Sentinel Flame Book One
By Adam Freestone
Alaskan Writer of Imaginative Creativity
Hyroc woke well past dawn. His neck ached from the awkward position the bag of grain he had used as a pillow forced him to lay in. When he sat up, his neck popped, and his back felt stiff. With a groan, he rubbed his neck as he slid his legs over the side of the bed, resting his bare feet on the cold dust speckled wooden floor. Lowering his hand, he put his boots on.
His stomach growled as he got to his feet. He looked at the bag of grain hungrily but tore his eyes away from it, remembering how much he hated eating its contents and decided it served a much better purpose as an uncomfortable pillow. Pulling open the cabin’s door, he shivered as an unexpected wave of frigid morning mountain air flooded the cabin. As he stepped into the bright rays of sunlight, he sneezed three times. Once the fit passed, he made his way to the stream in search of his breakfast.
Along the shore, he found small patches of wild alpine strawberries and wild raspberries. After eating as many ripe berries as he could find, he stripped down, hanging his clothing on the branch of a tree. He had gone without a proper bath since before he left the boarding school, and he was starting to notice his own stink. He tested the water with his foot and was dismayed by how cold it felt. Taking a breath, he stepped into the stream. When the initial shock of submerging half his body in cool water faded, he waded out into the deepest part of the stream. Wanting to spend as little time in there as possible, he quickly washed and got out. Using the cloak as a towel, he dried himself, feeling the pleasant sensation of cleanliness.
Now dressed, he dipped his hands into the river, spending the next few minutes scrubby off as much grime as he could from his clothing. Satisfied, he filled his water skin then returned to the cabin. He hung his cloak on a branch to dry, strung his bow, collected the quiver, retrieved the length of heavy twine from his pack, and headed out in search of trapping spots.
Toward the back of the valley, winding its way onto the mountain slope, he found an animal trail he believed rabbits used. He set a spring snare using a tall sapling growing at the edge of the trail. He had learned how to make this type of snare when he had happened across an old book on trapping in the school’s library.
The trail disappeared at a stand of birch trees shortly after running onto the rise of the mountain. From here, he headed toward the eastern side of the mountain as straight as the terrain would allow. He arrived at the edge of a ravine filled with boulders. Picking his way down into the ravine, he found numerous animal prints and other such indications of game frequently traveling through it. He set a snare between two boulders in what seemed the most traveled part of the ravine.
Halfway through the process of setting his snare, he felt the disconcerting sensation of being watched. Scanning the upper parts of the terrain, he saw nothing. Right when he was about to disregard the feeling, he spotted a reddish-brown mountain lion crouched on a bush-covered ledge at the left topmost side of the ravine. Letting go of his half-made trap, Hyroc nocked an arrow and took aim. Time seemed to stop as the two of them locked eyes on each other. This was the first time he had seen a mountain lion outside of drawings. Everything he had read about them described the big cats as extremely dangerous and often unpredictable. They moved silently at night and by the time anybody knew they were nearby, it was already too late. Even with that threatening image in mind, he had to admit the big cat possessed a strange kind of beauty. Or maybe he just admired it for its frightening ability to kill prey. In that, the two of them weren’t so different. The big cat stood, causing Hyroc to tense as it did so, and to his relief, slinked off. He watched the cat disappear into the trees over the lip of the ravine. His gaze lingered there long after it had left and he had relaxed enough to turn his attention back to the trap. He rapidly finished the trap, keeping a close eye out for the mountain lion, and hurried out of the ravine.
Warily heading away from the ravine to the flatter ground surrounding the base of the mountain, he found another game trail cutting through a clearing with a dark orange brackish pool of stagnant mosquito-water. He set another regular snare here then continued east away from the mountain for a short distance longer before encountering a creek, animal tracks lining its shore of gray sand. Following the tracks, he found a trap spot in a patch of brush near the base of a spruce tree beside an indent in the shore. From the creek, he made a wide northward arc back toward the mountain. He set one final snare at a rabbit trail running through a large opening beneath the rotting remains of a fallen tree. Figuring he had spent enough time creating traps for one day, he stuck the remaining twine in his pocket and made his way back to the creek to hunt.
Searching along the creek’s shore, he found what he thought were fresh deer tracks heading south. He had spooked deer on his way to Elswood, but this was the first time he had actually thought to try hunting one. There was little difference between the size of the fowl and the rabbits he had seen, thus making a duck hunting bow effective in either case, but deer were far larger than any of those. Did his bow have enough power to effectively down one? Reaching into his quiver, he carefully removed one of the high quality steel arrows he had recovered from the dead witch hunters. If it was meant for piercing armor, then it should make short work of a deer even if his bow was lacking in force. If he managed to kill the deer, he wouldn’t have to worry about food for a while. There was just the problem of how to butcher it. His experience with fowl and rabbits probably wouldn’t help him much toward figuring out what to do. He pushed the thought from his mind. He was getting ahead of himself. He hadn’t even found it. If things worked out, then he could worry about that.
Holding his bow at the ready, he began following the deer prints. The tracks led along the shore then reentered the forest. After what felt like hours, he eventually found a lone doe munching on some greenery. Fitting the steel arrow to the bowstring, he carefully took aim. If this doesn’t do the trick, I doubt anything else I own will. Suddenly the light-colored shape of a mountain lion burst out of the bushes, pouncing on the deer. The big cat buried its teeth into the back of the deer’s neck, at the base of the skull. The deer struggled for a moment against its attacker before collapsing onto the ground. As soon as the deer hit the ground, the cat finished it off with several vicious bites to the neck.
Hyroc watched the cat dispatch its prey with a mixture of fascination and loathing. He recognized the mountain lion as the same animal he had encountered earlier in the ravine. It was tempted to kill the cat and take the deer for himself, but killing it for hunting like he was, seemed distasteful. The cat grabbed the deer by the neck and looked right at him. He thought the cat was mocking him. Then it vanished into the bushes with its prize.
Having run into the cat twice in one day, he figured it might be a good idea to follow it to its lair. Maybe he could figure out where it hunted and avoid another deer-stealing incident or something much more painful.
After letting the deer-thief get a head start, Hyroc began following the cat’s tracks back up the mountain. They led him to a steep incline covered in birch trees, and a brown and yellow blanket of dead leaves littered the ground. Cresting the top of the incline, he saw a rocky clearing dominated by a jagged cliff face. The mountain lion’s tracks led up toward a rounded ramp of rock projecting from the ground, with a small cave entrance at its top. He cautiously snuck over to the entrance to peer inside. The cave ran a short way inside the cliff and the ceiling was so low he would have to crawl if he was crazy enough to enter.
The mountain lion lay in the middle of the cave devouring his stolen kill. To his surprise, he saw two speckled cubs gnawing curiously on a bloodstained rib protruding from the deer carcass. She was a mother. Hyroc felt a tremendous stab of guilt at having even considered killing her. If he had done so, he would have also killed her cubs. Berating himself, he backed away from the cave. Distracted by his thoughts, he stepped wrong and his foot landed on a dry twig. A loud snap erupted from the twig as it broke in half, sending a resounding echo through the cave. The mountain lion looked in his direction. Her entire body went rigid, and with ears flat against her head, she snarled savagely, exposing every one of her razor-sharp flesh rending teeth. Hyroc’s stomach clenched with the fear he was about to incur imminent blood loss. Making a frantic retreat, he managed to reach the bottom of the rock ramp before she was out of the cave. The big cat growled at him with a fury in her eyes that made his dealings with Miss Duncan look pleasant by comparison.
He took off down the incline as fast as his legs would carry him, his heart hammering away uncomfortably within his chest. He ran until his breaths came in deep gasps and he was sure the mountain lion was not pursuing. Resting his back against a springy cluster of pine tree branches, he caught his breath. That was too close!
Once his mind allowed coherent thought again, he resumed hunting. He spooked a wood grouse, the bird instantly taking flight. Almost instinctively, he took aim and simultaneously loosed an arrow. The arrow whizzed through the air, striking the fowl and sending it plummeting to the ground. He rushed protectively over to the grouse’s lifeless body; he was not about to lose this meal to another opportunistic animal. He plucked and gutted the bird before making his way back to the cabin to cook his prize.
When the bird had finished cooking, he hungrily sank his teeth into it before it had properly cooled. The delicious taste of hot meat flooded his mouth, and he was so hungry he barely even noticed the burning sensation on his tongue. His only regret when he finished was there wasn’t more.
Belly full, finally, he removed the fishing line from his pack and used a sturdy branch from the spruce beside the cabin to fashion a fishing pole. He then spent the rest of the day fishing in the nearby stream, managing to land a decent sized trout.
As Hyroc stared up at the ceiling of the cabin, trying to force himself to sleep, he absentmindedly removed his necklace. He held the trinket in front of him, its silvery metallic surface orange in the glare of the fire. He lazily studied the bear on the front. Then turned it around to look at the fox, badger, and claw symbol etched into its surface, trying to figure out the enigma of what each might represent. Other than speculating these were symbols used to describe someone’s personality in times long past, Marcus was never able to give a satisfying answer to any of Hyroc’s questions regarding them.
Foxes were smart, cunning creatures, and Hyroc thought he was smart. He was unsure what badgers represent but he had heard somewhere it was bravery. He liked to think of himself as being brave, but long ago he had learned going unnoticed was a far more comfortable option, which to his dismay seemed a somewhat cowardly lifestyle, making him question the accuracy of such thoughts. Bears represented strength, and even though he greatly admired them, if he truly possessed strength like a bear, he would not have been beaten so often. Just as with the badger, the bear too seemed out of place. Then there was the claw symbol. It didn’t appear to belong to any animal anyone in Forna had ever heard of and Marcus was unable to give a sensible theory about its possible meaning.
What if this necklace is somebody else’s? The thought sent a cold shiver down his back, as the few things in his life he thought were unshakable would be thrown into question. He pushed the thought out of his mind before it could take root and blossom into a black tree of despair. The idea was too painful for him to even consider.
“It’s just a necklace, nothing more,” he said aloud, squeezing his eyes shut. He repeated the statement several times in a quiet chant and put the necklace back on.