Sentinel Flame Book One
By Adam Freestone
Alaskan Writer of Imaginative Creativity
Warm rays of sunlight shone through wide gaps between cottony clouds dotting the afternoon sky, and a calm breeze kept the air comfortably cool. It was the best kind of day to be outside, especially for the group of young boys playing a rowdy game near one of the well-groomed trees adorning the grounds of their school. It was considered a test of bravery by some to come this close to the tree. Not that the tree was intimidating. It looked quite plain as far as trees go. None of its leaf-covered branches were twisted in strange ways and its trunk was unmarked by unusual-looking knots. And there were no stories where bad things had once happened beneath its shade. By all its qualities, it was nearly identical to the other trees scattered throughout the school grounds. Save for one.
That one quality made teachers who were tasked with watching students pay extra attention to the boys playing near it and some older students who occasionally glanced toward the tree. The quality was hard to see, but every so often, a small shift of movement and the faint glint of two sapphire eyes would reveal it. Everyone thought the thing those eyes belonged to was evil, some harbinger of ill-fortune. A thing to bring a curse upon them. Why else would it stay hidden if it wasn’t planning something dreadful? Only evil things with hatred for sunlight would cling to the shadows. Why such a thing was allowed to be here, none of the onlookers could answer. Most thought things like this only existed in far-off places or dark stories. Yet, here it was. Maybe a fit of madness had driven the person who had found the thing to believe it belonged in such a place. Or maybe it possessed powers of enchantment over the mind allowing it to make others think it was harmless.
But despite the rampant and varied opinions about the nature of the thing those eyes were a part of, none were the least bit accurate. The thing possessed no abilities to control others, it had never harmed anyone, and it frankly never wished to. It knew harming others was wrong. In many ways, it was not dissimilar from the onlookers. But it was still different enough. The thing didn’t understand why its differences made everyone so uncomfortable. And when people were uncomfortable, it didn’t like how they acted. They would raise their voices and sometimes even hurt the thing. No lasting harm would come from this, but the thing always felt as if it had done something it shouldn’t have. Then there was the staring.
It hated being stared at. All those eyes from every direction looking at it. It made the thing want to hide. And its favorite hiding spot was this tree. Behind the trunk and beneath the cool shadow of its branches, the thing could only be seen if people tried hard to spot it. It made the thing feel safe as if nothing could harm it. But as secure as the thing felt here, it was not content. What it wanted was out in the bright sunlight, away from the tree. What it wanted was relatively simple, something a child would want. It wanted to join the group of boys who played in front of it. Even if it had to venture out into sight, where it would be stared at, if it could join the group, then being stared at might not be so bad. The thing was sure even with its differences; it wouldn’t have any advantage over the boys. It would be a fair game. However, the most pressing issue would be for them to let him join their game. They had never let him no matter how hard he tried. It was aggravating; they wouldn’t.
With a displeased sigh, Hyroc settled down into a sitting position in a space between two winding roots, putting his back to the group. There wasn’t any point in watching them any longer; it would just make him want to join them even more. He rested his head against the tree’s trunk, using his hand to smooth out a patch of his fur sticking up uncomfortably against the bark. Why his body was covered in a black layer of it with two dark brown stripes running from his eyes over the back of his head, no one could answer, along with why he had a whiskerless snout and why his head greatly resembled a wolverine’s. Hyroc used his fingers to feel along his snout down to his nose as he absentmindedly stared at the stones of the moss-strewn wall surrounding the school. He didn’t think it made him look scary like everyone seemed to act. Once his fingers found the end of his nose, he moved them down to his mouth and touched the ends of his teeth. It could have been his teeth. They were sharper than everyone else’s, but dogs also had those and no one seemed to mind. Hyroc lowered his hand to his neck to feel along the brass chain of a necklace he wore, stopping at a disc of silver attached to the end with the visage of a bear etched into the front. He dropped his hands into his lap and blew out a breath. It didn’t matter why; those boys were never going to let him join their game.
He picked up a twig lying on the ground and began spinning it around in his fingers. A moment later, the boys began yelling excitedly. His conviction to ignore the group dissolved at the sound, and he was once again standing against the tree’s trunk, watching them with his white hand-claws resting against the bark. Being alone wasn’t any fun. Maybe today would be different; maybe today, they would finally let him play with them. He brushed the dirt from his pants and blue-gray school robe. Gathering his courage with a deep breath, he stepped toward the group.
His shoe had scarcely touched the ground when he became aware of someone standing behind him. Turning his head, he got a start; memories of pain flashed through his body when he saw Billy Mason leaning against the tree’s trunk staring down at him.
Billy was a heavyset boy, three years older than Hyroc, with greasy black hair. Two other boys, Hurly and Phil, emerged from the other side of the tree behind Hyroc, arraying themselves to block any escape attempt.
Hyroc silently chided himself for not keeping an eye out for these three boys. How could he have forgotten? They were always looking for him!
“I thought we were all friends, Scatt,” Billy said, walking toward Hyroc. “You ran away yesterday and ruined all our fun, Scatt.”
Hyroc restrained himself from yelling back the reason; it would only make the beating worse. It would hurt less if he kept quiet.
“Billy, Billy, I came up with another name for Scatt,” Hurly said with an evil grin. He lowered his voice. “It’s – it’s got a swear word in it.”
Billy turned his head toward Hurly. “What is it?”
Snickering, Hurly said, “Bastard Bear.” The three of them burst into laughter. Hyroc flushed, feeling suddenly warm in the face. That was a very bad thing to be called, especially for him.
“That’s pretty good. Bastard Bear. I like it.”
“Bastard,” Phil said, chortling.
“What do you think of the name Bastard Bear?”
Hyroc’s face turned hot. He knew it would make them hurt him more, but he couldn’t stop himself from speaking. “My name is Hyroc!” Hyroc growled.
Billy grinned broadly. “What’s that Bastard Bear?”
“Stop calling me that!”
“I think we hurt his feelings,” Phil said, feigning sympathy.
Billy stepped up to Hyroc. “What did you say Bastard Bear?” He shoved Hyroc sideways away from the tree’s trunk. Barely maintaining his balance, Hyroc stumbled over the root-riddled ground. “Did we hurt your feelings, Bastard Bear?” Billy shoved him much harder. The back of Hyroc’s foot caught on a root as he stumbled backward, causing him to fall and hit his head on the ground. “Your mother was a witch and she deserved to die.” Hyroc’s expression hardened and he shot Billy a volcanic glare as he rose to his feet.
“Don’t talk about my mother that way,” Hyroc bellowed.
Billy smiled derisively. “And how are you going to make me, Bastard Bear? You’re a coward, that’s why you run away all the time, and cowards don’t fight back, Bastard Bear.”
Hyroc clenched his fists. “Stop calling me that!” he snapped back.
Billy’s smile broadened. “Make me, B–”
Something inside Hyroc snapped. With a primal yell, Hyroc tackled Billy as he uttered the first syllable of the name. Billy hit the ground, and Hyroc rammed his fist into the side of the bully’s jaw. Billy took a wild swing at his attacker; Hyroc dodged out of the way and using both fists one after another, laid into the boy’s face. Blood quickly began streaming out of Billy’s nose. Alarmed yells of teachers filled the air, but they sounded distant to Hyroc. When a teacher finally wrenched him off Billy, the bully’s face was purple with bruises and sticky with blood. Hurly and Phil stared at Hyroc with their mouths agape in complete shock. The group of playing boys stopped and stared in amazement at the spectacle.
Hyroc’s rage fizzled out when he recognized the teacher as Miss Duncan. If he could imagine anyone as a witch, it was she. She was an old gray-haired woman with a withering gaze. She punished him for even the slightest infraction, things other teachers would rarely bother with. She raised her hand and struck Hyroc in the side of the face. His nostrils stung as he felt a warm streamer of blood run out of his nose.
“Fighting another student!” she said coolly. “The headmaster will hear of this.” She grabbed Hyroc’s arm in a painful vice-like grip. He gritted his teeth as she dragged him to the headmaster’s office.
The headmaster looked up from a piece of parchment laid across his desk, a writing quill in hand, as Hyroc and Miss Duncan burst through the door. The headmaster was a man of average height and build, in his early forties, with brown hair showing thin strips of gray in places across his head. His face was unmarked, with the discerning look of intelligence from long years of study and his eyes were both stern and perceptive.
Bookshelves and glass cabinets covered most of the room’s wall space. A large pane glass window sat directly behind the headmaster, with a single door to the right and a fireplace set into the wall on the left.
The headmaster’s eyes focused on Hyroc, a flash of irritation showing. He placed his quill in a half-full ink well before it could drip and stain the immaculate polished surface of his desk.
“Yes, Miss Duncan?” the headmaster said, sounding subtly annoyed.
She looked down at Hyroc. “This, student,” Miss Duncan said as if the mere thought caused her discomfort. “Was caught fighting on the school grounds.” The headmaster sighed. “And he seriously injured another student.”
“Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I’ll take care of it.” She nodded curtly, releasing her grip. Yanking his arm free, Hyroc rubbed his throbbing arm as she swept out of the room, closing the door behind her. The headmaster stood up from his desk and walked over to look out the window, his arms folded behind his back.
“Is what she said true?” the headmaster said in a stern tone.
“Yes,” Hyroc grumbled.
“Who was it?”
“It was Billy.”
The headmaster shrugged. “Who threw the first punch?”
Hyroc glowered but remained silent. He was in trouble now. He shouldn’t have done that.
The headmaster turned, giving Hyroc a severe look. “Who threw the first punch?”
“I did,” Hyroc admitted grudgingly. He didn’t want to say it, but lying would get him into even more trouble.
The headmaster narrowed his eyes. “You, what!”
Hyroc spoke in a rapid irritated tone. “He and his friends called me a – a – a ‘Bastard Bear’. And they said things about – about my mother!”
The headmaster shook his head dismissively. “Just because someone says something you don’t like doesn’t give you the right to beat them bloody.”
“Then why is everyone else allowed to?” Hyroc blurted out before he knew he was saying it.
Caught slightly off-guard, the headmaster shrugged, his expression softening. He walked over to Hyroc. “Do you remember what I told you about The Ministry trying to take you away from me when you were a baby?”
The man was more than a person in charge of Hyroc, he was his father and his name was Marcus. For as long as Hyroc could remember, he had known something was wrong. The most obvious sign was he looked nothing like his father. When he had asked Marcus about this, knowing the futility of trying to hide the blatantly obvious, he told Hyroc the truth, at least the little truth he knew. Hyroc had been found in the arms of his dead mother – who bore his matching features – and Marcus had adopted him, raising him as if he were his own. Despite an initial storm of confusion this knowledge brought, beyond no longer referring to him as father, the bond between them remained strong. Marcus then gave Hyroc a necklace that had been around his neck when he was found. The trinket was his only link to his birth parents, who he knew nothing about. He often thought about what they might have been like and tried to think back to when his mother was still alive. Frustratingly, he could never remember anything before Marcus, just a strange sense of cold that made a patch of frostbitten skin on his ear prickle.
“Yes,” Hyroc responded.
“The Ministry is looking for any reason to take you away,” Marcus said.
Hyroc felt a bolt of fear shot through him. He didn’t want to go with them. Something bad would happen to him if he did. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to get in a fight with Billy.”
Marcus gave him a dismissive wave. “I know.”
“Don’t let them take me away; I don’t want to go, I want to stay with you and June, I promise I’ll do better,” Hyroc pleaded.
“I know you do.”
“Why do they hate me so much?”
Marcus smiled half humoredly. “They don’t hate you. They’re just scared. You’re different and people around here aren’t used to seeing things that are different. That’s why it’s so important for you to avoid fighting.”
“And I will.”
Marcus affectionately patted him on the shoulder. “I know you will.”
Marcus walked back over to his desk, removing a large wooden paddle. Hyroc stiffened at the sight of the paddle, taking an instinctual step backward and giving Marcus a horrified look. Marcus had never used the paddle on him, but he had heard disturbing stories of how much pain a strike on the rear from it caused. He stared at Marcus with pleading eyes as he approached. Marcus set the paddle on the cushion of a nearby chair then began watching a space below the door to his office. Hyroc’s eyes darted between Marcus’ face and the paddle in a mixture of puzzlement and absolute terror. Marcus put a finger to his lips, signaling for Hyroc to remain quiet.
He came up close to Hyroc. “Miss Duncan’s listening,” he whispered. “I know you didn’t do anything worthy of the paddle. If anyone should be punished, it’s Billy. But she won’t be satisfied until I use it on you.” Marcus indicated the chair the paddle sat in. “I’m going to hit the chair with the paddle, and when I do, I want you to yell out as if I hit you. Got it?” Hyroc nodded, breathing a sigh of relief. “Make sure those are convincing yells.” Marcus walked back over to the chair, picking up the paddle. He glanced back toward Hyroc. Hyroc nodded. Marcus raised the paddle and hit the chair cushion. Hyroc wailed out in simulated pain. The two of them repeated the process four more times. After the last strike, a thin shadow slid across the opening beneath the door and the fading sound of footsteps radiated into the office. The two of them studied the door until the sound had died away.
Marcus nodded approvingly, set the paddle back behind his desk, and walked back over to Hyroc. “I wouldn’t worry too much about bullies bothering you until the end of summer after the beating you must have given Billy. But don’t think what you did was okay. Next time I might not be so understanding. Got it?” Hyroc nodded enthusiastically. “Good. Now off you go; it won’t do either of us any good for you to miss any more of your class.” Marcus made to stand then paused. His eyes narrowed as he noticed blood-soaked fur beneath Hyroc’s nose. Anger flared in Marcus’ eyes, but it was gone so fast Hyroc wasn’t sure it was what he had seen. Marcus pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to Hyroc. Wordlessly, Hyroc took the proffered handkerchief and began wiping the blood away as he made for the door.
Hyroc had four classes; Reading and Witch Studies came before lunch, then scribing and arithmetic. It was now past lunch, so he made his way to his scribing class.
When he came through the door into the well-lit room, the students were already seated at a long table scratching words into their pieces of parchment with writing quills. The teacher, a tall, brown-haired, clean-shaven man, a few years younger than Marcus, looked up from the work of a student he was overseeing. He was strict, and although he kept a close eye on Hyroc, he treated him close enough to the other students to avoid making the classroom overly uncomfortable.
“You’re late,” the teacher said in a cool tone. “Class started more than fifteen minutes ago.”
“I was with the headmaster,” Hyroc replied.
The teacher gave an uncaring nod. He indicated a pile of scrolls sitting on his desk. “Read then copy down what is written on the scroll. You will lose points for sloppy or illegible writing.”
Hyroc nodded, and the teacher returned his attention to the student he was helping. Hyroc collected a scroll from the pile, a blank piece of parchment stacked beside them, a glass ink well, and a writing quill. Carefully balancing his supplies in his arms, he walked over and laid them on the table, then seated himself. As he unrolled the scroll, out of the corner of his eye, he saw several students steal a quick, nervous glance at him. He was accustomed to those kinds of looks, but those students seemed more afraid of him than usual, which made him uncomfortable. Doing his best to ignore them, he began copying the words from the scroll onto his parchment. As Hyroc worked, the teacher moved from student to student, eventually finding his way to him. The teacher looked over Hyroc’s shoulder, sharply pointed out some flaws with what he had written before moving on.
At the end of class, Hyroc made his way to his final class of the day. All he ever did in arithmetic class was solve various equations and count exact amounts of flecks. He found the whole exercise incredibly boring and felt it a complete waste of his time, but Marcus had insisted it was important, so he did his best not to let his annoyance show.
After class, he and the other students were free to do whatever they wanted until dinner. Many of the students gathered with friends at this time, but since Hyroc had none, he simply returned to Marcus’ office to read a book. About an hour later, he made his way to the dining hall for dinner.
Streamers of dimming evening light reached the hall through windows lining the walls, mingled with lit candles atop stands throughout the room. Two large parallel tables laden with bowls and utensils ran half the length of the room. A single closed-door on the rightmost wall, just before the first window, led into the kitchen. Past the tables, two steps led up to a short platform with a wooden podium. Close to the hall’s end-wall, running perpendicular to the tables, sat a third table that seated the school’s staff.
Hyroc seated himself at the furthest end of the rightmost table, where Marcus could more easily keep an eye on him from his seat at the staff table. He watched the other boys hopefully, but as usual, none of them sat within arm’s reach of him. Hyroc quickly picked Billy Mason out at the opposite end of the table. His bruised face and a bloodstained wad of cloth protruding from his nostrils made him easy to identify. Billy met Hyroc’s gaze with a contemptuous glare. Though Marcus disapproved of the beating, Hyroc felt satisfaction when he looked at Billy. He hadn’t thought he had done much damage to the older boy’s face. Maybe now he would think twice about calling people names and insulting their mothers.
The cooks emerged from the kitchen carrying steaming soup pots, which they sat on each table. The meal consisted of a stew made with carrots, leeks, potatoes, and some kind of unknown meat and served with a piece of tasteless bread. After dinner, Hyroc made his way back to Marcus’ office, where he continued reading until Marcus told him it was time for bed. Hyroc marked the page, closed the book and set it back on its shelf before heading through the door right of the window where the headmaster’s sleeping quarters were.
The sleeping quarter was a small room. Marcus’ bed sat in the middle of the room against the wall, with a window flanked with red curtains on the left wall. A small table with a lit candle and two chairs were tucked away in the corner, and a washbasin sat near the head of the bed. Hyroc slept on a soft mattress filled with hay, laid at the foot of the bed. Originally, he had slept in the same bed as Marcus, but when he attended the school, feeling somewhat embarrassed by this arrangement, Hyroc requested that he have his own bed and his father happily obliged.
“Beyond that incident earlier, how was your day?” Marcus asked after he had dressed into a night robe and began helping Hyroc into his pajamas.
Hyroc shrugged his shoulders. “Good, I guess,” he replied.
“Learn anything interesting?”
“Not really.” He couldn’t understand why Marcus always asked that question. Nothing he ever learned at the school was particularly interesting.
Frowning slightly, Marcus shook his head in disbelief. Hyroc walked over to the washbasin, opened up a small wooden box containing his boar hair toothbrush, dipped its bristles in the water, and began scrubbing his teeth.
Marcus pulled the window curtains closed. “Did you have any more problems today?”
Hyroc turned toward Marcus with the wooden toothbrush handle sticking out of his mouth. “No, but everyone seems more afraid of me now,” Hyroc said humorlessly, careful not to spit out foamed saliva as he spoke.
Marcus gave him a sympathetic look. “Don’t worry. I’m sure that’ll fade. Besides, you’re almost done with school until next fall. I’m sure nobody will remember what you did by then.”
I’ve still got almost three weeks here, Hyroc thought unpleasantly. ‘almost done’ seemed like it should be something a lot shorter. Marcus made it sound as if school was already over.
Hyroc washed his toothbrush off, placed it back in its holder, and closed the box.
“Let me see those teeth,” Marcus said. Rolling his eyes, Hyroc opened his long mouth, exposing every one of his teeth. He knew how to brush his teeth. Marcus studied them a moment, then nodded his approval. Hyroc closed his mouth and climbed into his bed. Marcus crouched down beside him and tucked him in. “I love you.” Marcus moved to kiss him on the head but Hyroc recoiled.
“Do you have to do that?” Hyroc asked, annoyed. He was eight years old. Why did Marcus have to keep doing that? He wasn’t a baby anymore.
“I’m your father, so, yes,” Marcus said before kissing Hyroc on the top of the head. Hyroc sighed. When Marcus pulled away, he frowned. He opened his mouth, reached inside with two fingers and removed a single black hair. Hyroc laughed. Maybe getting hairs in his mouth would make him stop. Marcus studied the hair then, smiling, said, “I guess I deserved that.” Fluttering his fingers, Marcus shed the hair. He walked over to the table and blew out the lit candle, darkening the room. Carefully he made his way to his own bed and climbed in.
“Good night,” Marcus said.
The next morning Hyroc was thrust awake when Marcus opened the curtains, letting a flood of bright morning sunlight into the room. Hyroc groaned unhappily, pulling the cover over his head. It seemed impossible it was morning already! How could adults stand to get up earlier than this?
“Come on,” Marcus said. “You need to get up and get dressed, or you’re going to miss breakfast. And I know how cranky you get when that happens.” Hyroc continued to groan, hoping his sounds of misery were enough for Marcus to let him go back to sleep. “Every student in the school does the same thing every morning, and you’re not exempt just because you’re the headmaster’s son.” Hyroc groaned even louder. It seemed to be working. “Fine, I guess I’ll just have to get the bucket.” No, it wasn’t. Hyroc immediately threw the cover off, sat up, rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and began getting dressed. Marcus smiled.
Once fully clothed in his school garb, Hyroc walked over to the washbasin. He wetted his head and began combing the unsightly fur all over it. He always hated doing this; he felt like a little girl fussing over her hair. Or at least it was something he assumed little girls did with their hair; he had never actually met one and June had always seemed more finicky with her hair than both he and Marcus. But Marcus told him it was important he look prim to show people he was just as capable of looking nice as everyone else. Now properly groomed, Hyroc headed toward the door.
“You did that kind of fast,” Marcus said, stopping him at the door. “Let me see those fingernails?” Hyroc sighed and held his hands up for inspection. Marcus frowned. “They still look sharp. Go back and file them. You won’t like it very much if you accidentally cut yourself on them.” With an annoyed huff, Hyroc turned back, retrieved the nail file and got to work on his claws. He had never cut himself on his claws and he couldn’t imagine how he would.
“Much better,” Marcus said when Hyroc had finished.
Breakfast consisted of an unsweetened gray porridge, a single piece of toast and some jam. Hyroc stared into his bowl wishing he had some honey to add to it, before digging in. After breakfast, he and the other students dispersed to their respective classes.
His first class of the day was reading, which was by far his favorite, even if it was still boring. But compared to the other boring things he did at the school, it wasn’t quite as bad. Unfortunately, he hated the one after, Witch Studies.
The subject matter entailed long-winded lectures, but what he truly loathed about it was Miss Duncan was the teacher. If at any point in the lesson the subject matter dealt with the creations of witches or anything with some vague physical relation to Hyroc – as it often did – she would always call upon him. And if he or any student got an answer wrong, they would receive a sharp smack with a willow rod. Early on, Hyroc had brought this painful matter to Marcus’ attention. Due to the extremely sensitive nature of the subject matter, Marcus could do nothing to make Miss Duncan alter her teaching methods without potentially bringing the wrath of The Ministry down upon the school.
Hyroc was seated closest to the teacher, with about five feet between him and the nearest student. Miss Duncan closed the door to the classroom behind the final student.
“Today, we will be learning about the Druadic Witch’s that assisted Feygratha in overthrowing the King.” Miss Duncan said. She opened a large book on her desk and set it in front of Hyroc. “Hyroc, read the description of what powers they possessed, the first paragraph from the top of the first page.”
And here it was again. What was going to happen today? “The Druadic Witches –” Hyroc began.
“Speak louder,” Miss Duncan intoned. “Don’t mumble.”
“The Druadic Witches,” he continued, hiding his irritation as he spoke in a much louder voice, “are witches that draw power from animals. By drawing upon the power of an animal, they obtain its strengths and its physical abilities. But both their physical appearance and mind become more like the animal they are drawing upon. This makes Druadic witches incredibly unpredictable and extremely dangerous. Due to the nature of the changes to their bodies, if a Druadic Witch that has drawn upon an animal’s strength bears children, their physical alterations will be transferred to their offspring, creating what is commonly known as a half-breed.”
Hyroc paused, suddenly realizing what he was reading about sounded frighteningly close to how he looked. Miss Duncan stared down at him with a cold disdainful look. Hyroc stole a glance at the students around him. They all stared at him with a mixture of apprehension and fear, which only made him feel like a monster.
“Please continue,” Miss Duncan said coldly.
Hating her, Hyroc continued reading aloud, doing his best not to pay attention to the numerous eyes staring at him. “The offspring of a Druadic Witch will inherit both the human and animal features of their parents, giving them a hideously twisted form neither of a man nor a beast. Their mind is also in a mirrored condition to their bodies’, making them even more unstable than their parents.”
“Thank you,” Miss Duncan said, but her words were full of ice. She took the book from Hyroc, giving it to another student.
The students stared at Hyroc more intensely, and he could hear some of them whispering things to each other. He now felt like some hideously deformed creature deserving only death; he just wanted to curl up into a ball and disappear from the world. He bolted for the door.
“Where are you going?” Miss Duncan said, satisfaction sounding in her voice. “Class is not over.” Ignoring her, Hyroc wrenched the door open, quickly making his way to Marcus’ office. Tears had begun streaming down his face, dampening the fur below his eyes as he entered the headmaster’s office.
Marcus was at his desk working as usual. He shot Hyroc a puzzled look as the boy stormed across the room toward his desk. Marcus’ expression rapidly turned to concern.
“Are you alright?” Marcus said, getting up from his chair.
“I’m – I’m a monster, aren’t I,” Hyroc said, his voice shuddering. Why else would everyone treat him the way they did. They thought he was going to hurt them.
“You’re not a monster. Who told you that?”
“Today in Miss Duncan’s class, we learned about Druadic Witches,” Hyroc said sniffling.
Marcus frowned. “I don’t know much about your mother, but I know she was not a Druadic Witch. And neither are you.”
“Then why do I look like this?”
“I wish I knew, but if you were the son of a Druadic Witch, you wouldn’t look the way you do. To put it simply, even though you look different, you act just like a normal person and are shaped too correctly to be one of those. When those witches draw upon an animal, their bodies do not uniformly change, which is another way of saying they look like monsters. And trust me, I understand all too well what I’m saying. It was once part of my job to do so. And when those witches have children, their children look even more so.”
“You didn’t see their faces, how they looked at me. They saw me as some unclean creature, a –a half-breed.”
“I don’t care what they think; you are not one of those creatures!”
“But if I’m not one of those, then what am I?”
“I don’t know, and I wish I could tell you, but you’re my son, and I love you. It doesn’t matter what you look like. All that matters is what’s in here.” Marcus touched the side of Hyroc’s chest where his heart was. Marcus began wiping the tears from Hyroc’s eyes. “I had this dog when I was about your age. He was one of the ugliest and meanest-looking mutts you had ever seen, but he was the kindest dog a boy could ever have. You see, looks are not always everything.”
Hyroc took a breath, some of his sadness melting away. “Do you think I’m ugly?”
“Of course not, but you’re warmer in the winter because of the way you look.” Hyroc smiled, which seemed to subdue the horrible memory of Miss Duncan’s class just moments ago. “I bet the other students wish their hands were furry too; do you know how useful that would be on cold winter days? I know I’d like that. I’m stuck with shoddy gloves that hardly keep the cold out while your gloves come already attached. You see, you’re different but because you’re different, you can do some things better than a normal person.”
“Is that why Miss Duncan hates me?”
Marcus’ face softened with sadness. “She doesn’t hate you; you just remind her of something bad. And sometimes, when something reminds someone of pain, they lash out at it. Do you hate Billy or any of the other boys for what they did to you?”
Hyroc stopped to ponder the question. His feelings toward the boy seemed pretty close to what he thought was hate, but it still seemed far enough from it. “I don’t hate them, but I hate what they do.”
“Exactly. It’s kind of the same thing with Miss Duncan. When she was a young woman, a witch killed her whole family. Ever since then, she’s hated anything or anyone associated with their art.”
“But I’m not a witch.”
“I know you’re not, but she doesn’t see it the same way. She thinks you’re a danger to the other students, and in a way, she’s just trying to protect them. Just like how I try to protect you.”
“Is it because of what I did to Billy yesterday?”
“To be honest, that probably didn’t help, but she had already made her mind up about you.”
Hyroc shot him a puzzled look. “I don’t understand?”
Marcus shrugged. “It’s complicated. I don’t completely understand it myself, either. All you can do is try your hardest to prove to her you’re just like everyone else and do your best to move on. You’re a good boy and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.”
Hyroc didn’t really understand, but he felt better and nodded anyway.