Sentinel Flame Book One
By Adam Freestone
Alaskan Writer of Imaginative Creativity
Hyroc was shocked awake when one of the branches from the spruce tree he had taken shelter underneath for the night released its glistening coating of ice-cold morning dew on his head. Using one of his sleeves, he dried the top of his head as best he could. He removed the mostly empty bag of cold-flour from his pack, dumping a meager amount into a waiting bowl. The provisions he had taken off the horses had run out a little under a week ago, and for the last four days, beyond the occasional rabbit or wood grouse, this tasteless meal was his main source of food. As he cinched the bag shut, he felt strangely relieved to see only enough flour for one more serving. At least he wouldn’t be eating much more of it. However, that was about the only good thing about it running out. After replacing the bag into his pack, he used his water skin to pour water over the grain in the bowl. He scooped up a spoonful of his gruel, turned the spoon sideways, letting the watered-down slop splatter back into the bowl.
When he finished choking down his breakfast, he donned his things before making his way through the thickly clustered pine trees surrounding his campsite, over to the road beyond. Cautiously, he looked up and down the rock-riddled path. At the end of it lay the village of Elswood.
The village was his destination, but beyond getting here, he hadn’t put much thought into what to do once he actually arrived. About the only thing he had figured out was he could trap here. That seemed such a stupid thing to do, go somewhere and have practically no idea what to do when he got there. He knew better than to hope for a friendly welcome from the villagers, let alone a warm place to sleep. They would probably attack him on sight for fear he was some sort of forest monster. No one thus far had reacted toward him any better. He still wondered what he was expecting to find here when anyone he encountered would likely think he meant them harm. He couldn’t make his home in such a place. He was liable to end up dead if he tried. Those witch hunters didn’t even think twice about killing him. It disturbed him how lightly they had treated the task of ending his life. They looked at him as if he were less than a rabid animal in need of killing. The safest option would still be for him to venture out into the wilderness where there wouldn’t be any people. Nobody wanted him around them. He was a monster, and nothing he did could change that. Why was it so difficult for him to accept this? Was he hoping things would be better here? Did he expect people would treat him as if he were a normal person? There was only one option open to him. He hated the thought of how isolated he would be out in the wilderness all by himself but it probably was his only choice. Maybe if he ventured into the village, had something bad happen, maybe he could convince himself to leave these ridiculous hopes behind.
He saw nobody on the road. Warily, he started walking in the direction of the village. Not long afterward, he heard voices. Looking through the trees at a bend in the road, he saw the shapes of two men heading his way. He felt a surge of anxiety as the memory of the three men who had tried to kill him flashed through his mind. Heart racing, he bolted off into the cover of the trees. The two men passed without showing any signs of seeing him.
He waited for them to disappear from view before making his way back to the road. As he did so, he noticed a slight partying in the undergrowth where a trail might have been once. Looking in the direction the trail led, he saw the rocky peak of Wolf Paw Mountain above the treetops. From the higher elevation of the mountain’s slopes, he could probably get a good view of the village and maybe spot any waiting dangers. If he saw any buildings marked with Ministry insignias, he would know for sure he couldn’t enter the village. And so, he started following the trail.
Farther down the path, he could make out the shimmering surface of a lake. He smiled at the disc of water. Heartened by the prospect of having fish for dinner, he left the trail to have a better look. A delicious odor floated over to him as he drew close to the shore. The trees began to clear, and through them, he caught sight of someone at the water’s edge.
Backtracking into better concealment, he snuck through the trees to get a closer look at them. The person turned out to be a girl cleaning clothes in the lake water. She wore a dark blue dress with a scarf covering golden blonde hair. She seemed a couple of years older than he was with rather pleasing features, or at least what he thought was pleasing because he didn’t exactly have much personal experience with it. He was then startled to see a hound emerge from the shade of a tree near the girl, and it began moving toward him. It issued a warning bark in his direction. The girl turned to look at what the dog was barking at. Hyroc immediately dropped to the ground, nearly plunging the end of his snout into a spiky patch of Devil’s club. Through the foliage, he saw the girl moving toward the dog and the hound woofed. Speaking to the mutt in a calm, reassuring voice, she began stroking its back. A man, Hyroc assumed was the girl’s father, came walking over to her from further up the lakeshore. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man with black hair and a short mildly unkempt beard. The two of them exchanged a few brief words, and then both walked off. The dog remained where it was, continuing its woofing. Grabbing a rock, Hyroc nailed the dog in the head with it. The mutt let out a pain-laden whine as it ran away. Hyroc rose to his feet, following the father and daughter from a safe distance.
They stopped at a cabin situated in the middle of a large grassy clearing surrounded by pine trees. In front of the cabin was a small vegetable garden with green sprouts dotting the soil. Hyroc felt a stab of longing as he looked at the garden, remembering the home he had been forced to leave behind. Pushing the thought away, he continued his examination of the cabin. To the right of the structure at a woodpile was a boy with jet-black hair who looked to be about fifteen chopping wood, while a younger boy with brownish hair – who was maybe ten – gathered the chopped wood. To the left of the cabin, there was a small fenced off area with a goat and donkey milling around inside. Behind that, he could see the light-colored shapes of chickens outside of a small coop and the edge of what looked to be a barn. Farther to the left of the pen, a gray-haired man was smoking meat on a rack.
The girl opened the cabin door, disappearing inside. The girl’s father made his way toward the woodpile. The man called out to one of the boys. The smallest boy set down his load of firewood and joined his father. The two of them walked behind the cabin to a wooden rack and two tables with a gutted deer carcass on one and some small fur-bearing animals lying on the other. Then past this was a storage shed.
The father and son started skinning the deer carcass. Watching the two of them work, Hyroc wondered how this would affect the way they acted toward him. They hunted animals for their furs, and he was covered in fur, so they might see him as nothing more than a walking, teenage boy-sized animal pelt. There was also the matter of the family’s children. People were always more cautious around him when they had children with them, and they would often lash out at him if he got close. This might make these people especially hazardous. He would need to make sure he avoided them. He watched the family a little longer before sneaking through the bushes back to the trail.
The trail wound its way through the forest, steadily drawing nearer to the mountain. When Hyroc began contemplating heading back to the road, the trail entered an oval-shaped valley between two uneven rises jutting away from the mountain. Close to the middle of the valley, beside the rightmost rise, sat a small cabin beneath a large spruce tree. A stream snaked its way into the valley around the left rise, forming a bend close to the cabin before flowing back out. Behind the cabin lay the foot of the mountain. The ground sloped gradually upward onto the mountain before angling upward sharply. The sharp rise continued all the way up to the peak where there was still a swath of snow.
From the concealment of a tree on the outskirts of the valley, Hyroc scrutinized the cabin and its surroundings. He saw no smoke rising from the chimney. Testing the air with his nose, the only thing he could smell was pine needles and sap; it appeared empty. Making sure to stay shadowed as much as possible, he moved closer. The cabin had smooth wood logs for its walls, supporting a slanted moss-covered roof with a stone chimney, a single window, and a small porch in front of its loan door.
Judging from the amount of overgrowth he saw around the structure, it seemed no one had lived here for many years. He smiled at his luck. Something had finally gone right for him! Despite the cabin’s dilapidated appearance, the fact it was empty made it an incredible find. Even if he had to avoid the villagers, he could definitely live here. It seemed far enough from the other cabin and the village for him to go unnoticed. Looking toward the chimney, he realized the spruce was close enough for its branches to break up any smoke flowing skyward, substantially reducing the risk of someone knowing he was here if he used the fireplace. He still needed to deal with the issue of the village eventually, but he could hold off until he at least recovered from his journey.
Walking to the door of the cabin, he saw a board nailed across it. The presence of a barred door on the cabin was somewhat alarming because it seemed whoever had sealed the door shut was trying to keep something in. Hyroc shook his head dismissively; the previous owner probably nailed it shut to keep animals out and, for some reason never returned. His flight from Forna was just making him paranoid. Besides, after spending several nights in the rain, it would take more than some rusty nails to prevent him from sleeping with a roof over his head.
He slipped the side of his wood hatchet’s blade under one nail head. Slowly working his ax up and down, the nail began to come out of the wood. The first nail fell from the door, followed by the remaining ones in likewise fashion.
He set the board aside and opened the door. It released a loud groaning creek as it was pushed open. The sweet smell of cedar greeted him as he entered the cabin. On the wall opposite the door was a small gray stone fireplace. Dust covered cookware hung from the stonework, and there was a cooking pot within. To the right of the fireplace lay an empty bed frame, with a small cedar chest at its foot. On the opposite end of the structure, a stool sat beneath a table with a cobweb covered cup, bowl, and spoon on top of it. Above the table, a line of three coat hooks stretched across the wall, ending just before a cabinet tucked away in the corner.
Movement on the porch and a grunting sort of wheezing noise caught Hyroc’s attention. Turning toward the moving thing, he saw a porcupine shuffling away for him. He didn’t know how good it would taste, but he had read somewhere about people eating them, and it would save him from another dinner of cold-flour. He rushed over to the fleeing animal, plunging his hunting knife into its head. The unfortunate creature twitched twice before going limp. “Sorry little guy,” Hyroc said apologetically. “But you’re made of meat, and I don’t want to have watery-mush-grain for dinner another night if I can help it.”
He skinned and gutted the porcupine away from the cabin, taking care not to get one of the spines shoved into his fingers as he did so. He hung the carcass on a tree branch while he collected firewood. Once he got a fire going in the fireplace, he stuck the porcupine on a spit and began cooking it. Smoke quickly filled the cabin. Eyes watering, he ran outside with the porcupine in hand. When his vision cleared, atop the chimney he saw the wiry shape of a bird’s nest hampering the upward evacuation of the smoke. Grumbling, Hyroc staked the spit into the ground and climbed atop the roof via a moldering stack of old firewood against the side of the cabin. When he removed the nest, smoke flowed freely from the chimney. Then when the smoke had cleared, he resumed cooking his lunch.
He hungrily took a bite. The meat was gamy, and the flavor was how he thought a rotting mulch pile might taste. After his almost enjoyable meal, he removed his bow from its buckskin tube and strung it. Slinging his quiver onto his back, he headed for the mountain slopes to have a look at his surroundings. When he reached what seemed an appropriate height, he set his equipment against the base of a tall tree, slipped his boots off, and climbed it. Surrounding him as far as he could see was a lumpy verdant mat, laced with rivers and streams. Looking out toward Elswood, he saw small farms running along the main road and other homesteads dotting the landscape around the village. The village itself was a cluster of a surprisingly sparse number of buildings arranged in a rough circle. The smallness of the village was somewhat surprising, but at the same time, he remembered this smallness was part of why he had come here. At this distance, it was hard to make out details, but he saw nothing indicative of The Ministry anywhere within sight. He would have to get a closer look to be positive. After taking note of some spots to investigate, he climbed back down the tree, heading off in search of his dinner.
When he returned to the cabin as the dusk sun neared the horizon, he had only managed to kill two squirrels. While his dinner cooked, he opened the cedar chest. Inside he found rotting pieces of parchment, shards of a shattered glass ink well, and some moth-eaten rags. He cleaned out the chest outside, keeping only the rags. As he turned back toward the cabin, he saw a raven on a tree branch, and it looked like it had silver markings on its neck. That couldn’t be this same bird he had seen when he was leaving Forna. He hadn’t even seen birds until he had entered the forest. There wasn’t any reason for the bird to have followed him. This had to be another bird, nothing more. The light was probably hitting its feathers just right so it looked like it had silver markings. He had seen that a few times when he hunted ducks.
After returning the chest to the foot of the bed, he moved on to the closet. Other than a dusty knapsack, the only thing he found within was a clump of cobwebs. Sweeping the cobwebs aside, he removed the knapsack, dusted it off then hung it on one of the coat hooks. By the time he had done so, his dinner was ready. Seating himself at the table with his meal, he removed the wooden bear carving from his pocket and set it in the middle of the table. If this was going to be his home, he needed it to feel like one. He readjusted the carving, nodded his satisfaction, then started eating.
Before settling in for the night, he made sure the cabin’s door was secure; he didn’t want to wake up in the middle of the night to a hungry wolf staring at him. He brushed a brown wood spider from the dusty bed frame, placing the bag of grain at the head of the bed as a makeshift pillow. It was a sad imitation of his feather-stuffed pillow at the boarding school, but it was better than nothing. In a few weeks’ time he figured he would probably have killed enough fowl to stuff a pillow full of feathers. He slipped his cloak off, using it as a blanket when he laid down on the bed.
As he lay there staring up at the dancing orange shadows cast across the ceiling by the fire, the familiar empty feeling started gnawing at him. His thoughts turned to his only friend Thomas. He smiled as he remembered the mischief the two of them had gotten into throughout their friendship. Though he suspected nothing they had done was very disobedient. Hyroc wished he could talk to him. He heard June’s voice say in a wispy voice, “Forget about us. You made a promise.” He sighed, forcing his friend from his mind. His thoughts turned to a different solution to his feelings of forlorn, a pet.
Dogs were obviously out of the question. They only ever bit or barked at him. Maybe a cat would make a good pet. No, cats are solitary grump-balls who only come to people when they want to. A falcon would be an interesting pet. One of those might not be much use for companionship, but they can hunt small game. Having something with such abilities could save countless arrows that would otherwise be damaged or lost trying to hunt rabbits. The only problem he could see with a falcon was he had absolutely no idea how to go about training one. And falconry didn’t exactly seem like something he could figure out on his own.
As he lay there going through the merits and demerits of every pet he could think of; his eyes grew heavy. He fought in vain to stay awake a little bit longer to decide on a companion, but weariness quickly overcame his will to remain awake. His eyes closed, and he gently drifted off to sleep.