Sentinel Flame Book One
By Adam Freestone
Alaskan Writer of Imaginative Creativity
Upon waking, Hyroc was relieved to no longer feel sick, but his shoulder was still very itchy and seemed even sorer than it had been the day before. With a yawn, he swung his feet over the side of his bed. He got a start as he reached for his boots when something with claws grabbed his barefoot. Quickly lifting his leg, he saw a light brown paw sticking out from under his bed. Smiling, he grabbed a boot and playfully poked the paw with the end of it. The paw began batting at the attacking footwear. After a moment, he lifted the boot then put it on. When he set the now protected foot down, the paw resumed clawing at it. Hyroc put the other boot on and was careful not to step on the paw as he stood. After stepping over to the fireplace, he used his tinderbox to get a fire going. He retrieved an already cooked slice of fish from the table and began to eat it. Kit emerged from beneath the bed, staring hungrily at the slice of fish.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I almost forgot about you,” Hyroc said apologetically. It had been a while since he had needed to consider another living thing. A stab of longing and worry struck him when he suddenly thought of June. What had happened to her since he left? Had The Ministry arrested her? It was a serious offense to be associated with a witch. And people in those situations would often be tortured for information and a confession. The mere thought of June being in pain because of him sent a shiver down his back. Then he remembered his promise. He hated that promise, but he had made it and needed to keep it. It was what she wanted. No matter what had happened to her, it was what she wanted.
Forcing his thoughts from her, he cut another piece of fish and tossed it on the floor in front of the cub. Kit dove on it the instant it made contact with the wood. Hyroc regarded the cub fondly. The two of them were what he needed to concentrate on. This was what was important.
When Kit had finished eating, he wandered back beneath the bed and laid down. By the time Hyroc had donned his hunting gear, the cub was already asleep. He felt a measure of relief at this. He hadn’t quite figured out what to do with Kit while he checked his traps, but it seemed today he didn’t need to. Moving quietly, he headed out the door, closing it behind him.
All of his traps were empty, again. When he returned to the cabin, he opened the door to find everything that had been on the table strewn across the floor, and Kit was lying on top of it wide-awake. With an annoyed sigh, Hyroc grabbed Kit by the scruff of the neck and set him on the floor. After picking everything up, he led Kit to a tree in front of the cabin. He tied a small piece of twine leftover from making his traps around the tree’s trunk. While Kit was distracted sniffing a plant, he pulled a smaller loop around the cat’s neck. Kit bit at the rope and struggled vigorously to get free. Once he realized he could not, he began yowling for help. Hyroc tossed him a large piece of fish. Kit instantly stopped making noise, content to bite his treat. Hyroc hoped by the time Kit finished eating, he would have forgotten about the twine collar. Hyroc didn’t like the idea of leaving Kit all alone, but it seemed a terrible idea to bring a mountain lion cub with him to watch the family of hunters. He hadn’t seen any predators or signs dangerous things ventured into the valley and he reassured himself nothing bad was going to happen while he was gone.
He headed down the trail that had led him to his cabin. When he reached the end where it met the road, he warily looked for anyone coming his way. Seeing no one, he quickly crossed it and headed into the trees on the other side. When he could barely make out the road’s flattened surface, he started in the direction of the hunter’s cabin. Nearby, on the other side of the road, he found a well-worn trail leading off to the cabin. He continued walking until he was sure he had moved past every structure around the cabin before crossing the road. As the back of the cabin and shed came into view, he was disappointed to find the two skinning tables were empty and no one was working here. He carefully moved through the trees to see if anyone was out in front of the cabin. The girl and a woman – Hyroc assumed was her mother – were working in the garden. On the porch, the older man and ten-year-old boy were both sharpening arrowheads. The oldest boy and the father were nowhere to be seen.
He watched the four of them for another hour, hoping someone would start working on an animal hide. When no one did, figuring today was just a bad day, he headed off to try scouting the village for a tannery. Further down the road toward the village, farms came into view on either side of the road. People were working in the fields, and with much of the forest cleared away here, it seemed unlikely he could sneak past unseen. He thought about finding a way to circumvent the farmsteads but decided against it and headed home to fish; getting food was more useful right now.
The next day, thinking he might have more luck in the morning, he opted to check the other cabin first thing after breakfast. Taking the same route as yesterday, he arrived at the cabin. He watched the girl milk their goat then feed their chickens. The father and oldest son were still absent, and no one worked out back yet again. The only explanation Hyroc could think of was the two of them must be out hunting.
He picked his way around the eastern side of the lake then on to the mountain to check his traps. He was ecstatic to find a regular hare in one of his traps. After he had skinned the carcass, he remembered with great frustration he still had no way to preserve the pelt.
Three days later, the family members he had been waiting for finally returned. They had a big dark brown hide that had the shape of a very large deer and a mountain of meat. He watched in anticipation as they headed over to the work area behind the cabin with the hide. After giving the hide a quick look over, they washed it in the lake before bringing it to the shed. The boy and father disappeared inside. Hyroc couldn’t get a good view of what they were doing. He faintly heard what sounded like liquid sloshing around inside of something. The son emerged from the shed and carried a smaller and much lighter colored hide over to a wooden rack.
The father then came out of the shed holding a curved fleshing knife. Using the blade, he began scraping off the hair of the hide on the rack with surprising ease. The father did this for a time, then the son took over, and they did this until the hide had been scraped clean. They returned to the shed, causing more sloshing noises then exited it without the hide. The son closed the door and the two of them went inside the cabin.
Hyroc covered his face with his hands, groaning in frustration; after all this time spent watching them, he was still no closer to figuring out how to preserve any of his hides. How could this possibly be so difficult? Taking a deep breath, he subdued his aggravation by assuming his answers would be inside the shed. But the only way to find those answers was to sneak into the shed at night. He smirked a little. That at least shouldn’t be a problem.
He waited long after dark when he thought everyone should be sleeping before approaching the door to the shed. The door was secured shut with a wooden board fed through two U-shaped door handles. He slowly lifted the board from the handles, careful not to make any sound. As he opened the door, he cringed when it made a frighteningly loud creaking noise. He anxiously watched the cabin, waiting for someone to come out to check the shed. When no one eventually did, taking a relieved breath, he slipped inside the shed.
Within, he saw numerous tools hung on or propped against the walls and two upright wooden barrels. It was obvious the sloshing noises had come from the barrels. When he pulled the lid off one barrel, he saw some kind of liquid. It smelled of damp, burnt wood and musty wet fur. He was about to put a finger in the liquid when he wondered if touching an unknown substance was a good idea. Maybe the liquid in one of these barrels did something to make scraping hides easier. If that was the case, then he probably shouldn’t touch it. He put the lid back on and moved on to the second barrel.
When he pulled the lid off this one, he was struck by a pungent and extremely unpleasant odor. He coughed, burying his nose in the crook of his elbow. That was the only disadvantage of having a more sensitive sniffer. Along with smelling food and other pleasant things better than a normal person could, foul odors were also stronger. He quickly reached over with his other arm and put the lid back on.
He had seen what was in the barrels, but he was clueless to the composition of either liquid and knew nothing of their purposes beyond; they seemed important. The father and son would know but talking to them seemed suicidal, and he doubted they would reveal the secrets of their trade even if he were a normal person. Unless he could glean some sort of answer from observing the family further, any future hides he obtained would rot. Trying not to think about his gloomy situation, he slipped back out of the shed and quietly made his way back to his cabin
When he arrived at his usual hiding spot the next day, the father and oldest son were having an argument in front of the open door to the shed. A bolt of dread shot through Hyroc when he realized he had forgotten to close the door and replace the board last night. He hoped the father merely thought his son had not closed the door and not that someone had snuck into it. As he nervously watched the two of them argue, he saw the daughter walk over to them with a concerned look on her face. When she attempted to speak to her father, he was so entrenched in the argument he paid no attention to her.
After a few more attempts, she waved her arm at them in frustration and stormed off toward the open gate of their pen. When she arrived, she began studying something on the ground. She followed an imaginary line with her finger, eventually pointing toward the forest behind the cabin. Then she started toward the spot where she had pointed. Curious as to what she was doing, he silently followed.
When she reached the forest’s edge, she began calling out “Grettle,” like she was calling someone’s name. She said the name twice more before heading into the trees, repeating the name as she walked. Shortly after entering the forest, he heard the bleating of a goat, and the girl headed toward it. Hyroc nodded to himself comprehendingly. Their goat must have wandered off.
The girl found the goat in a treeless spot munching on dandelions. Hyroc was about to head back toward the shed when the forest suddenly went silent. Feeling a surge of apprehension, he scanned his surroundings uneasily and saw the outline of a single wolf at the edge of the open spot. It looked gaunt, as if it might have been starving. The girl was in serious danger. He could probably kill the wolf with an arrow, but that would surely give away his presence. Simply leaving was another option; it was doubtful the malnourished wolf could kill her. She just might get a few minor bites.
He felt a stab of guilt at the thought of what he was considering. This was a wolf; wolves kill people. How could he live with himself if she died, and he could have stopped that? But she would see him! The last time somebody had seen him, he had almost died. He felt a surge of fear as the memory surfaced. She would tell somebody about him, and he would lose everything he had gained and would be risking his life. The lonely wilderness would become his home. He was suddenly struck by an inspiring thought. He didn’t necessarily have to kill the wolf to keep her out of harm’s way. He just needed to alert the girl to the presence of the wolf. So long as she didn’t panic and run, she should be able to grab the goat and safely walk away.
Hyroc picked up a rock and chucked it behind the goat. It landed with a satisfying thud. When the girl looked in the direction of the rock, her eyes focused on the wolf. Slowly she got to her feet and began calmly but hastily leading the goat away by the collar, keeping an eye on the wolf. Relief swept over Hyroc. He shook his head in humored disbelief at the simplicity of his solution. All he had to do was throw a rock. That was it. He was still dangerously close to a wolf, but once the girl was out of sight, he could safely kill it.
Suddenly the goat scented the wolf and bolted, causing the wolf to break into a run. The girl lost her footing as the unexpected yank on her hand knocked her off balance. As soon as she tripped, the wolf fixated on her. Hyroc swore, nocked an arrow, and loosed it at the wolf. The wolf yelped as the arrow burrowed into its side before collapsing into a heap.
The girl drew a knife from a sheath on her belt, then froze, looking confused. Turning her head, she looked directly at him. She stared at him with frightened bewilderment, then got to her feet and took off running toward the cabin. Hyroc felt a cold, sinking feeling as he watched her go. What had he just done? She had seen him! He rushed to the wolf and with a straining effort, hoisted it over his shoulders. If he got rid of the wolf’s body, there would be no evidence of his intervention. Maybe without it, nobody would believe her story and he would still have a place to live. If not then – he pushed the thought aside; he would deal with that if the time came. Taking off into the forest, he ran for as long as he could carry the wolf before hiding its body beneath a pine tree with thickly clumped branches scraping the ground. After recovering his arrow from the carcass, he rushed off in the direction of his cabin.