Sentinel Flame Book One
By Adam Freestone
Alaskan Writer of Imaginative Creativity
Hyroc was thrust awake in the darkened boy’s dorm when a hand pressed down hard on his chest while another closed over his mouth. He tried yelling, but his call only came out as a muffled groan. Thrashing to free himself, he made a fist and punched toward the outline of his attacker’s head. Another hand caught his arm before it could make contact, forcing it down to his side. More hands grabbed his arms and legs to restrain him, then a loop of rope was cinched tight around his snout. Unable to offer any meaningful resistance, he was dragged out of bed in nothing more than his breeches and hauled through the dorm’s door. His assailants carried him through the dark halls of the school, eventually stopping outside in the chilly autumn night air. Hyroc shivered as they set him on his feet. His fur lessened the bite of the air, but enough of the cold still reached his skin for it to affect him.
A single torch illuminated the faces of his kidnappers. Among them, Hyroc recognized the head prefect and several other students he had seen in the dorm. He tried bolting away from the group, but one of the nearest boys grabbed him and struck him in the stomach before he made it more than two steps. With a gasp, he doubled over, clutching his abdomen.
“Hold him,” Simon snarled. “We can’t let him go free.” Two boys grabbed Hyroc by the shoulders and stood him up straight. Simon motioned for everyone to follow him and the two boys forced Hyroc to obey. They led him to one of the school’s trees near the corner of the wall behind the dining hall. One of the boys threw a long length of rope over the branch of the tree into Simon’s waiting arms on the other side. The two boys pushed Hyroc toward the tree. Hyroc realized with horror the group planned on using the rope to hang him from the tree.
Digging his feet into the ground, he struggled to stay in place to no avail. He watched helplessly as a boy tied the rope to his ankles. Then with a hard yank, the ground and black sky lurched together in a dizzying clash as they pulled Hyroc off his feet. His necklace slipped from his neck. He reached out to catch it, but in the chaotic swirl of motion, he missed. The world slowly calmed, settling upside down. Simon scooped up the necklace. Hyroc groaned angrily, trying to tell the prefect to give it back, along with something more vulgar.
Simon examined the necklace and grinned up at Hyroc. “This is nice. I think I’ll keep it as a souvenir, something to remember you by.” Hyroc scrabbled furiously at Simon’s face, wishing very much to do something harmful to the older boy. Simon stuffed the necklace into his pocket. He turned halfway toward the group of boys. “I think we’ve upset him.” The group laughed mockingly. Simon shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know why; I heard he liked being in trees.” The group laughed again. Simon paused, his expression turning thoughtful. “Maybe this has gone too far. Maybe we should let him down.” Hyroc gave Simon a perplexed look. After everything they had just done, why would they let him down? Simon looked up at him with sincerity. “Do you want to come down?”
Hyroc nodded eagerly. As confusing as this was, he still wanted down. “Ask nicely, and we’ll let you down.” Hyroc did his best to speak his request though his words only came out as differently toned moans. Simon shook his head. “I didn’t catch that.” Using two of his fingers, Simon pushed on the back of his ear to show he was listening closely. Hyroc tried speaking more clearly through his closed mouth, but his efforts didn’t seem to make much of a difference. Simon shrugged his shoulders, turning toward the group. “I guess he wants to stay there.” The group laughed. “It would be rude of me to make him leave, so I’ll give him what he wants.”
Simon made a mock salute to Hyroc before turning and heading off. The rest of the group followed. Hyroc began yelling after the group as loud as he could. The boys continued on their way, showing no signs of reaction toward his sounds. He watched the torchlight fade until it vanished completely, leaving him alone in the darkness. He yelled for what felt like hours until all hope of anyone hearing him had been exhausted. Hot tears dripped out of his eyes toward the ground, and his breathing began shuddering. No one could hear him. He would be out in the cold night until morning at the earliest.
He now missed Marcus more than ever. Marcus would have never let something this horrible happen to anyone at the school. This place had felt so much better while he was around. Now Hyroc was starting to hate it. It didn’t feel like his home anymore. Why did everything have to change? Nothing ever seemed to work out for him. Everything seemed bent on preventing him from being happy.
A cold pinprick materialized on the bottom of his foot, followed by a second and a third. Hyroc’s breathing instantly returned to normal, and his tears almost completely stopped welling up from his eyes. More pinpricks struck his skin. Dread washed over him; those pinpricks were raindrops; it was starting to rain. He couldn’t spend an entire night outside in the rain in nothing but his underwear. He would freeze to death before morning! His teeth began to chatter. He needed to get down, and he needed to get down fast.
He tried sitting up to grab the rope. Despite a determined effort, he didn’t have the strength to do so. He racked his brain for another way out of this situation, but his mind was muddled, and he found it difficult to think. The memory of climbing the apple tree flashed into his mind. If he could grab hold of the tree’s trunk, he might be able to walk his hands up to the branch the rope rested on, haul himself onto it, and untie it from his feet. Then he could simply climb down. He reached out with one hand as far as he could toward the outline of the tree’s trunk in front of him. His fingers touched only air.
The trunk seemed just barely beyond his reach. He began throwing both his arms from side to side and started swinging. After an agonizing length of time where every second he got wetter and colder, the tips of his fingers brushed something rough. Then a few swings later, he was barely able to grasp the tree bark with the ends of his claws. His hand felt leaden, and with the added pull of the rope in the opposite direction, he barely maintained his tenuous hold. Grasping the trunk with the claws of his other hand, he pulled himself closer to the tree, allowing for a more solid grip. He carefully walked both hands up the trunk and across the branch where the rope hung. He then started pulling himself up onto the wet branch. His arms burned severely and tiny slivers of wood dug into his fingertips and up underneath his claws. Straining every muscle in his body, he fought through the escalating pain and managed to pull his upper body onto the branch. Using the natural downward pull of the rope, he swung his legs on top as well. He lay there panting until the temporary warmth of exertion faded and the returning wet chill spurned him to work at untying the rope.
His fingers felt like blocks of ice, and they were clumsy and slow at working the knot free. Slivers protruded from his fingers, stinging as they caught on the rope fibers. Slowly he undid the knot, letting the rope slip off his feet. After getting into a more stable position with his back against the trunk, he eagerly removed the rope from his snout. He sat there a moment, working some of the soreness out of his jaw then carefully lowered one foot to the part of the trunk below his branch, digging his foot claws into it. He tested his footing with a stepping motion. His footing held and he put his other foot on the trunk, followed by his hand. When he shifted his weight to grab with his other hand, his numb fingers slipped. For a frightening moment, he thought he would fall, but his claws caught on the bark. The sudden stop nearly tore them from their beds in his fingers and toes. The muscles in his arms screamed with an angry burning pain. Once his breathing slowed from the shock, he continued down the tree. He made it a foot from the base, but with his remaining strength now depleted, he fell. A dull pain permeated his leg as he landed, though he barely noticed it through the euphoria of finally making it down the tree. Fighting through the pain of using his arms, he clambered to his feet. A faint point of light out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. Turning toward the light, he froze in place with terror as he saw two eyes peering at him out of the darkness. He locked his gaze with the watching eyes for a startling moment, then regained enough of his wits to turn and hurriedly limp toward the front door of the school.
He fumbled at the door handle with his numb fingers, envisioning whatever creature those eyes belonged to was creeping up behind him. He entered the building, slamming the door shut behind him. The normally cold floor felt warm under his feet as he stood there panting with his back pressed against the door. Dreading something was about to crash through it and fighting the urge to collapse onto the floor for warmth, he made his way to the teachers sleeping quarters, leaving behind a trail of wet footprints as he went. He wasn’t going to give those boys a second chance at harming him. He entered the common room that connected the hallway containing the teacher’s rooms. The room was empty, and faint embers glowed in the fireplace. He made his way into the adjoining hallway. After counting the doors, which was a strangely difficult task for him despite his countless hours of work in his arithmetic class, he located the fourth door on the right-hand side and knocked on it.
“Who’s there?” June’s voice answered groggily.
Hyroc’s teeth were chattering so badly he was unsure if he could even coherently speak, so he knocked again. He heard a quiet sigh. “I’m coming,” she said in a grumpy tone. “But if this is some prank, I swear I’ll –” the door opened. June’s hair was unkempt, her eyes bleary; she wore a white nightgown and held a freshly lit candle in one hand. She stared down at Hyroc with an uncomprehending expression. Then her eyes widened with alarm. “What happened!” she exclaimed. She rushed back into the room, yanked the blanket off her bed, and wrapped it around him. The soft feel of the warm blanket was an extraordinary sensation. June hurriedly led him into the common room, where she quickly reignited the dying fire with a tinderbox. “Sit over here by the fire,” she said, gently leading him closer to the fireplace. He was still sopping wet but the warmth of the fire helped subdue his discomfort. June shook a brass teakettle from a nearby table and set it on a hook in the fireplace. Hyroc began to doze in the overwhelming warmth and comfort.
The shriek of the kettle brought him back to consciousness. June prepared a cup of tea and handed it to him. “Drink this.” Without hesitation, he took a big gulp of the hot liquid.
June pulled a chair close to him. She settled into it, throwing her robe lower over her legs. “Now, tell me what happened.”
Hyroc took another sip of tea, cleared his throat, and with a sigh recounted the disturbing events that had led him to her door.
“That is unacceptable behavior,” June exclaimed, shaking her head angrily when he had finished. “Winter isn’t far-off; you could have easily frozen to death out there in the rain! I don’t care what you look like; it’s no excuse to hang you out like a line of dirty laundry. You got lucky they hung you close enough to the tree, but you may not be so fortunate in the future, and who knows what they might think to do to you next time. In the morning, we’ll bring this barbaric misbehavior to the headmaster’s attention; this cannot be tolerated.” June stood and he handed her the now empty cup. “You’ll be spending the rest of the night in my room where I can keep an eye on you.” Hyroc nodded gratefully. That was what he expected her to say. He knew she would protect him. “I’ll send someone to get your clothes from your dorm in the morning. But before either of us can go to bed, I need to do something about those slivers.”
Hyroc bowed his head and shrugged unenthusiastically.
Hyroc seated himself at the table in the dining hall. The few hours of sleep he had gotten in June’s room had done little to alleviate his fatigue. His arms hurt more now than they had during his escape from the tree, and many other aches had appeared all over his body. He rested his head on the table’s smooth wooden surface and closed his eyes. He opened them at the sound of student’s voices. Through bleary eyes, he watched the ever-increasing throng of students file into the dining hall. He sat up with a start when he spotted Simon enter the room. The head prefect stopped, staring at Hyroc with a subtle amount of surprise mixed with contempt. Although unnerved by the prefect’s presence, Hyroc knew he was safe for the moment with June watching him from the teachers’ table. He gave Simon a challenging glare, daring him to try doing anything while June was watching. Simon smirked and continued on his way. Thomas entered the room. Hyroc narrowed his eyes angrily at his friend as the boy made his way over to him.
“Where were you?” Hyroc asked acidly.
Thomas shrugged apologetically. “I – I’m really sorry,” he said. “I was asleep.”
“How could you have slept through that?” All the commotion should have woken everyone in the dorm.
“It was the middle of the night,” Thomas retorted. “And I didn’t know you were gone until I got up this morning and heard some of the older boys bragging about what they did to you. If I had known somebody had done that to you, I would’ve gotten a teacher.”
Thomas sounded sincere, and his explanation seemed to make some of Hyroc’s anger abate. With a sigh, Hyroc said,” I guess I can forgive you for that.” Thomas nodded thankfully. “But I’m not going to be climbing trees for a while,” Hyroc said, rotating his arm.”
“You should take this to the headmaster?”
Hyroc glanced over at Simon, who sat at the other end of the table. “Yeah, right after breakfast.”
“Good, I don’t want those fat-headed jerks getting away with this.”
“I want that more than you,” Hyroc said, smirking.
“There’s something we need to talk to you about, headmaster,” June said to the headmaster after breakfast as he came to the door leading into his office.
“Of course,” the headmaster said, suspiciously eyeing Hyroc, who stood at her side. He opened the door. “After you.” The headmaster offered the two of them a seat before sitting down behind his desk. “What brings you to my office this morning?”
“Well, it appears a number of your students, including the head prefect, took part in something despicable,” June said, turning toward Hyroc. “Hyroc, please tell the headmaster what happened.”
Hyroc nodded and related the events of the night for a second time.
“Is that everything,” the headmaster said when Hyroc had finished, his face impassive.
“Yes, headmaster,” Hyroc replied confidently, emboldened by the knowledge those boys were going to be punished for what they had done to him.
“Very well,” he said as he stood. “If you’ll excuse me for a moment, we can get this all sorted out shortly.” The headmaster left the room and returned with Simon. The Prefect and Hyroc locked their eyes on one another as he walked over to the desk. “Simon, it appears we have a bit of an issue,” the headmaster said, re-seating himself at his desk.
“What kind of an issue, headmaster?” Simon said innocently.
You know exactly what kind of an issue, Hyroc thought darkly.
“I don’t much like to beat around the bush, so I’ll get right to it. Hyroc here says you hung him in a tree last night while it was raining. Is this true?”
“Absolutely not,” Simon scoffed, sounding offended. “I was in my bunk sleeping the entire night just like the other students.”
“Well, then we have a problem.” He turned toward Hyroc. “I don’t take kindly to liars wasting my time.”
“I’m not lying,” Hyroc replied, taken aback, warmth seeping into his face. “I told you the truth!” He would never lie about something like this. The headmaster should have known from his good behavior with all his teachers.
“He came to my door sopping wet and nearly frozen to death.” June intoned angrily. “Are you saying he did that to himself? He may be different, but I know he’s as right in the head as any other student.”
“No, but I find it odd this happened less than a week after my arrival.”
“What are you implying?” June said, frowning.
He steepled his fingers. “Prefects are responsible for a large portion of the well-being of the younger students; sometimes this even includes disciplining them. And because of this, they are often held in a place of loathing by those same students. Hyroc here has probably found himself on the receiving end of such discipline by Simon. And with my arrival – someone who is unfamiliar with any past disciplinary events taking place in the school – he thought this an opportune moment for retribution on his discipliner.”
Hyroc shot the headmaster a look of shocked disbelief. Everything he had just said was wrong, and half of it didn’t make any sense. Was it even possible for anyone to have such complicated thoughts?
June flushed. “You can’t be serious.”
“I’m afraid I’m quite serious,” the headmaster said calmly. “I had a look at the trees before I got Simon, and I found no rope near any of them. So where is the proof of this deed taking place?” June affixed a withering gaze on the headmaster but remained quiet. “If you cannot offer me any tangible proof, I’ll have no choice but to dismiss this whole thing out of hand.” June sighed and gave Hyroc a regretful look. The headmaster nodded. “Simon, you may go.”
“Thank you, headmaster,” Simon said, turning to leave. As he walked past Hyroc, he smiled malevolently. Hyroc felt a sudden surge of anger at the knowing arrogance in Simon’s expression. He wanted to wipe the look right off his face and for the Prefect to be punished for what he had done. It infuriated him that after his long night of misery, the headmaster thought he was lying, and his tormentor would escape justice and be allowed to do it again. There had to be something he could use against Simon, something the headmaster would believe. The memory of Simon holding up his necklace popped into Hyroc’s mind. Through his mind’s eye, he watched the Perfect stick the necklace in his pocket. Thievery was a serious offense, especially for the head prefect. Hyroc smirked darkly at Simon. If he couldn’t get Simon for hanging him from a tree, maybe he could get him for stealing his necklace. It would be hard to say he was lying when the head prefect had his necklace.
“Check his pocket,” Hyroc said.
“Hold up, Simon,” the headmaster said. Simon turned around, a flash of apprehension appearing in his eyes. “Think very carefully about what you are about to say, boy. I’ve been extremely forgiving thus far, but my patience is running thin. If this is another one of your lies, there will be consequences.”
The headmaster’s words give Hyroc pause, but the look on Simon’s face solidified his resolve. “When they hung me in the tree, my necklace fell off,” Hyroc said. “And I saw Simon put it in his pocket.”
“I did no such thing, Headmaster. Are we finished listening to this? I have duties to attend to.”
“Just turn out your pockets so we can get this waste of time over with, and I can teach him about his poor choices.” Simon hesitated, and the headmaster frowned at him. “Turn out your pockets,” the headmaster said more forcibly. Reluctantly Simon turned out his pocket. Hyroc saw a glint of silver, and in a quick movement, the prefect tried to hide it in his sleeve. “What was that?” the headmaster said. Simon responded with a confused look. “I just saw something fall into your sleeve.” The headmaster stood and made his way over to Simon. Reaching into the prefect’s sleeve, he pulled out Hyroc’s necklace. The headmaster studied it, examining both sides.”
“That’s a family heirloom,” Simon said hastily.
“Is that so?” The headmaster held the necklace in front of Simon’s face. “Is that why it has his name on it?” he growled. Simon opened his mouth to speak, and the headmaster slapped him hard in the face. The strike turned Simon’s head, and a bead of blood trickled out of his nose. The headmaster’s face turned crimson as he spoke. “I will not tolerate thieves in this school! You have shamed your position and you have broken my trust.” The headmaster thrust a finger toward the door. “Get your things and get out of this school,” the headmaster said, shuddering with anger.
Simon turned and hurried out of the room. Hyroc felt an upwelling of pride as he watched the disgraced prefect rushing out of the room. The headmaster stared at the door long after Simon had disappeared into the hall. Eventually, he turned back toward Hyroc, his face a lighter shade of red, and handed him the necklace. He took a deep breath and said, “thank you for bringing this to my attention Miss Burk. Now, if you please, I have work to get to. And if Simon causes any more problems, please inform the groundskeeper; he’ll take care of it.” June and Hyroc stood, thanked the headmaster for his time, and left.
Hyroc snuck out of the school as soon as June left his side and went to the tree where he had been hung. He studied it a moment, remembering the night’s unpleasant events, before climbing over the wall. Walking along the mossy stonework, he scrutinized the ground for any signs of the creature he had seen. He found no footprints and not so much as a bent blade of grass or trampled leaf. Did I imagine those eyes? The nearby fluttering of wings drew his attention to one of the school’s trees. Perched on a branch, he saw a large black raven with what looked to be three silvery teardrop-shaped markings on its neck arranged in an interlocking swirl. The raven stared at him a moment before making a strange “poot” sound and flying off. Hyroc watched the bird until it disappeared from view over the treetops.