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King John did not like to be foiled in anything he did, and he found himself in a very tricky situation. Sitting on a hastily erected throne on the edges of the forest he sat there, eyeing the trees suspiciously as if daring them to move without his permission. He had a shocking bad temper and could be frighteningly cruel and scary when he lost it. Twice he had thrown his crown into the moat and made the guards go swimming in there looking for it. That takes a long time when you have to take off all your armour, and the water was very cold.
But they took it all off anyway, in case he really did lose his temper and threw them in still wearing it. It’s hard to swim in armour. You sink!
There were twenty five guards standing around him, all of them armed to the teeth. They were fresh from other parts of the country, but they had heard the stories, and they were not taking any chances. These boys were more than a little bit scared and they were not afraid to admit it. They had armour, and swords, and shields, and spiky iron maces (which are like a mental conker on a stick). They had spears, and they had bows and arrows, and although each of them weighed a ton and could hardly move, never mind fight, they still didn’t feel very safe. And neither did King John, if we are being really honest in our story, and for a very good reason.
There was something in there they were scared of. Or Rather Someone.
King John was not much to look at, and reminded you of something crafty and cruel at first glance. He was a little man with a pointy dark beard, and his crown was too big. His cloak wrapped around him like a blanket because it was made for a much taller man, and he scowled at you when you came near. The guards were almost as frightened of him as they were of what they believed hid in those trees.
The trees of Sherwood Forest.
This was no little deer park. This was a great, rambling ancient wood that ran for miles and miles across the county of Nottingham, so thick in places that the deer could hardly get through, never mind the soldiers. Sometimes people went in who didn’t know their way through to the other side and they were never seen again. There were just little tracks which ran through, tiny little paths which were hardly good enough for a man to walk, never mind someone with a horse or a wagon.
And there were the things IN the Wood.
Like….. Robin Hood!!
Robin Hood! Oh my goodness me, Robin Hood…. How could he be real? The famous outlaw who robbed the rich to feed the poor, and made King John so furious that he rolled on the floor and bit the carpet! The man in Lincoln green, who vanished into the woods so completely that people had started to say he wasn’t a man at all, that he was an elf, or some reborn version of the ancient Green Man, the Lord of the Forest.
How could they catch him? How on earth could they lay a trap? He was so clever, and so quick, and he knew the woods so well that a fox could not be so cunning, and god help the kings men who tried to track him down.
The guards did not like the sound of that. They did not like the sound of that at all. And if he were to be honest, (which is extremely unlikely) neither did King John.
Could he be the Green Man come again? The Green Man was a spirit of nature, the guardian of the forest. He had the shape of a man made of leaves and stick, of living vegetation, and you see his face on old churches all the time, a face made of leaves peering down at you from ancient times past.
Robin Hood was so good at escaping, so good at surprising the Kings men, and so good at robbing them and getting away again that the soldiers were starting to say that the stories were true. Maybe Robin Hood really was the spirit of the forest. Maybe he wasn’t a man at all! Maybe he really was this spirit made of leaves haunting the woods and jumping out to grab them if they dared to go into Sherwood!
”What a load of Absolute Piffle!” roared King John, very sarcastically, “Have my soldiers turned to a bunch of scardy cats? You bunch of jelly-legged cowardly custards! Call yourselves soldiers! Robin Hood is as real as me!”
Well, that didn’t help much. The soldiers didn’t think much of King John on the quiet, and would happily be rid of him to get Good King Richard back from prison in Germany. But they better not let him know that or he really would lose his temper!
So they grumbled, and stood around the Kings throne, saying things like “We can’t leave you on your own, Your Majesty! Goodness me, no! What if he swung down out of the trees and got you while we were in there and left you on your own?”
King John did not like the sound of that at all, so as much as he wanted his soldiers to go in there looking for Robin Hood, he did not have the slightest intention of going in there with them. Who would Robin Hood grab first? Wicked King John of course!
So they were stuck. The soldiers would not leave King John to go into the forest in case Robin Hood came out and grabbed the King, and the King would not lead them in there in case Robin Hood grabbed him there and then!
Oh Dear, what a to-do!
And this made King John FURIOUS! “I am the KING!” he though angrily to himself, “I OWN the forest! Why can’t I jolly well march straight in there and grab that bunch of rascally outlaws and have them all hung!”
He felt like everywhere he looked there were men of Robin Hoods hiding behind the trees pulling faces at him, and he darted his eyes about suspiciously trying to spot them amongst the leaves and branches. There was nothing there really but a baby rabbit, but King John would have shot it with a bow and arrow if he saw it, a he was extremely spiteful and it would have made him feel better!
But someone HAD to go in there. There was a very important, very secret mission which had to be undertaken, and somehow King John had to get someone to go into the forest and find a lost minstrel.
A very important lost Minstrel. A very important lost minstrel indeed. You see he knew how to find Good King Richard, and he was on his way with a special letter to free him from prison in Germany.
That’s not such good news for King John, really. Not when his big brother was REALLY the proper king of the country. John would have a LOT of explaining to do if his big brother came home.
King John seized power when King Richard captured on his way home from the crusades, and held for ransom by a foreign King.
Luckily no-one was sure where he was…. But if someone was able to find him, and get a letter to his captors from their mother, then Richard would be home again, would want his throne back, and King John would be booted out on his own with a lot of very angry people everywhere whom he had upset waiting to have a sharp word with him.
And this Minstrel was on his way to free King Richard!
And he was hiding in Sherwood Forest! Of all the places in the world, why did he go in there? Couldn’t he hide under the bed, like King John did when it was thundering? Fancy hiding in the great forest where Robin Hood was running amok, robbing all the honest travellers of their massive bags of gold and giving it to hungry poor people! What a shocking way to behave!
So wicked, wicked King John sent for his most trusty servant, The Sherriff of Nottingham!
Oh, a more wicked man did not walk the earth beside his King! The Sherriff was as ruthless and as cruel as his master, and he had a bad score to settle with Robin because Maid Marion was in love with him!
So he appeared beside the King, and John explained that he wanted this Minstrel found. He was in the forest and he wanted the man stopped and his letter taken away!
The Sherriff was not frightened of anything! But the soldiers were scared of HIM! They were more frightened of him than they were of King John and when he walked past then their armour clanked and rattled as they shook and their knees knocked as he walked by. The Sherriff looked at them with great disgust, and as he went past he just raised his eyebrows and said “Huh!”
Then he walked into the trees. King John sat forward on his throne, clutching at the arms and making his knuckles go white as he stared. The men hardly dared to look! They expected the forest to swallow him up! They expected Robin to swoop down on a rope from the treetops and swing him away into the trees with a dreadful scream! They thought Robin riding a dragon was going to appear and burn the sheriff to a crisp!
But Oh…. He just slipped a bit when walking around a bush. And then he was gone.
It was more than mortal men could stand. The soldiers thanked their lucky stars they had got away with it this time, and waited for a scream…..
The Sherriff was actually a very good soldier. He was a good woodsman, and a good tracker, and he was made of much sterner stuff than the men out there quaking in their armour, or his nasty tempered boss King John. He wasn’t frightened of the forest and he certainly didn’t believe that Robin had become the Green Man. He was just an outlaw, and the Sherriff was determined to find the Minstrel before Robin did.
There was a clear set of track which the sheriff was able to follow quite clearly, and he was doing so quite carefully when he realised he could hear someone whistling!
Whistling! Who could be whistling in the forest? It made him extremely suspicious, and he followed the sound.
The last thing he expected to find, to be quite honest, was a rather fat monk, sitting on a tree stump and swinging his legs cheerfully as he whistled.
“Hello my Son,” said the Friar rather happily when he saw him, “Lovely day for it.”
“For WHAT?” snapped the sheriff suspiciously, pointing the tip of his sword at the monks round chin.
“That’s not very nice!” said the monk indignantly, “There’s no need for that you know! Here am I minding my own business, keeping watch for a weary traveller while he gets himself a little sleep, and you come and poke me with that great sword of yours! Where are your manners?”
“Safely under lock and key in a dungeon, which incidentally is where you’ll be if you don’t tell me the truth. Who is this traveller you are protecting?”
The monk, with a massive show of pride and dignity, pushed the sword away from his throat, and looked down his nose at the Sherriff. “He is an artist, if you must know. A strolling player. A Minstrel. And if you’ll kindly put that fruit knife away you can meet him. I said I’d give him a prod about four o’clock….”
Stumbling a bit, (as his leg had gone to sleep) the tubby monk wandered over to a large bush, and cheerfully said “Wakey wakey, rise and shine, show a leg the mornings fine!” And grabbing hold of someone foot, he pulled a man out from under the leaves.
The man was quite good looking and he was hugging his lute to himself sleepily, “Ello, what’s for breakfast?” he said with a yawn.
The tip of the sheriff’s sword suddenly appeared under the man’s nose, and he went cross eyed looking at it. “Oh. Not Porridge then?”
“Cold steel,” snapped the Sherriff.
“I say,” the man said to the monk, pushing the tip of the sword away, and “He’s rather rude, isn’t he?”
The monk nodded sadly, “No sense of humour at all.”
“Would you be carrying ay messages about your person?” the Sherriff did not believe in beating about the bush, especially if he could set fire to it instead.
The man stretched out on the ground lazily in the dry leaves, “Ah well, that would be telling. I have a letter to be delivered to the king.”
A small and rare smile appeared on the Sheriffs face. It looked like he had tummy ache. “I am his majesties envoy and representative for Nottingham and Sherwood Forest. You can give any messages to me.” The sword appeared to be playing an important part in the weight of the Sheriffs argument and he was apparently trying to decide where to stick it in the man if he did not help.
The minstrel frowned, “You’re not going to stick that sword in me, are you?”
The Sherriff actually laughed, “No, I’ll use a spoon. Its dull, and it’ll hurt more!”
The Minstrel swallowed hard and put his hands up, “Mercy Sire! You have me at your advantage! Here, here is the message I am to give to the King!” And he withdrew a carefully rolled strip of parchment from his sleeve, and handed it to the Sherriff.
Looking mightily pleased with himself, the Sheriff drew a dagger, and threw it at the minstrel, who has only them jumped up! It went through his big cloak and pinned him to a tree. And the Sherriff came up very close and said to him quietly, “If I were you I would leave this forest and never show my face again. It might be very bad for your health.” And turning he peered down at the short monk, “And that goes for you too, father. Unless you would like to meet your maker rather earlier than originally intended…..”
And with that he walked off, swaggering a bit as if he owned the whole forest. He was a very scary man, the Sherriff of Nottingham.
The two men stayed exactly where they were, as if hardly daring to breathe, for a couple of minutes, until they were sure he was gone.
Then the monk, looking off down the forest path carefully, gave a big thumbs up sign to his friend pinned to the tree to let him know they were safe. And then the two of them started laughing, laughing as if they had heard the best joke in the world. And with a quick move to loosen the hood of the cloak, the man inside stepped out to reveal that he was… ROBIN HOOD!
He slapped his friend Friar Tuck on the back happily, and the two of them lifted up the branches from where Tuck had pulled Robin by his foot. Sitting very quietly at the back sat a slightly frightened looking man, who was looking around warily. Robin called him out with a smile, “Come sir, you’re safe now. I do believe our good friend the Sherriff is well on his way back to Prince John with our false letter. I think you can carry on with the real letter without worrying too much.”
The man climbed cautiously out and friar Tuck retrieved his cloak, “Sorry about the hole. You should be able to sew it quite easily.” Tuck looked at the dagger and threw it into the bushes, “Nasty sharp things!”
The Minstrel struggled into his cloak, and they handed him back his lute, “But what of the false letter? What did it say, the one you gave to him?”
Robin grinned at him, and raised his eyebrows, “Let’s just say it’s a insult about reading other people’s mail. I don’t think he is going to be very happy about what it calls him!”
Tuck and the minstrel started to giggle, and Robin started off down the path, “Come on, we’ll see you safely on your way out of the forest. They’ll never catch you now you’re with us!”
This proved to be perfectly true, of course. He escaped and went off to Germany to find King Richard. But before they got very far down the path they heard a rather terrible scream, and then a lot of Royal curses. King John was not very happy about what the letter said to him at all!
And as Robin sped on his way, guiding the Minstrel on his important mission, moving through the forest, and as King John, way behind them shouted at the trees and yelled at his soldiers, neither of them saw a ghostly figure straighten up from where he had been leaning against a tree and watching everything that had happened. The Green Man, with skin like bark dusted with moss, and eyes like dark green marbles smiled a secretive smile to himself, and disappeared into the forest.