Sentinel Flame Book One
By Adam Freestone
Alaskan Writer of Imaginative Creativity
The girl looked at Hyroc; then, she looked to the container she held within the stream. Hyroc anxiously wondered if she had actually noticed him, but an instant later, she sharply looked up at him again. Her eyes began to widen into the familiar look of alarm people usually showed when they saw him for the first time. Making sure he avoided exposing his teeth with what he would have intended as a friendly smile, and he waved at her. She stared at him without moving as the color drained from her face. Hyroc knew what she was about to do. “Please don’t scream,” Hyroc pleaded in a calm voice. The girl screamed, bolting in the direction of a grouping of buildings. Hyroc chided himself for blindly walking up to the stream. He splashed through it to the other side and broke into a run. It would be mere minutes before the girl informed someone of his presence. Then not long afterward, people would be out searching for him. Out on the flat open terrain, it wouldn’t be hard for someone to spot him. His only chance was to make it to the forest ahead of him. If he reached it, he would be able to lose any pursuers.
Glancing over his shoulder toward the structures several minutes later, he didn’t see anybody pursuing him. By now, he figured the girl had led someone to the stream. He was running out of time, and the edge of the forest was still a fair distance away. He resumed his run, forcing every bit of strength out of his legs. They quickly began to burn from the exertion, but he fought through the discomfort, knowing every second brought him closer to safety. His progress felt too slow, and that someone from the town would overtake him any second.
Then to his astonishment, he reached the edge of the trees. Most of them consisted of pines, with some birches and cottonwoods mixed in. He leaned against the closest tree, his breaths coming in deep gasps. He had never pushed himself so hard in his life, not even when he fought his bullies. All he wanted to do now was collapse where he stood and take a nap, but he knew he couldn’t, not yet. He looked back toward town, taking a long draught from his water skin. There still wasn’t anybody there, but he didn’t fool himself into thinking there wasn’t somebody out there he couldn’t see.
Off to his right, a narrow road wound its way from the town and into the forest. It would be safer to stay clear of it, but he feared getting lost in the woods, though some part of him wondered if that would be such a bad thing. There wouldn’t be anybody to hurt him, and it seemed unlikely he would have to worry about ever being found. It was a tempting option, though. He couldn’t stand the thought of how lonely he would be. After all the bad things people had done to him, he still wanted to be around them. He wondered if it was just him holding on to the hope he might run it someone who didn’t think he was a monster. Not everyone had. Marcus, June, Thomas, and the nice woman in the kitchen were proof of that. He just had no expectations of finding anyone like them ever again. In the end, he might not have a choice. He pushed the thought aside. Reaching Elswood was the only thing he needed to think about for the time being. When he reached it, then he would see what fate had in store for him.
He pushed himself upright and headed into the trees, angling toward the road where it entered the forest. When it came into view again, he followed along it through the trees, staying only close enough to keep it in view. The rest of the day passed slowly without him seeing any signs of pursuers. Amongst the trees, darkness came suddenly, and Hyroc barely noticed its onset in time to make camp while he still had light. Kindling was plentiful here, and it wasn’t hard for him to get a fire going. Reaching into his pack, he was dismayed to see his provisions were nearly exhausted. He had enough for his breakfast the following morning. After that, all he had was the sack of tasteless cold-flour.
Sleep proved more elusive than he had expected. Strange sounds filled the night, and he thought he could hear things moving through the trees. Then a shiver ran down his back when he heard the distant cry of a wolf. Nearby, a rabbit let loose a shrill death shriek. Hyroc added more wood to the fire. The fire eagerly devoured the fresh kindling, flaring brightly. Hyroc strung his bow and moved as close to the fire as he could endure.
The night seemed to stretch on endlessly; then, suddenly, he found himself waking up in the morning. He breathed a sigh of relief, stretched, and settled in to eat what remained of his fresh supplies. As he did so, he gazed unenthusiastically at the sack of cold-flour. The unappetizing substance was all he had left and soon even it would be gone. Not bothering to unstring his bow, he held it at his side as he resumed following the road. If anything moved, he had to be ready to shoot it. Wild game would be the only thing keeping him from starving to death.
Mourning faded to noon, and he found himself reaching into his pack for something to eat. He sighed bitterly when his hand found only an empty pack. Hunger pangs began gnawing at him a few hours later. He resisted the urge to start in on his cold-flour; he could wait until dinner. Trying to take his mind off his hunger, he scaled a tree to have a look at his surroundings. Everything around him seemed much the same, with rises dotting the terrain. Off toward the north, he saw the bluish-gray triangular shape of Wolf Paw Mountain. He smiled at the sight. That was where his new home lay, hopefully. Feeling a little better, he descended back to the ground and continued his journey. As the sunlight began fading to the orange glow of dusk, he spooked a wood grouse foraging at the base of a cottonwood. The bird took flight, moving skyward at a shallow angle. Hyroc immediately nocked an arrow and let it fly. The arrow struck the fowl in the chest, and it plummeted to the ground.
Hyroc carried his prize over to a small gap in the trees, where he plucked, gutted, and cooked it. Biting into the hot meat, he was grateful he was spared the cold-flour for at least one more meal. Done eating, he wiped the grease from his lips, then disposed of what little remained of his meal into a nearby stream before settling in for the night. The sounds didn’t bother him as much, and beyond the occasional noise waking him, he slept relatively well.
A strange smell roused him from his sleep. With his eyes still closed, he absentmindedly sniffed. He recognized the smell as that belonging to a dog. He snapped his eyes open and was startled to see a muscular man in front of him leaning on the head of a two-handed ax. Left of him, another man stood holding the leash of a fearsome-looking black and brown tracking dog. A twig snapped behind Hyroc. Turning his head slightly, he saw a third man approaching from behind with a bow and nocked arrow. Hyroc slowly got to his feet.
The man with the ax stood up straight. “No need for you to stand,” the man said in a gravelly voice. “You can run, but you won’t get away.” The man indicated the tracking hound with his hand. “If you get lucky, you might be able to lose us, but not that beast over there; he’ll find you no matter what you do. So why don’t you make this easy on yourself and just accept your fate.”
“He’s an ugly wretch, isn’t he,” the man with the bow said in a disgusted tone. “I don’t much blame that girl for being afraid now that I’ve seen him with my own eyes.” The man with the ax raised one hand toward the man with the bow, signaling for him to be quiet. Then he grabbed his ax handle with both hands, holding it at the ready. Hyroc had no disillusion these men were going to kill him. Luckily, he was quite familiar with an effective strategy for dealing with such situations. He took a breath to calm himself and bolted. With a curse, the man with the ax yelled for the bowman to shoot.
Hyroc heard the fluttering of wings and the cries of an angry-sounding bird. The bowman swore. Stealing a look over his shoulder, Hyroc saw a large black raven attacking the man with the bow. The man swatted the bird out of the way and loosed his arrow. Hyroc yelped as the arrow whistled toward him. He felt a sharp pain in the edge of his ear as the arrow clipped it. Distracted by the pain, Hyroc tripped over a root, losing his balance and falling. Before he could get back to his feet, the dog was on him. He rolled onto his back and barely managed to grab the dog by its collar before it could sink its teeth into his throat. White spittle spattered on his face from the dog’s snapping jaws that hovered mere inches from his face. Hyroc grabbed a rock and smashed it into the side of the dog’s head. The beast yelped, pulling away. He kicked it under the chin, knocking it onto its side. He attempted to get to his feet again, but a hard kick to the ribs sent him back down.
“That’s my dog, you filthy wretch!” the man bellowed. Just as he drew a sword hanging from his belt, a deafening roar erupted from a patch of foliage. Both the man and Hyroc instinctively looked toward the sound. A massive white bear slammed into the man with the bow, knocking him onto his back. The man yelled out in terror as the bear tore into his neck. There was a loud crunch, and the man’s screams cut short. The tracking dog barked furiously at the bear. With a curse, the man with the sword drew a throwing ax and hurled it at the bear. The bear sidestepped the ax, and the projectile thunked harmlessly into the trunk of a tree. Hyroc gaped at the bear in terrified amazement. The man with the ax stepped back beside the one with the sword. Then the bear charged them.
The man with the ax raised his weapon above his head to strike the approaching beast. When he brought the blade down, the bear turned its head, so it caught the wooden shaft in its jaws. With a swipe of its massive paw, the bear broke the ax head off. Before the man could react, the bear slammed its paw into the side of his head. There was a snapping crunch as the man’s neck broke. The man with the sword cursed in a frantic tone as he stabbed at the bear’s neck. The bear ducked out of the way of the strike and was on the man before he could make a second attempt. The man screamed, but just as with the bowman, his screams abruptly ceased with the disturbing sound of breaking bone.
Its head was dripping blood, and the bear roared at the still barking dog. The dog whimpered and with its tail between its legs, bolted. Once the dog had disappeared into the brush, the bear turned its attention on Hyroc. He knew he should run, but his legs would not obey. He closed his eyes as he waited to feel the bear’s teeth ripping through his flesh. He heard the rustling of leaves, followed by an eerie silence. When he finally worked up enough courage to open his eyes, the bear was gone. A trail of bloody paw prints led off into the bushes where the beast had first emerged. When Hyroc’s legs allowed movement once again, he dashed to his pack.
He rapidly donned his things and took off at a dead run toward the road. Everything around him merged into a green and brown blur. He couldn’t think about anything. All that mattered was he kept moving. He had to get away. He wasn’t safe. He wasn’t safe from that – from that thing. He emerged onto the road and nearly ran headfirst into a big brown, long-faced animal. The animal let out a startled scream as it reared up on its two back legs. It flung its two front legs forward, catching Hyroc in the chest with the edge of a hoof. He was thrown onto his back, knocking the air out of him. A frightening moment of breathlessness passed before he gasped. His head felt suddenly clearer, and he was able to think again. The three men’s brutal deaths assailed his mind. For an instant, it was all he could think about, but he forced the memory aside.
Focusing on the animal that had kicked him, he realized it was a horse. The horse stood tied to the trunk of a pine, and a few steps to one side of it, there were two more. These horses must have belonged to the three men. All three horses stared at him warily. Riding a horse could cut days of his journey; unfortunately, he knew they wouldn’t let him ride them. When he was seven, Marcus had rented a pony so he could teach him how to ride. The lesson had gone fine up until the point Marcus tried to get Hyroc on the horse. The horse began bucking wildly, throwing Hyroc from its back, and the animal nearly stomped on him. Marcus repeatedly tried, with the same result, but to Hyroc’s relief, he eventually gave up. Pretty much for as long as Hyroc could remember, every horse he had ever come near had looked like it wanted to kick him to death. So, he didn’t ride horses.
He saw a saddlebag on the horse. It seemed reasonable to think there was something he might be able to use in there. And the horse might let him get close enough to look inside if he was careful. While talking calmly to the horse, he slowly approached the saddlebag. The horse watched him warily but didn’t move to attack him. Peering inside the bag, he found it stocked with a few days’ worth of provisions. If he took the food, then he should have enough to make it to Elswood. It wouldn’t be stealing either because the people who intended to eat it no longer needed it. Everything would go to waste if he didn’t. He felt suddenly sick as he remembered what it had looked like to see the bloodied remains of the three men. Fighting through the urge to retch, he shoved the food into his pack as fast as he could. As he did so, he noticed his hands were trembling. He closed his fists tightly and opened them again, repeating the process four times. The trembling subsided a little. He sighed as he resumed his pilfering. Now wasn’t the time to worry about his handshaking.
Along with the food, he found a coin pouch and added its contents to his own. He wasn’t sure how useful the coins would be, but it seemed irresponsible to leave behind something potentially valuable. Their owners had no more use for them. Moving on to the next horse, he found an extra quiver of arrows and a short sword. He calmly talked to the horse as he had done with the first until it let him touch it. Except for seven of the arrows in the quiver, most were no different than his own. Five were of high-quality steel designed to pierce armor. The remaining two had heads of silver. He remembered reading about the use of silver, specifically to kill evil things. He didn’t expect to need anything like them in Elswood, but he could probably sell the heads; if anybody would let him. He stuck the five steel arrows, two silver ones, and as many of the regular arrows as would fit into his quiver.
He studied the sword thoughtfully. It might come in handy against wolves or dogs. His bow would work fine against either from a distance, but if they got close, he would be in trouble. He smiled at the idea of having it. From the first time he had seen a sword, he had always wanted one. He carefully pulled the sword and its belt from the horse. Once he secured it to his waist, he moved on to the last horse. This horse seemed much more nervous at his approach and began bucking the moment he got close. Lurching backward out of the way of a flying hoof, he decided there wasn’t anything on the horse worth the risk of getting kicked. Besides, he felt he had spent too much time with the horses. He was still dangerously close to the site of the bear attack, and that beast wouldn’t be far away.
He glanced over at the ropes tied around the necks of the horses. It might be some time before anyone came this way again. Tied to a tree, the horses couldn’t find food, and they would starve to death if something didn’t get to them first. It would be cruel of him to leave their lives to chance; they hadn’t done anything to him. The three of them still might not survive, but untied, they at least they had a chance. He pulled the sword from its sheath and was a little surprised by its shape. The blade was rectangular with a rounded end and appeared to be a Falchion. When he swung it, it almost had the same feel as his wood hatchet. He waved the sword through the air a few more times before cutting the ropes on the horses. The horses stared at him a long moment before starting to move around. Duty done, he sheathed his blade and turned toward the road to leave.
A bolt of fear shot through him when he saw the white bear standing right in front of him. With a surprised yell, he drew the sword. Then suddenly there wasn’t anything in front of him. Heart racing, he swept his eyes through his surroundings. Other than the horses, there weren’t any creatures in sight. He nudged the side of his head with the fist of his free hand. It was just a memory. What he had seen wasn’t real. He didn’t have time to waste worrying about what had happened. He needed to put as much distance between him and the kill site as quickly as possible. After taking several deep breaths to calm his nerves, he returned the sword to its sheath. His hand was still shaking as he did so. He hoped the trembling would go away eventually; it would make accurately shooting a bow difficult. When he was relaxed enough, he continued up the road.
With nothing to focus his mind on, the memory of the attack repeatedly appeared in his mind’s eye. The ferocity of the attack was not what bothered him the most; it was the bear’s behavior. The efficiency with which it killed those men was extremely disturbing. From what he understood about animals, nothing kills like that except people. Then there was the fact it disarmed one of the men before killing him, and it dodged a thrown ax and ducked a sword stroke. An animal shouldn’t have known to do so. Maybe it was a witch in the form of a bear. That could explain why the beast had acted so strangely, but those kinds of witches were usually half-mad and nearly incapable of rational thoughts. It seemed unlikely they would be in the correct mindset to dodge any kind of attack. There was also the fact it didn’t kill him. If it tore those men to pieces, it should have done the same to him. He forced a vivid image of the kill site from his mind. That bear would have had an easier time with him, so why did it leave him alone? Maybe it was saving him for later, he thought unpleasantly. The thought made him glance nervously through his surroundings. There still wasn’t any sign of the bear. Maybe it was as simple as he had gotten lucky. No matter what the bear might have been, he was alive because of it. He had seen something horrible, but he was still alive. He just needed to make sure he stayed that way. Spending the night in a tree would probably be a good idea.