Sentinel Flame Book One
By Adam Freestone
Alaskan Writer of Imaginative Creativity
Hyroc sat at the table in the dining hall, absentmindedly picking at his lunch. It was some sort of stew, or at least, that’s what he thought it was. The composition of the school meals was always hard to identify. He knew he would miss Thomas, but there were things he hadn’t expected his friend’s departure to reveal. Beyond June offering advice, he hadn’t spoken to another person. He hadn’t realized ever since Marcus’ death; Thomas and his aunt were practically the only people he ever had a conversation with. This knowledge had existed in the back of his mind, but with Thomas around, it seemed far away and irrelevant. Now there wasn’t anything to divert his attention from the harsh reality. The school had suddenly lost what little comfort it possessed. It didn’t feel like his home anymore. It felt like someplace he had just arrived at and he wasn’t welcome there.
Glancing from side to side, he noticed his half of the table was unoccupied. For as long as he could remember, at the table, a gap had always existed between him and the nearest student, but over the last few days, it seemed to widen considerably. With a dejected sigh, he dropped his spoon back into the bowl, got up from the table, and walked out the door.
From the dining hall, he made his way to the nearest door that led outside. A group of younger boys stopped talking abruptly and began staring distrustfully at him when he came through the door. Shrugging off their behavior, he headed for the apple tree. At the tree, he began taking off his shoes, preparing to climb the tree. He stopped himself.
Pushing his shoes back on, he walked over to the wall behind the tree. Leaning over its stony top, he gazed intently at the trees beyond. The subtle rustle of leaves from a breeze almost seemed to make the trees call to him. He wanted to climb over the wall, feel the cool mottled shade beneath those trees, and permanently leave the school behind. The only thing that stopped him was June. If he ran away, he would leave all the misery of the school behind, but he would also be leaving her. He had grown quite attached to her in the time since Marcus’ passing. She cared about him and always did whatever she could to protect him. Even though she had been able to do little toward her goal, it made him feel good she had tried. She had made his world seem not quite so bleak like there was something for him to look forward to.
After everything she had done for him, abandoning her seemed a dishonorable reward for her efforts. He could endure this misery a little longer for her. It was the least he could do. He would be leaving her soon for work, but it was what she wanted for him, and he had no desire to disrupt what she had done. After that, then he would go. Where he wasn’t sure, but he would figure something out. Maybe then, he could find answers about his past.
Nodding to himself, he stood up and made his way back over to the school. He began walking along the structure’s walls with no clear purpose in mind, letting its exterior guide the course of his feet. Students lounging with their backs against the building moved quickly out of his path when they noticed him coming. Trying his best not to notice, Hyroc continued on his way. Passing the school’s front door, he stopped when he noticed two boys his age standing near one of the school’s trees. He couldn’t quite distinguish what one of the boys looked like, but he recognized the other as Henry. Henry had once asked Hyroc if he could borrow the salt from his table. It wasn’t much of anything, really, but the request was more interaction a student beyond Thomas had offered for some time. Maybe he could somehow make the boy his friend, or at the very least, someone to talk to.
As Hyroc approached, he noticed some books strewn across the root riddled ground. Henry bent down and picked up a book. The second boy did the same. Then with one of the books in hand, the boy threw it at Henry. The book slammed into the boy’s chest, knocking him onto his back. Hyroc felt his hands clench into a fist. Though none of the students dared heckle him anymore, it still bothered him to see some boys getting bullied.
“Hey,” someone yelled. It took Hyroc a second to realize he was the one who had said it. The second boy looked toward Hyroc with a suddenly surprised expression on his face. Now Hyroc recognized the boy to be Eric. From the few times Hyroc had happened to run into Eric, the boy seemed extremely cocky, as he never refrained from letting Hyroc know how much he wasn’t afraid of him, along with a complement of insults directed at his mother. None of the other students dared talk to Hyroc, let alone insult him directly to his face, but for some reason, Eric didn’t seem to take any notice of this. He was either the bravest boy in town or the dumbest.
“What do you want?” Eric said irritably. “Shouldn’t you be out chewing on a rat or something?” Rolling his eyes, Hyroc continued over to Henry. The boy looked surprised at his approach and doubly so when Hyroc picked up one of the books and offered it to him. Tentatively, the boy accepted the book. “Hey,” Eric said. Ignoring Eric, Hyroc offered another book to Henry. “HEY, I’m talking to you,” Eric yelled.
Hyroc turned toward the boy. “You’ve had your fun. Now back off.”
Eric grinned ruefully. “I’m not going to listen to a monster like you. If you want me to back off, then make me. I’m not scared of you.” Shaking his head, Hyroc returned to helping Henry but still kept Eric in his peripheral vision, ready to react if the boy should take a swing at him. “Hey, don’t you turn your back on me, coward.” Hyroc stiffened a little at the challenge to his honor but repressing the urge to show the boy how much of a coward he wasn’t; he continued helping Henry. “You had better turn around and face me, coward.” Hyroc continued ignoring him. “Alright, you asked for this!”
Eric lurched forward as he swung his fist at Hyroc. Fully aware of the oncoming strike and expecting it, Hyroc easily sidestepped it. The bully stumbled to a stop. As the boy turned, using his fist, Hyroc nailed him hard in the face. The boy jerked backward from the strike, careening toward the ground. As he plummeted, one of his legs slid into a small space beneath a protruding tree root. The space held the leg straight, preventing it from bending with the rest of the boy’s body as he fell, and with a sickening snap, something broke when he hit the ground. The boy gasped, his face turning ghostly white. Hyroc felt a knot form in his stomach as what he had just done came crashing down on him.
Someone yelled from behind him, and Miss Duncan rushed over to the boy on the ground. “H – He,” Hyroc stuttered, as an incoherent frenzy of thoughts prevented him from forming an explanation of what had happened.
“I knew your savage nature would appear one day,” Miss Duncan said with grim satisfaction. She turned a hateful glare on him. A cold, sinking feeling crept over Hyroc as he looked at her. “None of them would believe me about you, but now they will see just how wrong they were. Nothing good can ever come from a creature of darkness.”
“He threw the first punch. He started it,” Hyroc said when he was able to speak properly
“Your lies hold no sway with me!” she snapped back
Hyroc turned his eyes toward Henry. “You saw what happened,” he said to the boy. “Tell her!” The boy answered his request with a dumbfounded stare. “Tell her, please!” Hyroc took a step toward the boy, and the boy recoiled as if bracing for something painful. A crowd had begun to form in a loose semicircle behind Miss Duncan. Hyroc turned toward them and took a step in their direction. The nearest students pulled away from him.
Miss Duncan waved a prefect over to her. “Tell the headmaster,” she said to the prefect. “That one of the students has been badly injured.” She sharply indicated Hyroc with her chin, “And that Hyroc assaulted him –”
“It was an accident,” Hyroc pleaded. He hadn’t meant for that to happen. It was truly an accident. Why would none of them believe him?
“– and The Ministry needs to be notified immediately,” she said, continuing to pay no heed whatsoever to his words. “He’ll understand. Now go.” The prefect nodded, and with a quick glance in Hyroc’s direction, hurried off toward the school’s front door. She turned a withering gaze on Hyroc. “Your time here has ended, and your savagery will finally be extinguished.”
Hyroc swept his eyes through the crowd of students. They were all staring at him. He could feel every one of their eyes boring into him. Being watched had always bothered him, but this felt different. This felt worse, like something dangerous, something he needed to escape. A growing wave of panic began gnawing at him beneath their unwavering gazes. The only thing he could think about was running, getting out of sight, putting something, anything, between him and their eyes. Hyroc turned away from the crowd and bolted toward the wall. Heart hammering, he scrambled over the stonework, dashing into the cool shadows of the trees beyond. Leaf laden branches slapped against his face as he darted between the trunks. He ran until he was gasping, stopping to rest beside a rotting stump.
He sat with his back against the trunk and covered his face with his hands. He yelled out in a mixture of sorrow and anger as the full weight of his predicament pressed down on him. With one stupid mistake, he had destroyed everything in his life. He knew better than to help another student when it came to bullying. Everything would still be fine if he had just stayed out of it. Eric would have only given Henry a few bruises, nothing to cause any lasting pain. Now because of his reckless behavior, not only had he seemed to prove Miss Duncan correct, but now The Ministry was after him. If they caught him, they would kill him. They couldn’t come after him before, but that was because he had never given them a reason to until he had broken the leg of another student. Accidental or not, a broken bone was a serious injury. If there was any doubt in people’s minds about him being dangerous, he had just eliminated it with a single punch. He had lost everything, it was completely his fault, and there was nothing he could do to fix it. Pain and a frigid feeling racked him and his eyes began to glisten with hot tears. His life was over!
A stream of determination shot through him. He shook his head and wiped his eyes. Now is not the time for this, he thought. What’s done is done. I need to focus on what’s happening right now. The Ministry is after me, and I will not lay down and die. Those bullies couldn’t break me and I’m not going to let The Ministry have their way either. I can never go back to the boarding school but I was looking forward to leaving it anyway. I need to figure out what I’m going to do fast because it won’t be much longer before The Ministry is out looking for me. Running is my only option. To where I don’t know, I can figure that out later. Right now, I need to focus on getting away. The image of the Burk family house appeared in his mind. I could probably find everything I need at the house. He shook his head ruefully; the thought of stealing from one of the few people to ever care for him was abhorrent. But then he began to wonder if Marcus or June would risk his safety for some easily replaced items. Deciding they would not, Hyroc stood and began navigating toward the Burk homestead.
He studied the building from a stand of trees behind the garden for any signs of life. June boarded at the school during the school year, but she left the house in the care of a housekeeper. There weren’t any signs of activity in or around the house he could see. Either the housekeeper was away on errands or had yet to arrive for the day. He couldn’t quite remember how the arrangement worked. Glancing over at a nearby tree, he saw a raven perched on a branch staring at him. He thought he saw silver markings on either side of the bird’s neck. He shook his head, turning his attention back toward the house; he had more important things to think about, the light was only catching the bird’s feathers just right. Cautiously he crept toward the back door and opened it. Silently stepping through the threshold, he saw faintly glowing embers in the hearth, some freshly dirtied dishes, and the fading odor of something cooked not long ago. He listened for a long moment for any sounds of movement, but hearing none; he headed upstairs in search of proper travel clothing.
He stopped in front of Marcus’ room. The last time he had dared enter it was after the funeral. Taking a deep breath, he walked into the room. It was almost as he remembered leaving it. Pushing aside a flood of memories, he walked over to the room’s closet in search of clothes. He found a belt, dark gray jerkin to go over a white tunic, and black pants, along with a long light green hooded cloak and some dusty leather hunting boots. Dressing out of his school uniform, he donned the pilfered clothing. He retrieved an old hunting knife that had begun to rust at its base from the corner of the closet and secured it onto his belt. As he turned to leave, his foot bumped against something beneath the bed, causing him to stumble.
Looking toward the thing he had almost tripped over, he spotted a long wooden box. A stab of longing struck him; the box contained Marcus’ bow. He slid the box out from under the bed then carefully opened it. Marcus’ cherry wood hunting bow lay within, covered in a thin layer of dust. Hyroc reached for it but stayed his hand. It didn’t seem right for him to take something so dear to the man who raised him. He closed the box and put it back in its place. He walked across the hall and into his own room. He gazed fondly at the box containing the small bow he had called his own during happier times. Pushing down the upwelling of memories, he stuck the courage stone Thomas had given him into his pocket, along with the wooden bear. It seemed childish to take the figure, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave it behind. He stopped at the door and looked back into the room a long moment before heading down the stairs, never expecting to see it again.
Returning to the kitchen, he began shoving food into a knapsack he had taken from a hook near the front door. He got a start when a voice said his name. Heart racing, he wheeled around to see June standing in the doorway connecting the living room to the kitchen.
“What’s going on?” June said calmly.
“I got into a fight,” Hyroc said, a sudden spike of fear forcing the words out of him. “I don’t even know how it happened. It didn’t make any sense. All I did was – was hit him – and then he fell – and – and – and then his leg –” Hyroc squeezed his eyes shut. “It was an accident. I didn’t mean for that to happen!”
“Hyroc,” June interrupted, her eyes considerate and gentle. “I understand.”
Hyroc opened his eyes and gave her a puzzled look. “You do?” That was not what he was expecting her to say.
“Yes, you hurt someone, and you’re running away because The Ministry is after you. I always knew a day like this would come.”
Hyroc’s puzzlement deepened. “You did?” He wished he would have known.
She nodded. “You worked hard at your studies, but I could tell your heart was never truly in it. I knew you would never have accepted the life of a scholar. It’s simply not who you are. And deep down, I think he knew this too.” She paused, her expression thoughtful and sad. “You’ll probably want something a little bigger than that worn-out knapsack.” She stepped out of view toward the door beneath the stairs, and when she returned, she tossed a pack to Hyroc. Hyroc caught it, shooting her a baffled look.
“You’re not going to try to talk me out of it?” he said, confused. This didn’t exactly seem like something she would encourage him to do.
“No, I happen to think what you’re doing is the only way for you to stay safe. This is probably the first place they’ll come looking for you, so I suggest you focus on getting your provisions into that pack instead of wasting time talking with me.” Hyroc nodded and did as instructed. Her logic seemed pretty sound. “I’ll be right back.” She returned with a waterskin, pair of gloves, a coat, and a roll of heavy twine.” Hyroc accepted the supplies but stopped and stared at the heavy twine roll.
“What’s this for?” he said, holding it up.
She gave him a half-humored smile. “Remember when you were younger, and you got that insane idea you wanted to try trapping.” Hyroc nodded, smiling fondly. “Well, I thought when you get settled into a safe place, maybe you can start trapping, and maybe you can make some money off it. But beyond that, it’s not a bad idea to have some with you.” Hyroc nodded thankfully. June pulled a coin pouch off her belt and handed it to him. “There’s not much in there, but it should be enough to be of some use if –” she trailed off. Even without the rest of her statement, Hyroc understood she meant if anyone would even accept money from him. She pointed to a box beside the hearth. “Grab that tinderbox and little wood hatchet over there by the hearth then go ahead and get that water skin filled.”
Hyroc grabbed both items and headed out to the well in the garden. When he reentered the kitchen, he began double-checking he had everything he might need.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” June said. “There’s something else.” She left the room, returning with the buckskin tube Marcus had used to house his bow and a quiver full of arrows. Another stab of longing struck Hyroc. June set the quiver down beside her and ran her hand thoughtfully across the buckskin tube. She was quiet a moment before speaking. “I know he would have wanted you to have this,” she said. She looked up at him with misting eyes and held the tube out to him with both hands. Reverently, he accepted it.
“If you’re careful, you probably have enough food in your pack to last you for close to a week. But you can stretch it out longer if you supplement your provisions with anything you manage to hunt. I know you’ve only hunted fowl, but if you can down a duck on the wing, I don’t think a rabbit will give you much trouble. I think it’s about the same.” She pulled a bowl and a small bag from the table, holding them out to him. “What’s in that bag is for emergencies,” she said, as Hyroc stuck them in his pack. “It’s filled with cold-flour; all you have to do is add water to it. I know it won’t be the most enticing meal you’ve ever had, but it’ll get you by in a pinch. Be careful about using the roads; that’s where they’ll probably be looking for you, and avoid making a fire until you’re at least a few days out. By that time, The Ministry should lose interest in you. Do you know where you’ll be going?” Hyroc shook his head. “Okay, that’s probably good. It’ll save me from having to lie when they come here looking for you. I put a map in one of the pockets of that pack, so you can figure out where to go later.” She paused a moment staring at Hyroc thoughtfully.
Her expression was saddened. “I wish there were another way. You’ve done nothing to deserve any of this. You shouldn’t have to run. You’ve done nothing but try to be a good boy. Maybe if I had paid more attention, if I had – if I had been more like him, then maybe you wouldn’t be in this situation.”
“I don’t blame you for this,” Hyroc said, his words sincere. “This wasn’t your fault; none of it was. I know you did your best to help me.” Hyroc took a breath to help subdue his emotions. “It was more than anyone else had ever done. You and Marcus were the only kind of family I ever knew, and you were the closest thing to a –”
June embraced him, stifling his words. “And you were the closest thing to a son I ever had.” Hyroc felt tears welling up in his eyes. June released her grip and sniffling; she took a step back. “It doesn’t seem right for you to do this alone. But the road is no place for a foolish schoolteacher such as myself, and I fear I would only slow you down. Marcus wouldn’t have hesitated, but unfortunately, though I would like to think so, I’m not nearly as adventurous as he was. I would try hiding you, but if The Ministry found out about that, my life would be forfeit. You must understand, I do not care about my own safety, but anyone associated with me, including my students, would be in danger.”
Nodding, Hyroc said. “I understand.” He hated it, but he understood. More lives than just his own were at risk. He had learned about enough witch hunts that had started from someone being offered sanctuary.
June made a coughing noise at his words. “Of course you do. Anyone who thinks you’re a monster is a damned fool. You’ve got a good heart. Maybe if I can teach my students properly, make them understand, I’ll be able to prevent this from happening to anyone else. And I will have words with Miss Duncan about this, many, many words.” Hyroc smiled a little at the thought of the woman finally being put in her place after all the years of torment he had endured from her.
June wiped away her tears, and her face suddenly became serious, more serious than he had ever seen. “Don’t you ever come back here,” she said in a voice so stern that it startled Hyroc. “There’s nothing left for you here. This place stopped being your home a long time ago. I don’t want you to come back for Marcus, Thomas, and definitely not for me. You got that. Forget you ever knew us or that we ever existed. Get as far away from this place as you can. Once you step foot out that door, I want you to keep walking, and I don’t want you to turn back.” Tears were reappearing in her eyes and her whole body trembled as she spoke. “I need you to promise you will do this.”
“I promise,” Hyroc said, though a part of him screamed for him not to. It was what she wanted. She nodded, struggling to maintain her composure. “Thank you for everything, June.” In a reluctant movement, he turned away and walked through the door out into the garden. He stopped at the gate as he heard June weeping. He was just about to turn back toward the house when he heard June yell out, “NEVER TURN BACK.” He wanted to turn around and defy her words, but he forced himself to take a step through the gate, followed by another and another. The road was his home now.