Sentinel Flame Book One
By Adam Freestone
Alaskan Writer of Imaginative Creativity
Hyroc lay on the cool grass of the boarding school’s lawn, watching the blue cloud dotted void above as he absentmindedly tossed around the green stone Thomas had given him. It had been six years since his escape from the tree Simon had hung him from, and he was now fifteen years old. The dismissal of the head prefect had freed him from the boy’s torment, but with Marcus’ death and the loss of the protection he offered as headmaster, Hyroc’s bully problem suddenly got considerably worse.
Shortly after Simon’s dismissal, a group of older boys cornered Hyroc and beat him. After this, he tried staying within sight of a teacher. This too proved problematic. Whenever a bully attacked him, most of the teachers seemed to pay no attention to his situation and did little or nothing to break up the fight. At this point, Thomas started staying with him between classes. Thomas hoped his presence would deter the bullies because he noticed fights between any other students were quickly taken care of. The bullying stopped as soon as he started doing this, but the reprieve didn’t last long. A few days later, the bullies waited until the two of them were out of sight of a teacher, then they simply beat the two of them. This beating then put an unexpected strain on their friendship. Thomas suddenly stopped accompanying Hyroc between classes. When Hyroc asked his friend about this, he found that the fight was the first time Thomas had ever been purposely hurt by another boy and he was afraid of it happening again. Subduing a surge of anger at his friend for deciding to abandon him, Hyroc understood Thomas’ fear and reluctantly resigned himself to taking care of the problem by himself. After Thomas attempted a solution, Hyroc decided to try staying within sight of June. The bullies never heckled him while she was watching, but unfortunately, her duties as a teacher prevented her from keeping an eye on him all the time. Like what had happened with Thomas’ plan, they ambushed him when she wasn’t looking. The cause of the resulting bruises never escaped her notice when she talked with him; there just wasn’t much she could do short of removing him from the school and locking him up in the house. That seemed crueler than anything his bullies had done to him, so, frustratingly, he had to endure the torment. Knowing this, she gave him the only help she could offer.
“What they’re doing is wrong,” she had said, not doing much to hide her anger toward the bullies and the teachers. “I can’t protect you from them; I wish I could. I know this probably goes against everything Marcus, or I ever taught you, but you need to fight. I don’t want you to sit there and take it. You need to hurt them back, make them feel some of the pain they made you feel. Then they’ll start to wonder if it’s really a good idea to mess with you. Never start a fight but always finish one. It’s up to you now.”
Despite the resolve her words imparted upon him, he still received a bad beating during his next altercation, but he had managed to get one or two hits on his attackers. Those strikes had done something to him. Though he hurt and had received a black eye, he was strangely unaffected by the depression and hopelessness he usually experienced after a beating. He felt good about what he had done. He hadn’t let them have their way with him. He had fought back. The beatings continued without him having much success fending off his bullies, but with each fight, he figured more about how those boys attacked him. Bit by bit, the fights slowly shifted in his favor. Then one day, something happened that seemed impossible to him, he won. He was bruised and hurting, but he had won!
His euphoria evaporated when a teacher dragged him to the headmaster’s office. He tried to explain he was not the one who started the fight, but the headmaster refused to believe him. The ordeal ended with two strikes from the paddle and a stern warning about future fights. After this, Hyroc learned to take the beatings despite his ability to win most of them whenever a teacher was watching and only defended himself when they weren’t. He then discovered if he only hit a bully in places covered with clothing, they would avoid showing the resulting bruises to a teacher. Once it became apparent to the other students he was not such an easy target, his bully problem dropped off sharply, with insults being the preferred way of striking out at him.
Everything seemed to be getting better for him, up until a few months after his thirteenth birthday. Then things changed – along with many things all boys inevitably experience. He began taking on a more beastly appearance and slowly lost the appearance of the cute creature some of the more tolerant people saw him as. Beyond June and Thomas, everyone seemed more cautious, avoided eye contact, and gave him a much wider berth if they dared walking past him at all. They acted as if they now thought he was suddenly more dangerous and would lash out at anyone with the slightest provocation. Then no one even dared to lob an insult in his direction. Though grateful for this particular change, the abruptness of it all was somewhat disconcerting. His whole life had revolved around tolerating this unavoidable fact, and now it was just gone. But like everything else in his strange life, he acclimated to it.
A person’s shadow appeared over Hyroc. Catching the stone, he turned his head to see Thomas. They were the same age, but Hyroc had grown the taller of the two.
Hyroc stuck the stone in his pocket and rose to his feet. “Did you get it?” he said eagerly.
Thomas glanced at their surroundings. “Yep,” Thomas said, reaching beneath his jacket. He withdrew a snouted dark blue mask crudely resembling a wolf’s face.
Hyroc gave his friend a toothy grin. “So, people are really going to be wearing these there?”
Thomas nodded happily. “No one’s going to think anything when they see you. Well, at least as long as they don’t look too close.”
“I’ll just make sure to keep my hood up.”
“Good idea,” Thomas agreed. “Are you ready to go?” Hyroc nodded. He had been ready for the last hour. “I think most of the teachers have already left, but the groundskeeper is seeing the other boys off at the gate, so you won’t be able to go out that way.”
“Didn’t think I would be able to anyway. I was just going to go over the wall and into the trees.”
Thomas gave him a mildly concerned look. “Just be careful of feral dogs.”
Hyroc gave him a flat look. His friend didn’t need to remind him about them. “I know; I’ll be sticking to the edge of the woods, and from what I’ve heard, the dogs usually avoid going there.” He paused, his expression turning concerned. “Are you sure this is such a good idea? I mean, won’t somebody notice I’m not here? I don’t want to get into trouble over this. The headmaster already hates me.”
“If they didn’t want you to leave, don’t you think the headmaster would have sent somebody to make sure you didn’t? Other than making sure you’re not hurting people or breaking the rules, none of the teachers – except June, of course – seem to care what you’re doing. So as long as no one recognizes you at the tournament, they won’t even know you left.”
Hyroc studied Thomas’ face thoughtfully, considering the merits of his plan. Now that he thought about it, besides reprimanding him or offering him up for punishment, the teachers did seem to lack a sense of responsibility for him in any other regard. Would any of them care enough to come looking for me if they couldn’t find me at the school?
“Alright,” Hyroc said after a long moment of deliberation. It seemed a good plan. “So, where should we meet?”
Thomas smiled broadly. “You know that old tree on the hill beside the road on your way to town?”
Hyroc thought a moment, then, nodding, said, “I think I know what you’re talking about.”
“Okay, I’ll meet you there.”
Hyroc collected his hooded jacket from the now empty dorm, and careful not to be seen by the few remaining teachers walking the halls, slipped back outside. Donning his jacket, he made his way around the wall at the back of the school and into the concealment of the thicket beyond. From there, he headed in the direction of the meeting place.
“Did anyone see you leave?” Thomas said as Hyroc came up to him. Hyroc shook his head. “Good.” Thomas donned his mask.
Hyroc pulled his hood as far up over his head as he could to give his snout some concealment, and the two of them made their way toward the tournament grounds.
The tournament grounds were on the western shore of a river running near the town, in a flat field beyond any farmland. A large orange banner stretched between two tall poles staked on either side of a grassy path, marking the entrance. Thick groupings of faded white tents filled the immediate area behind the poles on both sides of the path, but their numbers thinned as they drew closer to the tournament field. The clamor of eager voices filled the air as patrons streamed through the entrance. Hyroc rechecked his hood and kept his head as low as possible. He and Thomas entered the stream of bodies. Hyroc relaxed after a few tense moments when he spotted people wearing the wolf masks, and nobody seemed to take notice of his unusual features. Through the wide entrance flaps of the surrounding tents he passed, he saw a variety of tournament paraphernalia. At the center of the tents, the path widened into a circular court where all around its edges, food was being prepared and the air was stuffed with a myriad of delicious aromas. Hyroc stopped to take in the smells teasing his nose before continuing through to the tournament grounds.
“I sure hope Deroth gets this?” Thomas said as the two of them searched for a decently concealed spot to watch from.
“Yeah, I’d hate for pompous pretty boy Alrich to win,” Hyroc said. He really did not like that man. He reminded him too much of Simon.
Thomas nodded in agreement. “Let’s just hope that arm injury Deroth got from his horse throwing a shoe doesn’t affect him too much.”
“It would be very annoying if one little incident cost him the tournament.”
“But I think he’s still pretty solid in the saddle even with a hurt arm.” Thomas pointed to an empty spot shaded by a tree. “That looks like a good spot over there.” Hyroc nodded his acknowledgment, and the two of them walked over to it. Thomas clapped Hyroc on the shoulder when they arrived. “I’m going to go get some of those roasted nuts I saw when we came in. Make sure no one steals my spot.” Hyroc smiled half mockingly as he nodded. “Thanks.”
“Did I miss anything?” Thomas asked upon his return, sticking a small caramel-colored nut in his mouth.
“No, but I think it’s about to start,” Hyroc replied. He reached into Thomas’ bag of nuts and popped one into his mouth.
Four horns sounded from the other end of the tournament field, and everyone quieted. A man garbed in rust red and yellow clothing, with a dark brown cap that sported a single eagle feather, stepped into the middle of the field. “Welcome!” the man shouted, throwing his arms out in a wide welcoming gesture. “I present to you the brave and honorable men who courageously sought entry into this great tournament. I present to you Earl Gale of the Green Hills.” A bearded man clad in shining silver plate mail, road atop a sandy brown horse into the tournament field, holding a green and white lance. A chorus of cheering accompanied his arrival. With an enthusiastic yell, Gale thrust his lance into the air, then spurred his horse toward the middle of the field. “I now present to you, Lord Alrich.”
A tall thin faced man with immaculate blond hair, clad in armor so perfectly polished, Hyroc had to squint when he looked upon it. He held a white lance with a strip of light blue coiling around the shaft and he rode a pony of pure white. Cheers followed Alrich’s arrival, but a chorus of boos – including Thomas – quickly drowned them out. Alrich lifted his lance above his head, glowering at a nearby group of onlookers, then road over to Gale. “Baron Deroth, or as some have come to know him, The Lancer Wolf.” the Herald continued. Baron Deroth was a muscular man with brown hair, a scar running from the middle of his stubble-covered chin and under his jaw at an angle. His armor had a slightly imposing dark tint to it and raven feathers adorned the top of his helm. He rode a black stallion and his lance was of a dark blue, with two strips of red on either side of the shaft. The crowd broke out into cheering the moment he entered the field. With a mighty cry, Deroth thrust his lance into the air. Everyone wearing a wolf mask cheered energetically.
“You call that a welcome,” Deroth shouted. “I know you can do better than that!” He thrust his lance skyward once again, and a deafening roar erupted from the crowd. With a pleased nod, Deroth trotted his horse over to join the other two. Alrich scowled at the new arrival, but Deroth returned the glare with a smile.
The Herald continued naming names until every contestant was on the field. “Good luck to you all,” the harold said pleasantly. “Now, let this tournament begin!” The contestants trotted their horses in a circuit around the field before exiting.
A few minutes later, two contestants with closed face guards on their helmets reentered the field, taking positions on opposite ends, with a wooden pole running between them. A flag bearer strode out between the two men. “Ready?” the flag bearer shouted. The two competitors nodded. The flag bearer waved his flag in front of him and quickly moved from the center of the field as the two men’s horses thundered toward each other. The clamorous smash of shattering wood sounded as a lance contacted the other rider, throwing him from the saddle. A round of cheers followed the announcement of the victor.
Hyroc spent the next two hours watching lances shatter, horses scream out in alarm, and armored men noisily falling to the ground. Then Deroth emerged onto the field. When Deroth charged his opponent, he held the lace too low and at an angle where it would merely glance off his opponent’s armor. Hyroc watched with dismay as the lance bounced harmlessly off the opposing rider’s armor, and Deroth took a hit to the chest. Deroth barely managed to remain in the saddle and once or twice, it seemed he would fall. After a short reprieve for the acquirement of a new lance, the two competitors charged once again. Deroth held his lance high enough for a proper strike, knocking his opponent to the ground while at the same time remaining in his saddle.
Unfortunately, about an hour later, Deroth lost against none other than Alrich. As Hyroc turned toward Thomas to vent his irritation at the turn of events, he got a start when he saw the headmaster and three ministry officials standing off to Thomas’ left.
“I can’t believe he lost to –” Thomas exclaimed angrily.
“The headmaster’s right there,” Hyroc said through clenched teeth as he stared at the headmaster.
The color drained from Thomas’ face as he stole a glance in the direction Hyroc was looking. “Go, get out of here,” Thomas said, frantically flinging his arms toward Hyroc. Hyroc darted behind the tree they had been sheltering under as he heard the headmaster say Thomas’ name. Hyroc crouched down, peering around the tree’s trunk, watching the headmaster walk over to Thomas. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, the headmaster politely guided Thomas over to meet the group of ministry officials. Thomas turned toward Hyroc and mouthed the words, “get out.” Unwilling to risk another encounter with the boarding school’s staff or someone worse, he carefully wound his way back out of the tournament grounds, heading directly back to the schools.
He got another start when a hand touched him on the shoulder as he hung his jacket back up in the still vacant boy’s dorm. Spinning around, he found June standing behind him. He took a deep breath, relaxing a little.
“I need to talk to you about something,” she said.
“I’m in trouble, aren’t I,” Hyroc said dejectedly, knowing the headmaster or another teacher watching the tournament must have seen him.
She looked puzzled. “You’re not in trouble. Why did you think that?”
“I always seem to get blamed for everything.”
She sighed. “No, you’re not in trouble. And I honestly don’t care you snuck off to watch the tournament.”
Hyroc stared at her, startled, then silently chided himself for revealing so much with his initial reaction. If he had done that with anyone else, he would be in a lot more trouble right now. “W – what makes you think that?” he said sheepishly, though he suspected it was pointless even to pretend otherwise.
June smirked, folding her arms. “Well, I’ve been looking for you for the last hour, and it wasn’t hard to figure out where you had gone when I couldn’t find you or your jacket.”
Hyroc smiled nervously. Her logic seemed sound. “So, what did you want to talk to me about?”
“Not here, the other boys will probably be heading back here soon, and it’s a conversation best held privately.” Hyroc nodded, following June from the dorm into the vacant teacher’s common room. The two of them seated themselves in front of the fireplace with their chairs facing each other. “I think I found you work.”
“Work?” Hyroc said, confused. That was something he hadn’t given much thought to. He wasn’t really expecting anyone to have the slightest desire to give him a job.
“Well, it’s an apprenticeship. I’ve been talking to a friend of mine, and he’s agreed to take you.”
“What will I be doing with him?”
“Rune carving.” Hyroc frowned. “Don’t give me that look. Would you rather I found you an apprenticeship with a records keeper instead?”
Hyroc sighed. No, the latter sounded a lot worse. “How much does he pay?”
“Five Flecks every two weeks, including room and board.” Hyroc’s frown deepened. Five was hardly anything at all. “I know, I know, it’s not much, but it’s a start.”
“When does he want me to begin?”
“Somewhere around midway through the summer.”
“Well, at least I’ll be able to annoy Thomas when I start making money before him.”
June frowned. “Hyroc, you won’t be coming back to the school when you take the job.”
“It’s an apprenticeship; you’ll have very little time for anything other than learning your skill for quite a while, and there’s not much more you can learn from being here. Besides, Thomas will be leaving soon anyway, so –”
“What do you mean Thomas is leaving soon?” Hyroc interrupted, looking surprised. He couldn’t have heard her correctly. That didn’t make any sense.
June looked at him perplexed. “Didn’t he tell you his father is coming to pick him up the day after tomorrow?”
“No, he didn’t say anything about that.” How could his friend have forgotten to tell him something so monumentally important?
“Well, as far as I know, he only found out about it a few days ago, and maybe he just didn’t get around to telling you yet.”
News this big didn’t exactly seem like something to procrastinate about telling. What was Thomas doing keeping it from him?
“Was he the one who encouraged you to sneak off to watch the tournament?”
Hyroc nodded. “And I nearly got caught,” he said sharply. “The headmaster and some ministry officials almost saw me there.”
“And is that when you decided to come back to the school?”
June nodded. “Well, there you go; he was probably going to tell you after the tournament, but your encounter with the headmaster prevented him from doing so.”
“I guess,” Hyroc said in half agreement. Her explanation seemed a little too convenient. “But still, why didn’t he just tell me this when he found out?”
“He might’ve been scared. I’m sure you understand what that’s like.” Hyroc shrugged. He wished he wasn’t so familiar with it. “Saying goodbye to a friend isn’t as easy as it might seem.” Hyroc stared at the floor, suddenly unable to find any fault in his friend’s behavior to speak about. June put her hand on his shoulder. “You shouldn’t be mad at him for what he did. I know this is hard, but this is just another part of growing up, unfortunately.
Hyroc sighed angrily, but deep down, even though he hated to admit it to himself, she was right. I can’t stay here forever, Hyroc thought grudgingly.