Early summer sunlight warmed the leafy canopy in Sherwood Forest, and filtered down to dust the forest floor below. A sharp-sighted person might have seen forms in the dappled shade, but he might easily have mistrusted his eyes and passed on. In fact, a dozen men lay about, napping or staring complacently at the patterns of branch and leaves above, brown and green jerkins no more than patches on the counterpane of fallen leaves and grasses they lay upon. Invisible in the branches above, sentries were posted, but a traveler would certainly not have suspected their presence - unless he was unfortunate enough to appear prosperous and worthy of their attention.
This was, of course, the camp of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, in the wild forest of Sherwood, on a warm May afternoon. Nothing much doing, nothing much to do.
A low whistle brought heads up - curious, but unalarmed, as a young woman swept into the encampment. Scarcely waiting for a greeting, she burst out:
“Robin! You couldn't guess! I just cannot believe it, even of him!”
The forest suddenly came alive, and the woman was enveloped in a laughing swarm of familiar faces.
“A riddle,” cried Alan A'Dale.
“Tuck has given up ale!”
“The Sheriff has taken a vow of poverty!”
“There's been a sudden shower of gold coins, and you've a bucket for us all!”
“No! None of your foolishness,” she flashed, suddenly recovering her lady's dignity, and silencing them, even before their leader's hand rose in a gesture of restraint.
“What is it, Marian,” Robin asked quietly.
“It is John, John of Locksley. The Sheriff - that beast, that low-born son of a cur...”
The men gathered around her, laughing at her rough language, but alert and listening for her news. None of them had any liking for the Sheriff of Nottingham, or his attitude of disdain for the good Anglo-Saxon folk over whom he enjoyed dominion, by grace of King John. The Merry Men listening so keenly to the Maid had all suffered from his greed. Robin, knowing John of Locksley from the time he had been a childhood companion, was not surprised that he had run afoul of the new Earl.
“He's on that island - they've put him in Crowperch Tower. Imprisoned, and alone, and left to rot, like as not.”
“Ah, Crowperch,” said Robin. “We grew up on stories of that tower, didn't we? Standing there all alone in the middle of the black river waters with nothing but a guard and a few sheep to keep you company. A place of nightmares - as dank and lonesome as the deepest dungeon.”
“Is this John a friend of you and Marian's then?” Little John asked bluntly.
“From our first walking days, filching apples together.”
“Then we free him!” bellowed Little John. A shout of assent from the others sang out in the glade as Marian beamed on them all.
They set off the very next morning. It was a day and a half journey - almost the full width of Sherwood Forest, five if you travelled by road. Robin stroke along silently, keeping counsel with no one, and the Merry Men slipped along quietly, confident that their leader was refining a course of action they would willingly follow.
As the shadows lengthened beneath the forest trees, Robin called Alan A'Dale to his side. The bard listened attentively for a few minutes as they strode along together, then laughed softly and nodded. That night, as firelight lit his face, the men overheard him mutter, “Run, sheep, run” “No time for wool-gathering then” but knew better than to disturb the bard at work.
Robin, however, having recovered his usual good spirits, was fair game for pestering and questions. Robin teased them along, only revealing that “Run, Sheep, Run” was a children's game played at dusk in the villages of Locksley. The wolf's task was to find the sheep - one child among all others who knew he or she was the quarry. Everyone else collaborated to keep the sheep's identity from the wolf as long as possible.
“Maybe long enough for Mr. Sheep to take himself to safer pastures,” laughed Robin, and would say no more.
As the Merry Men rose from their beds of leaves the next morning, they found Alan and Robin already conferring. Robin clapped Alan on the back and shouted, “Tuck, hoist that great gut up - I've work for you!”
“Oil my joints a bit, lad” a big-bellied man in a monk's brown habit replied, yawning hugely, “and I'm at your service.”
With a flagon under his belt, and another nearby, Friar Tuck penned the words recited by Alan A-Dale onto a bit of parchment. Little John read slowly over the Friar's shoulder,
“I miss my home
At shearing time.
Thereto I wouldst fly,
As arrows roam
my lonesome rhyme,
to God I raise my cry.
Run, sheep, run sheep.
Alone, alas, I sigh.”
“Why that's a terrible bit of drivel,” he opined, surprised. “I wouldn't give a fig for it.”
“Nor a turnip.”
“Nor an empty potato sack.”
“Nor a pot of pig slop,” agreed Alan happily.
“And neither will the Earl's guards, if they should catch sight of it,” Robin said with satisfaction.
By noon, the band was peering out from the trees of Sherwood Forest at a grim tower on a lonely islet. It looked uninhabited, but then a shout of laughter reached them across the dark river. While the two guards enjoyed the last of their lunch in the shade of their tower room, Robin wrapped his bit of parchment around an arrow, fit the arrow to his string, drew and let fly. The blunted arrow flew straight and true through the air, over the dark water, and slipped neatly, dead center, in the tiny window slit in the room above the guards.
A shepherd, munching on a crust of cheese, his back set comfortably against a willow, and his small flock of shorn sheep, were the only other living beings in sight. The sheep huddled near the ferry dock, perhaps wishing they had their thick black wool back around them still. Awhile later, when one of the sheep mysteriously disappeared, vanishing into the woods behind him, the shepherd dozed on, happily unaware of his loss. His dog had run down to the shore with its ears pricked toward the voice of another dog that seemed to come from just beyond sight behind the island tower.
That day the Merry Men ate well, fresh mutton being one of their favorite feast foods. Marian sat beneath a tree, stuffing and sewing with a smile on her lips. Robin and several of his men were busy in the trees opposite the tower.
At dusk, when all things soften and blur in anticipation of sleep, a fleecy black sheep, its legs tucked neatly beneath it, was carried in Alan's loving arms to the edge of the woods and placed tenderly on what appeared to be a giant slingshot constructed between two sturdy oaks.
Robin stood just behind, his eye flashing back and forth to the top of the dark tower, as he made tiny adjustments to the catapult. Smiling in satisfaction, he stepped back and gave the signal. Flying through the dusky air went the strangest bird ever to fly home to roost. A fleecy black sheep, its nose pointed gallantly ahead, flew in a graceful arc across the water and plomped solidly down on the tower's narrow wall walk.
Backs were thumped, hands clamped to mouths to stifle triumphant yells, and Alan capered about in a silent victory dance of his own invention.
Up on the tower, the prisoner emerged cautiously to investigate the thump. At first amazed to find a sheep inhabiting his lonely wall walk, he quickly comprehended the situation. Unbinding the sheep's legs, found the coil of stout rope where the Merry Men's dinner had been, and almost laughed out loud.
As night fell, one of the guards trudged up the stairs and thrust the prisoner's bread and cheese through the little hole in the door, receiving no thanks or sign from the prisoner seated despondently on the low stool, as usual. Shrugging, the guard returned below to his own dinner. “Stupid Yorkshiremen,” he grumbled, resigned to his duty far from home.
As soon as the sound of his footsteps died away, the prisoner leapt to his feet and ran out onto the wall walk. He was permitted to stroll there to take the air and - the Sheriff hoped - ponder his inaccessible prison. But tonight he had other plans.
Bundling the sheepskin under his arm, he looped the rope around a crenelation and was over the side and down before the guards had cracked their second mutton bones. Shrugging the black sheep's skin over his shoulders he slipped into the small flock of unshorn sheep innocently awaiting exchange in the morning with their naked cousins across the river. He huddled down among them, the smell of the skin and his gentle bleats allaying their first faint nervousness. He spend the night comfortably enough. Sheepskin all around was familiar, he thought philosophically, though he'd never experienced it before from the inside.
At dawn, the shepherd led his shorn flock onto a flat-bottomed ferry and poled it across the dark river, anxiously watched from the forest by a dozen invisible eyes. Nine sheep shivered and made for the sparse island grass, while the shepherd maneuvered their woolly cousins onto the boat.
“One, two, three … yes, there's the lucky number ten!” whispered Alan to Robin. Robin signalled his men into position, and notched an arrow tipped with a glob of pine pitch. Tuck stood by, a smoldering stick in one hand, blowing on it gently until it glowed.
The old shepherd turned away, stretching, looking forward to returning to his village with new sheep to shear. He ignored the guard emerging from the tower, yawning. The guard belched and waved a hand vaguely at the boat. The jostling sheep bleated softly and nervously.
On the shore, the sheep tried to move out all at once onto dry ground, and the shepherd had to struggle to keep them from pushing themselves back into the water. Just as he managed this feat, something happened which he would recount for the rest of his life. Out of nowhere, with no earthly cause, the boat began to burn.
His attention on this miracle, he did not see one of the sheep break away and race toward a strange high cry. If he could have heard it over the sheep's anxious bleating, he might have recognized the all-in-free cry of a game of Run,Sheep, Run.
In after years, John of Locksley often answered to another name when he visited his old forest companions.
“Ho, John of the Flying Sheep” one would cry. And he would never fail to to grin and baaaa in reply.