We don’t have gymnasiums or even weights to lift, so I have to rely on more primitive methods to train young Artr’s body. As he runs, he carries two baskets of rocks on a yoke around his neck. Just watching him makes me tired.
“Keep at it, boy. It’s not time to quit yet,” I shout at him.
“I don’t see why I need to do this,” Artr says. “I beat Elgar, the strongest man in the village. Haven’t I proven myself?”
“That’s not for me to say. The master says you need to get stronger and faster if you’re going to fight the demon, so that’s what we’re going to do. Now come on, no loafing.”
“Why can’t I fight him now? I’m ready.”
“That not for me to say either. I’m sure when the master thinks you’re ready, he’ll let you go. Me, I would be grateful. No sense hurrying to your execution.”
“You think he’s going to kill me?”
“I would almost guarantee it. Now, keep those legs moving. We still have a lot of work ahead of us.”
The boy shuts up and runs with the makeshift weights. I expect him to collapse any minute, but he keeps going. Maybe the master is right about the strength of the boy’s heart. “It is the strongest muscle in the body,” Merlin said. He was the first to figure that out.
“Still seems on the scrawny side to me,” I said.
“That is why you must train him. Prepare his body for the Demon.”
Once I decide I’ve tormented the boy enough for a little bit, we rest beside a creek. I give him some bread and dried mutton to snack on. We didn’t have all those protein shakes and so forth back then either.
“What’s this demon like?” Artr asks.
“Can’t say. I’ve never met him.”
“But Merlin has. Didn’t he say anything?”
“He only said the demon is someone you don’t want to trifle with. That’s why we need to make sure you’re ready.”
“How will you know I’m ready if you don’t know who he is?”
“We’ll let the master decide that. For now you just keep at it.”
We work at it for two weeks. I can see the results in the boy’s muscles. It’s not much difference, but he’s definitely lost the baby fat, his body lean and hard. At night he stays in my hut in the forest, in large part so he won’t have to be near his parents. Things have been a bit tense since the tournament, after which the chief banished Elgar from the village. The brute swore revenge on his way out.
I can tell this weighs heavily on Artr as he pretends to sleep. He finally rolls over to look at me. “What do you suppose will happen to Elgar?”
“He’ll find himself some other village. The master says there are plenty of them around these parts.”
“He promised he’d take revenge. What if he tries to hurt Mother or Father?”
“Then you’ll have to stop him.”
“What if I don’t survive against this demon? Then who will take care of them?”
“If you lose against the demon, then none of us will be safe. Now go to sleep, lad. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
When I wake up in the morning, he’s not in the hut. I don’t find him outside either. I call his name, but he doesn’t answer. I curse at myself and try to think of what to tell Merlin now that I’ve lost our great warrior. I should have known from the way he was talking last night he had started to get second thoughts.
I head to the lean-to Beaux keeps for her and the sheep. I hear her voice as I get close. She’s laughing. This is followed by a man’s laughter. That backstabbing wench! As I stomp towards the lean-to, I wish I’d brought a dagger to slice this man’s throat.
“Now see here—” I begin, but stop when I see it’s Artr with Beaux. They’ve both got their clothes on. Artr has a lamb in his lap; he’s trying to get the animal to drink some milk from a bowl.
“Oh, hello, Marlin. I went out for a walk and ran into Beaux. She’s showing me how to care for the lambs.”
“We’re supposed to be training you as a warrior, not a shepherd.”
“Yes, well, give that mangy creature back to Beaux and then we can get to work.”
“Hold on,” Beaux says. “He’s almost finished with it. In the meantime, let’s go outside to talk.”
We wander off into the forest so Artr can’t hear us. Then I say, “Are you daft, woman? Why are you teaching him about shepherding? You know what he needs to do.”
“He’s scared, that’s why. Can’t say as I blame him. That master of yours has put the whole world on this boy’s shoulders, all because he won’t do his fighting for himself.”
“He can’t destroy the Demon on his own. If he could, I’m sure he would.”
“I’m sure,” Beaux says and rolls her eyes. “Or maybe he’s a coward like his apprentice.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means you two are using this poor boy to do your dirty work.”
“There’s nothing I can do about it. He won the tournament. If he wasn’t ready, then he shouldn’t have insisted upon entering.”
Beaux sighs. “Fine. But for his sake, don’t push him so hard.”
“In a few weeks it’ll be over. Then he can come out here and play with lambs.”
I brush past Beaux and stomp back to the lean-to. The lamb is finishing the last of the milk. Artr sets it on the ground and then pats its head. He looks up at me. “I suppose we should get back to work.”
TO BE CONTINUED...
What nefarious schemes has the nasty Elgar been concocting? Find out tomorrow!