Tebo was sweating despite the ice tinged gusts riding in from the sea. He focused on his breathing as he ran through the patchy fog. The street was lightly trafficked and he arrived quickly.
Alcheron’s Tower reminded him of a giant stone finger pointing at the sky, especially today with its details blurred by the weather. The clink of chain mail brought Tebo to as quick as stop as he could manage with the heavy pack driving him forward. He stared down at the wicked blade of the spear aimed at his heart. Sergeant Murdoc glared at him, his porcupine eyebrows seeming to threaten further injuries to anyone who got past his weapon. “You shouldn come runnin out the fog like that Tebo. I most skewered you!” The old soldier raised the point of his spear as Tebo set down his basket. “Sorry Murdo.” he gasped “I saw Johnny on the tower and was distracted.”
“Best worry bout yourself, runnin around like a lumbering six-horn!” He shook his head in irritation. “Well go on then. Just drop your basket and see to him. I don’t want to be fillin out no reports if he tries to swim in them clouds, though they’re thick enough today to keep his air filled head afloat.” He cackled at his own joke.
Tebo grabbed the lunch sack and was past the old guard before the dropped basket had finished wobbling. The veteran scrambled to balance it as Tebo’s hasty “Thanks Murdo!” reached his ears.
“It’s Mur-DOC you darn rock head!” Murdoc growled in annoyance, then harumphed and leaned his weapon against the tower stone. He grunted as he dragged Tebo’s pack next to the wall. That was heavy. The kid was stronger than most grown men. No surprise there. Murdoc had been a guard on the supply train Tebo’s father had traveled south on. He’d seen him kill a desert strider with his bare hands.
Then there was the matter of the kid’s heritage. Murdoc didn’t know what his mother had been, and he respected Garlem enough not to ask, but he’d seen the kid’s skin change when he was agitated. Oh he’d gotten better at hiding it, and he didn’t seem a bad sort, but there was Wilder blood in him – and you couldn’t trust Wilders.
Tebo ran, leaping small cracks and launching skittering shivs of stone down the stairs. Despite the fog, his feet were sure on the familiar surfaces. The mist thickened as he climbed. It muffled the sounds of the town below and reduced visibility.
Tebo recalled the many adventures he’d had on these very steps, traveling to lands that only lived fully in storyteller’s songs and a child’s rich imagination. Many of those adventures had been shared with Johnny. He sped up at the thought of his friend, his skin rippling with faint spots and whorls of color, unnoticed.
As Tebo neared the top, he slowed and took a few breaths to calm himself. He didn’t call out. He didn’t want to startle Johnny. A lump formed in his throat as his head rose above the landing, now fully shrouded in white. He could smell the sea, the smoke of chimneys and the merchant’s cook fires far below, but visibility was limited. Tebo moved cautiously forward.
The rough surface under his feet told his him was nearing the broken edge that jutted, mysteriously, over the sea, as if it had once held a bridge. The sound of the waves was louder. Tebo could see the shapes of the stones that had been placed in front of the gaping edge. With a sense of trepidation, Tebo called out. “Johnny?” He started as one of the stones seemed to turn slowly in his direction. A gust of wind cleared the air and Tebo saw the wild apple-red hair of his friend.
“Tebo!” Came the welcome greeting. “Your spots are pretty.”
Tebo looked down at the swirling patterns and changing colors of his arms. Faint ridges puckered and raised his skin in lines and circles. Tebo shook his head in disgust and felt his eyes sting in frustration. I’m such a freak. His mind grabbed at the warrior’s meditation his father had taught him. I am a spark in the fire of the Builder. The blade forged in flame. The blows of the hammer strengthen me. The chill of the water quenches me. The heat of the coals temper me. I will not fear. I will not fail. He repeated it until he felt the calm settle on him. Tebo breathed deeply of air, which now tasted of snow, and watched as his skin returned to its normal hue and texture. He sighed and turned to Johnny. “You gave me a scare Johnny. What are you doing up here? It’s not a good day to be on the tower and you can’t really see much.”
Johnny clumsily patted Tebo on the head, arms and shoulder. He didn’t seem to get the idea of back slapping as a hello and instead his enthusiastic greetings involved a series of disjointed smacks that could range from mid-bicep to the side of the head. Fortunately they were gentle enough or his hello would have sent Tebo tumbling into the sea. He chuckled and patted Johnny’s back in relief at finding him ok.
Easing onto an adjoining stone, Tebo opened his pouch of food. Without hesitation Johnny reached in to grab the apples that were his namesake as much for the color of his hair as for his enjoyment of them. When he was done with each apple, Johnny carefully tucked the cores into his pocket as he always did. Tebo studied Johnny’s face, noting a fading bruise surrounding an eye and evidence of a bloody nose. Tebo felt a flush of anger at the signs of bullying and he was forced to take several deep breaths to control his emotion.
Johnny seemed oblivious. He never talked about the bullying and seemed almost indifferent to it. Between bites and noisy lip smacking Johnny raised his finger to point happily at the billowing wall of white that melded sea and sky. “Dragon hawk!” he exclaimed. Tebo’s heart skipped at the mention of the fierce creature and then shook his head and smiled at himself. Dragon hawks weren’t real. He sighed and tried to follow Johnny’s wavering finger as it moved up and down. He realized Johnny was probably seeing shapes in the fog. It was a variation of a game that he and Johnny had played many times when they were younger. Laying on their backs, looking up at the clouds. Johnny had an incredible imagination and could help the young Tebo see all the creatures from the stories that the Wandering Folk would tell whenever they came to town.
He smiled and pointed to a shape himself and said “Sea Gorgon” glad to play the old game, forgetting his work and worry for a moment.
Without lowering his hand Johnny insisted “dragon hawk!” It was unusual for him to be fixated like this. Usually he would point at different clouds and happily rattle off one mythical creature or legendary hero after another until Tebo would have to start repeating some; nobody remembered all the story details and names the way Johnny did.
Johnny pointed again, raised his voice and enunciated carefully “Dra-gon Ha-wk!”
In bemused exasperation now, Tebo tried to see what his friend saw. After a moment he did. There was a shape created by the clouds and mist that did seem to suggest the long sinewy neck of a dragon hawk. Tebo thrilled “I see it!” he said and enjoyed his discovery. The shape seemed to rise and fall as it pushed forward looming larger. It was as if the clouds had been given shape by Johnny’s words. Tebo smiled. It was rare for the shapes to hold together so long, let alone to rise and fall with the sea. He could almost imagine he saw the fierce eye… Tebo sat straighter. “What the heck?!” the shape continued to rise and fall, growing larger. His eyes were drawn upward by a fluttering speck of red. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. It didn’t make any sense. Was that a … flag! He traced the shape downward with his finger and froze. Breaking through the fog, as if it was tearing through the veil that separated the world of myth from the world he knew, a vision whiter and more solid than the fog. Rising up the powerful waves of the winter sea, a thing that could not be. Beyond the seawall, taller than any ship that he had ever seen, was a legend. A ship built of white wood. Not a dragon hawk, the “Dragon Hawk”!
Tebo stood dumbfounded, his mouth slightly agape as the forgotten meal dropped from his lap into the sea. His heart raced, proof of its strength or the events of this day would surely have stilled it. The broad bow of the ship breaching the waves, seemed alive, the wood fashioned to resemble a mighty dragon hawk. Carved wings folded against the bulwarks. The long graceful arc of neck rose from a muscular chest. At the top a fearsome head, toothy beak agape, roared out its defiance to all challengers. Then, as if denying that it was wood at all, a powerful bellowing blast echoed from the sea, its sound seemingly magnified by the wall of fog behind it until it bounced off every wall, and vibrated in his very bones.