Posted by: Kathryn Hulick | December 23, 2009

Keeping Watch

Burana Tower, Kyrgyzstan. November 2004.

“Shh, do you hear anything?” Jakan huddled close to the other boys at the top of the tower. Out in the mist, shadows gathered and drifted apart. Tilek leaned out over the edge. “It’s coming,” he said.

A low rumble vibrated through the air, barely loud enough to hear.

The boys didn’t know what “it” might be. They had ideas, of course. Jakan thought it was a dragon with fire breath and glistening fangs. Ilim imagined a giant who ate whole trees. And Daniar, who wasn’t very bright, kept saying, “it’s just a herd of horses or something.”

“If it’s just horses, why are we up here to keep watch?” Tilek asked, and Daniar didn’t say another word.

The rumbling in the distance did sound like it could be a herd of animals. It was too close to the ground to be thunder, and these plains were home to plenty of wild creatures. But this reasoning only looped around and around and left a bitter taste.

They were here to keep watch for something. Whatever it was, none of them wanted to meet it face to face.

When Jakan’s father walked him to the base of the tower long before the sun was up that morning, he told him a tale of bravery and serving the town. “All boys must keep watch in the tower, for the safety and good of all.” Jakan had felt proud and grown-up in his leather jacket with loops to hold a knife, rope, and a bundle of mint leaves to chew for luck.

Now, the leaves were all gone and the jacket felt heavy and much too big.

Only Tilek didn’t seem afraid. Jakan wished he could lean out over the edge like that, tempting the dragon to show itself. If it even was a dragon.

The rumble grew louder and drew closer. Daniar wriggled in place, wanting and not wanting to say something.

“What do we do when it gets here?” he finally blurted out.

Tilek ignored the younger boy, so Jakan answered. “We choose one of us to run back to the village, and the rest stay here to hold it off.

“How?”

“With our knives, I guess.”

Ilim leaned in. “We’re also supposed to jump and shout, my dad said.”

“Stupid ideas.” Tilek swung his legs over the edge. “One of us should go now, before it gets close.”

“But I thought…” Jakan started.

“If it’s just thunder, we all end up wet when the rain comes.”

Jakan wasn’t worried about being wrong. Or getting in trouble for raising a false alarm. He was worried because they didn’t know which direction the thing was coming from. What if the one who left ran straight into it?

“So who goes?” Ilim asked.

Tilek drew his legs in to his chest and draped his hands over his pointy knees. “You.” He gestured at Jakan.

“Me?”

“Shouldn’t we, um, draw straws or something?” Daniar asked. Maybe he wasn’t so stupid after all.

“No. He’s the one who made the plan, so he carries it out.”

I wasn’t making a plan! I was answering a question! Jakan wanted to shout. He wished he still had some mint leaves. Or even a raw carrot or pepper to get the taste of fear out of his mouth.

Brrrrroooooommm! The sound felt close enough to touch. Shadows dashed this way and that, as if searching for places to hide from the thing that was coming.

Tilek shoved Jakan towards the ladder.

Slowly, feeling as if his hands and feet belonged to some other boy, Jakan climbed down. After only a few rungs, the mist closed around him, and he could no longer see the wide, dark eyes of his friends staring after him.

This morning when he arrived the fog hadn’t been so thick. The night had been clear and full of stars. Now, he was in a strange dream world of licking white clouds and booming vibrations.

Was it a dragon? Could it really be?

Down and down Jakan climbed. With each step, he waited for the solidness of ground. But it didn’t come. Another step. Another.

Finally, his foot landed on the icy grass. The night’s frost hadn’t melted. Not here.

Booooo-rrrrrooooommm!

Jakan ran.

His knife poked him in the side, so he took it out and held it, hoping he wouldn’t have to use it.

Was he just imagining the voices of the other boys? They sounded so faint behind the constant thrumming roar. Were they telling him faster, or come back? Watch out or too late?

All around him, the shadows came together. Swirling and seething, they formed themselves into a column rising through the mist, taller than the tower.

Jakan skidded to the right, trying to run past, but the shape widened into a wall, stopping him in his tracks.

He panted, throat screaming for air, eyes flickering back and forth. He would run back to the tower. It was the only way.

Just as he had made his decision, something cold and scaly grabbed his arm.

“Noooooo!” he screamed, and sliced with his knife, stopping just in time.

“Who are you?”

It wasn’t a dragon. It wasn’t bigger than the tower. In fact, it was someone he knew. The shaman king from the city. He carried an alligator-skin staff, and this is what had landed on Jakan’s arm.

The shadow behind the shaman was just that – shadow. Tame storm clouds obeying the man’s word. Jakan had seen him work his magic before one summer during a drought.

“I’m Jakan. Rashid the farmer’s son.”

“Were you afraid?”

Jakan hesitated. What was the correct answer? His father always said to tell the truth.

“Yes.”

“Good. A shaman must always fear the elements, for they are more powerful than he. But with this fear must come respect and control. Courage without respect and fear without control amount to the same thing, son.”

Jakan nodded, and listened for the other boys’ voices, clear now that the rumble was controlled by the old man. “Kill it!” They were screaming. “Are you still alive?”

Jakan would not tell them he hadn’t fought a dragon. No, he would let them imagine for themselves what it was he found in the mist. And they would think it was his glorious victory that led to his becoming an apprentice to the shaman king. Tilek especially would wish he had been the one to run off into the mist.

He’d always wanted to fight a dragon.

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