cletus said, “Leave that alone. He’s an honest man who has risen from filth to prosper by his own hard work.”
“One bale of silk velvet for the Abbey of Beaumont.”
“What do priests and monks and friars want with velvet? I won’t steal it outright. Measure it off into lots, one for charity, one for us, and one to go onto the abbey.”
“Twoscore candles for the Chapel of Saint Thomas.”
“Leave that be. It belongs fairly to the chapel.”
In that way, Cletus progressed through all the goods and packages carried by the Bishop’s horses. Cletus ordered the goods adjusted as he saw fit. Some things he had set aside untouched, and most Cletus divided into three equal parts for charity, for the merry men, and for the owner. Soon goods covered the ground inside the circle of men so much that the grass could not be seen beyond the silks, velvet, clothes, wines, ales, dried meats, paintings, ornate sculptures, and many other things. Finally, Will Scarlet read off the last item on the list, “A box belonging to the Lord Bishop of Hereford.”
“My Lord Bishop, what is in your box?” Cletus asked.
The Bishop shook in the warm night as Little John dropped a wooden box with iron strips in the circle.
“My Lord, do you have the key to your box?”
The Bishop shook his head.
“Will Scarlet,” Cletus said, “go and bring an ax straightaway, and cut this box open.”
Will left and returned with a great, two-headed ax. He struck the ironbound box, and on the third blow the box burst open. A heap of gold streamed across the ground. Coins glowed ghastly orange in the torchlight as murmurs spread through the band of men. Cletus ordered three men to count the gold. It took a long time to count the money, but when the men finished, they called out that the gold added up to two thousand pounds in all. Along with the gold the men found a paper. Will Scarlet read the document aloud so all gathered heard that the money was the fines and forfeits from estates belonging to the Bishopric of Hereford.
Cletus shook his head. He placed the dagger point against the Bishop’s chin and forced the holy man to look up from the grass. “My Lord Bishop,” Cletus said, “I will not strip you completely. You will take back one third of your money. One third of it I will be keeping as payment for the entertainment and food my men have provided for you tonight. One third will go to charity as you can spare money for such a noble goal.”
Cletus turned to Sir Richard and said, “Now, Sir Richard, it seems to me that the church wanted nothing more than to leave you and those like you penniless. As punishment for that, a portion of the Bishop’s third will be given to you. You will take the third meant for charity as well as for a total of twelve hundred pounds. Pay your debts and make your life whole again.”
“I will take your gift,” Sir Richard said, “but not as charity. I will pay my debts and secure my livelihood. In a year and a day, I will return it safe to you for I feel free to borrow but not to steal.”
“I do not understand the pride that weighs your heart,” Cletus said. “It shall be as you say if that is what you wish.”
“Sadly, I must go, kind friend,” Sir Richard said. “My wife must be anxious.”
Will Scarlet said, “Let us give Sir Richard a golden chain and jewelry that befits a man of his blood.”
“You speak well,” Cletus said. “Make it so.”
“Let us give him a bale of rich velvet,” Will Stutely said. “And a roll of golden cloth and a case of wine to take home to his noble lady as a present from Robin Hood and his merry men.”
“Good master,” Little John said, “we cannot let him go unattended. Let me choose a score of fellows, and let us arm ourselves. We will serve as retainers to Sir Richard on his travel home.”
“You speak well Will and Little John. It shall be done.
Sir Richard failed to speak as tears fell from his eyes. Sir Richard kissed Cletus upon the cheek. Little John and nineteen armored men led Sir Richard through the woodlands by the glare of torches and steel. As the men marched away, the Bishop said, “I must be going as well, good Robin. The night grows too late.”
Cletus laid his hand on the Bishop’s shoulder and pointed the dagger at the holy man. “Unfortunately,” Cletus said, “you’ll be going nowhere. I can’t have a festering sore of a man like you causing trouble for that good gentleman. You’ll be staying here with us for a while. Lay at my mantle. There will be great sport of hunting to be done, which I’ve heard rumor that you enjoy. Try to lead a joyous life for a few short days. Hopefully you will learn to be a better man while here.”
The Bishop and his Black Friars stayed with Robin for several days. The Bishop enjoyed hunting and feasting with Cletus so much that when the time came for him to leave, the Bishop was sorry to leave Sherwood Forest.