The Breathing Contest
Enjoy this short story by a friend of mine, C. F. Barrows. She has a handful of books published as well.
THE BREATHING CONTEST
by C. F. Barrows
“It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.” Theo tugs on his boots, tears glinting in his eyes. “Willem, I’m not ready for this.”
I stand in the corner farthest from my brother, wincing at the pain in his every word and move. I dare to speak, my voice scratchy from disuse. “I’m sorry, Theo. I swear I tried.”
Theo stalks to his wardrobe without responding. He whips on a tunic, something fine and regal, but so big on him that the neckline falls halfway down his ribcage and his arms are lost in billows of fabric. It’s one of mine, I realize, and I smile at picturing the fit his attendants will throw when they see him wearing it. Did he sneak into my chambers and steal it when no-one was looking? He’ll have a fight on his hands if he insists upon using it rather than his own tailor-made clothes.
But he’ll win. Theo always wins — it’s in his blood. My blood, too, until yesterday. Or was it several days ago?
It doesn’t matter anymore. All that matters now is Theo. He may be grieving and may rightly blame me for putting him through this, but I have to stay — I have to watch over him. It’s been my duty since the day our parents died, and failure or not, I won’t abandon it now.
A blink later, we’re standing together, looking over a balcony with throngs of people milling beneath it. Theo creeps forward to rest a hand on the railing, ignoring the mortified looks from his defeated attendants. Someone in the crowd spots him, and a cry from one leads to a swell of screams and cheers from their fellow citizens. Theo ducks back into the palace hallway. “I told you I wanted to do this privately.”
“A thousand apologies, Your Grace,” murmurs a balding adviser in long black robes. “But given the circumstances, er… there was no chance of proceeding without the public’s knowledge. And many wish to show their support, especially after your brother—”
“I don’t want their support,” Theo says flatly. “I don’t want the job. I was perfectly content with being the spare.”
“Come on, Theo,” I mutter, stepping after him. “Being a spare means replacing the ruling heir if necessary. You’ve always known that.”
“I’m not trained to rule — I was trained to give the kingdom peace of mind, so they wouldn’t worry about what might happen if…” He falters. “…But my role was passive. It was never meant to become active.”
I grimace. “Theo—”
“Willem wasn't supposed to die.”
His words punch a hole in reality that sucks me in, rips away the palace walls, and flings me into a tempest of men bellowing and grunting as weapons swing and arrows fly. Steel flashes. Fire blazes into my gut. My knees collide with stone, and as my vision blurs, I feel myself slipping.
No, Almighty, please — I can’t fade now. I have to go home. I have to protect Theo.
I plant a hand on the bloodied marble beneath me, grit my teeth, and stand.
We’re in the throne room now, and the storm of men is gone, replaced by an assortment of sullen nobles and courtiers arranged neatly around the room and a gaggle of servants at the back. The nobles cast disdainful glances toward the servants, and I know they only keep silent for fear of a confrontation with Theo. Even in devastation's wake, his nerve remains unbreakable.
I can almost hear his thoughts as the trumpets blare and he drags his feet up the crimson aisle, now wearing an appropriately splendid ensemble, eyes flicking toward the nearest of his courtly subordinates. If he can’t have his private ceremony, then at least he can avoid entering his unwanted reign surrounded only by the stuffy, turned-up noses he’s barely tolerated for nineteen years.
But something is wrong. The air tugs at me, draws me across the aisle and into the herd of commoners at the back. I try to turn around, to find my old spot and watch Theo, but I can’t. Something locks my feet to this spot and forbids me to look elsewhere. Almighty, why am I here?
Reality thrums like a pounding heartbeat, blurring my view of every face before me, save one. A man in a conspicuously shabby hood slips past another guest and reaches one hand into his opposite sleeve as he glares in my direction. For a moment I think he’s looking at me, that for the first time in days — perhaps weeks now — someone can see me. But then for the first time since being drawn here, I’m able to turn and see the true object of his attention.
The hooded man’s hatred echoes off a noble farther down the aisle. As I face the second man, he coughs, reaches into his jacket, and inches forward as his hand emerges… gripping a dagger.
I scream without thinking. “Theo!”
My cry ripples through the air, warping my vision, slowing time around me. I slog forward, the floor sucking at my feet like mud as others keep sure footing on top. A memory of my fatal wound cramps my stomach, trying to slow me down.
It didn't happen. I can't let myself believe it did. I have to be here. I have to protect Theo.
Theo's head turns, but in the wrong direction. Not toward his assassin — toward me. The dagger rises. Onlookers' eyes and mouths widen as they prepare to scream. My brother's eyes sweep to mine.
I lunge, grab hold of something solid, and pull it down with me.
Time snaps back into full speed as Theo and I hit the ground and his assailant stumbles from missing a blow he had every surety of landing. The screams go from watery to piercing, stabbing my dizzy head. Guards surge forward and twist the dagger from the noble’s hand. He struggles and screams obscenities, but I can only stare at the fabric gathered up in my right hand.
Theo's sleeve. I grabbed it. But how?
Even more unbelievably, Theo himself blinks at me, paling, nearly breathless as his chin trembles and he whispers, "Willem?"
He can see me. He can feel me. I'm here, and for the first time in ages, he knows it!
But as the guards subdue the first attacker, the hooded man shoves through the crowd and swings his own gleaming weapon down toward the floor, toward Theo.
The air sparks and the fire in my stomach sweeps me forward, through the air, over the heads of the onlookers, solid matter in my hands again. But this time I grasp a wrist and a throat, both so unbearably warm that I remember I'm cold. The reminder blurs my perception, and my grip vanishes. Not slipping — ceasing to exist, dropping my captive like a millstone onto a cluster of irate nobles below. A thud. More screams, all distorted now, and I rush downward as the ground draws me again and I'm submerged up to my ankles, my knees, my waist.
"Willem!" Theo reaches for me.
I reach, too, but when our fingers meet, mine pass through his.
My head goes under.
Now I'm back in the tempest of soldiers, knees on stone, blood seeping from a gaping wound, numb to the world around me as my strength fails and I slump to the ground.
How long have I been here, in this ancient marble gazebo where my enemies ambushed me? Has it been an instant, or has it been years? Will I die here, or am I already gone?
Is this still my reality, or am I only remembering it, desperately clinging to a responsibility I can no longer fulfill?
I have to stay. I have to protect Theo.
But Theo isn’t here, and I’m either dead or dying. How can I help him now?
“It’s the vagabond,” yells a muffled voice. “The vagabond lord has stabbed King Willem!”
A face flashes through my mind, and I think I’ve seen it three times. Once in a village, full of loathing as he rejected my every attempt at negotiation, refused to forgive my late father for casting him out of court, nor me for upholding that verdict. Once on a battlefield, glowing with victory as his blade ripped through a fault in my leather armor.
And once in a throne room — lurking amidst a gaggle of servants invited to celebrate a new king — reaching into his sleeve for a hidden blade.
My eyes fall closed, and reality wavers again as a child’s voice pleads in my mind, “You can’t go, Willem. You have to stay here — you have to protect me.”
“Theo… it’s just for a few days. You’ll barely notice I’m gone, and you’ll be well-protected, I promise.”
The boy pouts and crosses his arms. “But the guards are scary. And they’re not you.”
“They’re good men, and remember, you’ll have someone even stronger than me watching over you.”
The memory of a smile tugs at my lips. “The Almighty. No matter where I go or when we see each other again, He’ll be here to keep an eye on you while I can’t.”
“And He’ll keep me safe?”
“I pray He will.”
“What about you? What if you go somewhere and the Almighty doesn’t protect you, and you don’t ever come back?”
My memory self hesitates, then kneels before Theo and grips his hands. “Even if that does happen, and even if I don’t come back… it won’t be the end of the world. You’re my little brother forever. Nothing will change that.”
“Not even if you die?”
“Never. I’ll just keep being your overbearing big brother who loves you to shreds, and I’ll keep on protecting and praying for you as long as the Almighty gives me breath to do it.” My memory self’s brows twitch upward. “Maybe longer. I could always hold that last breath.”
Child Theo giggles and his arms around my neck feel more real than the wound draining the life from my veins. The last thing I hear before the memory fades is Theo whispering, “I bet I can hold mine longer than you can.”
Laughter from my memory self’s lungs reminds me that mine are failing. They rattle as they expand, as I feel myself weakening and pray, Almighty?
“You can let go now, My son.”
My eyes open and I see the throne room. Theo stares at the floor, cheeks damp as he drops to his knees where I fell. Six guards surround him as four others drag the would-be assassins away. I see their faces clearly now — some highborn noble I barely recognize, much less understand his motive… and Lance Eltris. The vagabond lord. My murderer, caught in the act of another assassination, this time a failure.
Because I stopped him.
Theo rises, wipes tears from his face, then marches to the raised throne at the end of the aisle. He nods, follows along as a priest guides him through his kingly vows, and kneels respectfully as the elderly man rests a crown on his head — the same crown that fell from my head only moments ago.
How? I have no idea. But I don’t care. Theo is safe, he sits on the throne — or will after I’m fully gone — and the Almighty, in His unfathomable mercy, just granted me the privilege of protecting him one last time.
My lungs unhitch, and with what little breath remains in them, I sigh the words, “Thank You.”
Then the world slips away, and I no longer have a part in it. But only one thing matters — Theo just won our breathing contest.
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