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?”
“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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