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Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Breathe (08/19/10)

TITLE: Smoldering
By Rachel Phelps


Sulphur. The scorching kiss of fire-laden air within his chest. Mikel seized with the coughing fit, clutching at the bundle in his arms, keeping the babe’s face as shielded from the smoke as possible. They were almost to the door. Through streaming eyes, he could see the opalescent bulk of the dead dragon blocking the way. The heavy crack of a falling beam sounded through the roar of flame. He dove for the door as the burning weight crashed against his left shoulder. The babe was snatched from his stretching arm as blackness overtook him…

Mikel awoke with a cry, a lump of silken sheets in the crook of his right arm. The heaving pants raked air across the wounds in his throat and chest. The physician said he would probably never fully regain his wind, a handicap he would learn to curse in battle, he was certain. For now, he cursed only the dreams that stole his sleep. He had intended to return home a hero, not a bandaged, wheezing shell who must rest before attempting a flight of stairs.

The glint of sunlight at the window and the scent of baking bread told him it was close enough to morning to warrant preparing for the day. Anything to avoid another dragon fight in his dreams. Mikel donned the velvet tunic and soft leggings laid out for him, curling his lip. He missed his mail shirt and hardened leather armor, though he dared not speak of it to his parents. He buckled on his swordbelt in defiance.They had forgotten the glory of fighting for the king. Indeed, it seemed they had forgotten the glory of aught save keeping their castle safe and comfortable should the king come to call.

Mikel gritted his teeth and allowed himself the luxury of slamming his chamber door as he departed, heading for the armory. He planned to discuss the matter with his father before breakfast. As expected, Duke Pasqual was sharpening the swords.

“Ah, son, glad to see you looking so well,” the Duke said, hefting the whetstone to begin his next blade. “Home life seems to be agreeing with you.”

Mikel’s nostrils flared with the deliberate intake of air. “I fancy I’ll soon be well enough to petition the king for my next mission.”

Pasqual chuckled easily. “Come, lad, you don’t think the king expects you to go out again, do you? You’ve done him a great service already.”

“As is my duty.”

The duke sent the whetstone singing down the blade with unnecessary force. “There are many kinds of duty, Mikel.”

“Aye,” Mikel bit out, the gruff tone awakening the fiery bands in his throat. “Which is why I must ask about yours. A peasant seeking sanctuary was turned away from the gates yesterday.” Mikel lifted his chin. “I wish to know why.”

Pasqual looked up, eyes hard. “Mind your tongue, boy.”

“Your duty to the king is to dispense his bounty to those who ask for it.” His father was testing the balance of the sword in his hand, clearly ignoring Mikel. “I wish to know what has changed since I left.”

Pasqual stood, playing the weapon through the air. “Test the swords with me, son?”

It was an unmistakable challenge. The duke’s skill was legend, and Mikel had scarce been old enough to hold a sword when he departed. Mikel nodded, swallowing against the pain in his tightening throat.

The blades touched and withdrew, each feeling the distance, testing their range.

“We must be wary of who enters these walls, son,” Pasqual said, lunging inside Mikel’s defense.

A twist of his wrist brought his father’s attack away from his body. Mikel steadied himself and countered, catching Pasqual’s blade and pressing his advantage.

“I don’t recall that being part of your commission, Father.”

“I have your sisters to think of,” Pasqual snapped.

The blades met, withdrew, clashed again.

“And the king has a kingdom to think of,” Mikel panted out, trying to control the pain in his chest.

Pasqual stepped back, lowering his weapon. “Enough. You are unwell.”

“Too unwell to discuss this?” Mikel challenged, sword still at the ready. “Or merely too young?”

“Your words.”

“And will I always be too unwell or too young?”

His father shrugged. “Perhaps your wounds will heal fully. It is not for me to say.”

Mikel nodded, sheathing his sword. “Farewell, Father.”

Pasqual’s face whitened. “Where are you going?”

Mikel stopped at the door. “Somewhere I can learn to breathe again.”

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Member Comments
Member Date
Charla Diehl 08/27/10
I liked Mikel and the way he conveyed the message--it is not our place to judge others, but rather to help the less fortunate. You used Mikel's injury to depict the topic, while the last line put the punch in this story.
Shann Hall-LochmannVanBennekom 08/30/10
The characters are certainly interesting and there's definitely more of a story to tell.

I personally found some of the dialog difficult for me, but I think that's because it was authentic to its setting. That time has never been a favorite of mine to read. But those who like this genre would definitely like the authentic feeling you gave the story.

A tiny editing note that I'm sure you've noticed. you're missing the end quote in the last sentence. With all of that said, I say go for the YA novel, I think it'll be well received.
Gregory Kane08/30/10
Personally I like the genre and I liked the clash both physical and philosophical between father and son. All the same I didn't properly connect with the story - possibly as it's envisaged as part of something bigger. I wasn't clear for example if the dragon encounter was a flashback or purely imaginary. There were for me a few too many issues left hanging. Your ending was nicely done, further enhancing the contrast between father and son and tying in with the MC's own health issues.
Joyce Morse08/31/10
I thought it was a very good story and while I see the potential for a novel here, it was easy to follow as a short story. I didn't need to know the previous events to understand the conflict between the father and son. I especially enjoyed their sword practice to add a physical element to the conflict. Very vivid and detailed description of the era. Loved it!
Caitlyn Meissner09/01/10
I thought your story was good, too, but the problem with fantasy is all the details that need to be explained. It's almost too much for 750 words. I think just the conversation between Mikel and Pasqual would have been enough, and maybe then you could have explained why a powerful talented-with-a-sword Duke is afraid of letting a peasant into his castle.
On the plus side, I love the weaknesses you gave to Mikel. That's the type of stuff that works good in fantasy, where too often every character is perfect. I think you did a great job. :)
Sara Harricharan 09/01/10
Hmmm. Not too bad at all! I'll red ink a bit, since that's what you noted on your brick.

I like Mikel for his character flaw and I like the fact that even though he's struggling with "Breathe" he was able to feel compassion for a peasant, while standing up to his father. That was pretty realistic and good conflict for a fantasy piece. ^_^ The beginning was a bit too rushed (but that's because fantasy is SO hard to cram into 750 words!) and while it explained the MC's issues with breathing, it took up space where the father/son interaction could've been further explored.

Otherwise, pretty good!
Sarah Elisabeth 09/01/10
I know nothing about fantasy, but your suberb writing skills shone through as always!
Amanda Brogan09/02/10
I was reading this just before they posted the winning entries and I'd say your Editor's Choice was well-deserved!

I don't usually read or write fantasy so this was a nice change for me. ;) It was poignant and suspenseful. Truly a winner!
Shann Hall-LochmannVanBennekom 09/02/10
Congratulations for placing in the top 15 of your level and in the top 40 overall and for the EC.
Marita Thelander 09/02/10
Congratulations, Rachel. Not a favorite genre for me, either. But in a short story I enjoyed it very much. One thing I love about your "work" is the broad span of historical fiction you manage to pull of with such expertise. Very gifted young lady!