Sentinel Flame Book One
By Adam Freestone
Alaskan Writer of Imaginative Creativity
Flinging open the door to his cabin Hyroc rushed inside. He frantically stuffed the remainder of the meat leftover from a grouse he had killed the night before into his pack, along with all of his belongings. Donning his pack, he hurried back outside, closing the door behind him. He untied a startled Kit from the tree and picked him up. The cub yowled in protest as Hyroc carried him toward the back of the valley. Moving on to the mountain slopes a short distance past his first trap – which was empty – he found a spot beneath a spruce where he could observe the valley and see if anyone came to his cabin. He expected that would be the first place anyone looking for him might stumble across. Maybe without all of his things inside, someone searching the structure would still think it was abandoned. If they didn’t notice the board on the door was missing or that the inside looked like it had been cleaned. He knew better than to hope for such a slim chance to turn into an actuality.
Fearing a fire would give away his presence, he spent a cold night underneath the spruce with Kit as his only source of warmth. By noon the next day, no one had come. If he needed to run, he knew he would need every ounce of meat he could find, which meant his traps still needed checking. He detested the idea of taking his eyes off his cabin for fear he would miss someone’s approach, but if he didn’t, his situation could become that much worse. When he removed the piece of twine he had been using to tie Kit to the tree from his pocket, he wondered if leaving the cub alone so close to a trap was such a good idea. Anything caught in it could attract a predator, and there was a good chance it would scent Kit. If his companion got killed, he would be alone again. He might lose his mind if that happened. Checking traps was hardly a difficult task, and since any game would be snared, it didn’t matter if Kit spooked anything. Hunting could be a problem though, but he could deal with that later.
“Come on, Kit,” Hyroc said, replacing the twine in his pocket. “I need to check my traps.”
Kit stared back at him curiously. Hyroc walked away, and Kit eagerly followed after him. The trap in the ravine was empty, and from there, he made his way to the incline. This trap was also empty. As he moved away from it, he noticed Kit staring at the top of the incline, and his nose was twitching like he smelled something. Hyroc sniffed; he smelled nothing out of the ordinary. Kit became suddenly excited and ran up the incline. Hyroc rushed after him, yelling his name. The cub disappeared over the top of the incline. The memory of the spider attack flashed through Hyroc’s mind, forcing him to stop. His shoulder began to throb, and a frigid dread engulfed him. He knew the spiders were dead, but at the same time, he felt as if his eight-legged assailants were just over the rise, waiting to sink their fangs into his neck. “Kit,” Hyroc called out in a fear-laden voice. He shook his head trying to clear his mind. The spiders are dead; why do I feel like this? Ursa told me there were no more. Remembering the she bear’s words about how brave he was, he took a deep breath. His body seemed to warm and a portion of his fear melted away. Fighting through the remnants of his trepidation, he forced himself to walk over the top of the incline. If her words could have that effect on him, it seemed even more doubtful she was actually a witch.
Everything he saw looked much as he remembered it the first time he had seen it, but the surrounding area seemed brighter and more inviting. The idea of another savage attack in this place seemed absurd. To the left of the cave lay a pile of rocks arranged in what appeared to be a grave. He felt a pang of sadness when he saw it, knowing Huntress and her other cub lay within. Even though she was a dangerous predator capable of killing him, he still felt an attachment to her. It seemed all he ever did was visit the graves of anyone or anything he got attached to. He saw Kit disappear into the cave and followed after him. Inside he found the cub standing in the middle of the cave near some moldering deer bones. Kit yowled, his tiny voice echoing through the space as he called out for his mother and sibling. Sadness welled up within Hyroc, and he felt moisture forming in his eyes as he thought of his own mother. She too had been protecting him, and she had died in the process. But just like Kit, he could make no sense of it all. Kit yowled again, unable to understand why the cave was empty.
“They’re gone,” Hyroc said, sadness clear in his voice. Kit looked back at him with large confused eyes. Kit yowled once more and wandered over to him. Reaching down, Hyroc scratched him behind the ears. “It’s just the two of us now. But don’t worry, I’ll make it work. I always have.” He walked away from the cave, and after a moment’s hesitation, Kit followed. Stopping at Huntress’s grave Hyroc said, “I’ll take care of him,” before heading off to the next trap.
He only found a rabbit caught in the snare beneath the fallen tree at the end of his route. Kit’s eyes fixed on the trapped creature, his body tensing. He crouched, then began stalking his quarry causing Hyroc to smile. Hyroc watched Kit for a few moments longer before grasping the rabbit by the back of its neck and removing the snare from its leg. Away from the trap, he slit the rabbit’s throat, and when the last drops of crimson fell from its neck, he got to work gutting the carcass – not bothering with the pelt. He gave the heart and liver to Kit, who, after some investigation, snapped it up. After cooking and eating the rabbit, the two of them returned to the observation point.
For the rest of that day, no one came by his cabin. The next morning, thinking he might have missed someone coming by while he had been out checking traps, he reluctantly tied Kit to a tree and headed to his cabin to look for footprints. When he arrived, other than some prints from a foraging rabbit and some bird tracks, it appeared no one had come by at all. He waited until the next morning before he was convinced the girl’s family had not believed her and that he could safely move back into his cabin.
Two days after returning to his cabin, no one had come, and he was happy to find a rabbit caught in his snare at the ravine and the clearing with the dirty pool. Though he knew it was pointless to do so, he skinned them anyway. It didn’t hurt to practice in case he ever figured out how to preserve them. After he and Kit had eaten their fill of the meat, they made their way toward the creek. Moving around a patch of thickly clumped pine trees on their way there, Hyroc started when he came face-to-face with the girl from the family of hunters. The two of them yelled out in mirrored surprise. Heart pounding, he darted behind a tree, scooping up Kit as he ran. They had found him! They were slower at it than he had anticipated, but they had found him. There was nothing for it now; he had to run! It would be hard out in the wilderness, but at least with Kit, it wouldn’t be so lonely. He just needed to figure out how to….
“Wait, don’t go,” the girl called out to him in a gentle voice. The tone of her voice caught him off guard; she sounded – she sounded kind, and it reminded him of June. “I just want to talk.”
Talk, she wanted to talk, to him. Most people didn’t want him anywhere near them, let alone talk to him. Her behavior made him wonder if she had actually had enough time to take notice of his features. If so, then showing his face now would definitely be a bad idea. He just needed to figure out how to get away from her without letting her see his face. A far more frightening explanation rammed its way into his mind. What if this was a trap and her father and brother were waiting to shoot him in the head with an arrow the moment he stepped out from behind the tree? Cold dread engulfed him as the gravity of the situation took hold. Smacking the back of his head against the trunk of the tree, he berated himself for not paying more attention to his surroundings. I should have seen her coming long before she ever saw me. He shook his head. I can feel stupid about this later. The father and son – or someone from The Ministry; I still haven’t ruled that out yet – are probably circling around at this very moment to get a clear shot at me. I need to get Kit and me out of here! Several yards in front of him, he saw another stand of trees growing beside a hollow. If he took off toward it at a dead run, he should get there before the father or son had a chance to take a shot at him.
“You don’t need to be afraid, I’m alone, and you have my word; I’m not planning to hurt you,” the girl said as Hyroc prepared to run. “Please come out.”
He paused mid-step. She sounded sincere like she meant every word of what she was saying. He suddenly felt a strange desire to stay despite a screaming urge to flee. Listening carefully to his surroundings, he heard no sounds of movement. Looking from side to side, he saw no rustling of the foliage that would give away the presence of somebody moving through it. Above he saw Shimmer circling his position. If Ursa’s claims held true, then she probably knew about the danger he was heading for long before he ever encountered it. It seemed she wouldn’t be that far away from him, and she should have come to his rescue by now. Maybe the girl was telling the truth. Maybe she was alone.
“If I come out, you’ll just run away,” Hyroc said.
There was a pause. “I’ve already seen your face,” the girl said calmly.
“Then why aren’t you afraid?” Hyroc said, trying to keep the surprise from his voice. People were always afraid of him. Why wouldn’t she be?
“Well, I was a little when I first saw you, right after you killed that wolf. But on my way back to tell my family what happened, I began to wonder if you really meant me any harm. Why else would you have killed that wolf? So, after thinking it over, I decided to go back and try thanking you. You did, after all, keep me from getting hurt. But when I got there, both you and the wolf were gone.”
Her story sounded believable but was any of it actually true? For all he knew, she was trying to get him to come out from behind the tree so someone could more easily shoot him. Deceit was a tactic he wouldn’t put past a group of witch hunters. All that mattered to them was getting their target. Just because Ursa wasn’t there didn’t mean he wasn’t in danger. She might have been further away than he had thought. “How do I know this isn’t some kind of trick?” Hyroc called back to the girl
There was a longer pause. “I’ve never been known as a trickster. I promise you I came alone, and I’m not going to hurt you.”
Hyroc wanted to believe her, but it seemed too good to be true she was telling the truth. No one wanted to be around him. Why would she? Her words had to be a trap. She never mentioned what she did after she couldn’t find him. Maybe he could catch her in a lie. Then he would for certain know she was untrustworthy. “You didn’t say what you did after you couldn’t find me.”
There was another pause. “Well, it didn’t seem like a good idea to tell anyone about what I had seen, and without the wolf’s body, I doubt I would have been believed.”
He couldn’t detect any hints of deception in her words, but what she said didn’t make any sense. Why wouldn’t she tell anyone what she had seen? Nearly being attacked by a wolf and seeing a strange creature in the forest both seemed things to tell another person about whether or not anyone would believe them. She had to have told someone about him. Maybe the adults wouldn’t have believed her, but her oldest brother probably did. The boy was a hunter, and that’s how the girl had found him.
“If you didn’t tell anyone about me, then who helped you find me?”
There was a long pause. He smiled ruefully; he had caught her. “Nobody helped me. I tracked you by myself.” Hyroc shook his head. That was exactly what somebody who was lying would say to keep their lie from being found out. He had her. “That creek nearby,” the girl continued. “Seemed a good place to start because animals usually gather near sources of water, and after seeing the way you killed that wolf, I figured you might hunt here.”
He stared down at the ground thoughtfully. He actually hadn’t considered that when he set his trap at the creek, he was just using the water there because it helped make a chokepoint. She spoke confidently, as if she actually knew from experience what she was talking about. That was also puzzling. June never hunted ducks with him, and he had never heard a story where girls hunted. He couldn’t really think of a reason why they shouldn’t. It just seemed they never did. Had everything she said been the truth?
“You hunt?” Hyroc said.
“Well, my father was expecting a boy first, but when he got me, he had to change his plans. He taught me everything about it. I don’t do it as much now, but every once in a while, I join in on a hunt.” She paused, then spoke in a humored tone. “I still shoot better than my oldest brother, Donovan. It kind of annoys him.” She paused again. “I’d really like you to come out from behind the tree so we can talk face-to-face.”
Everything she said sounded sincere, and he couldn’t find anything suspicious with what she said. It seemed impossible that he had found another understanding person. Could he actually have a conversation with someone? It seemed like another life since he had had such a luxury. Keeping his head flush against the tree’s trunk, he cautiously poked his head around it to have a look. The girl only seemed slightly unsettled by his outward appearance, but it wasn’t enough to bother him. She held a basket containing what looked to be bread and some pieces of cheese. If she was planning to hurt him, it seemed odd to do so while holding a basket brimming with gifts. He carefully scanned the surrounding forest and could find no signs of anyone waiting to shoot him. It seemed the girl was indeed telling the truth. Pulling his head back behind the tree, he set Kit at its base. “Stay here,” he whispered to Kit before stepping out from behind the tree.
“I brought you something,” the girl said, holding the basket out to him.
Hyroc stared at the pro-offered basket a long moment before sweeping his eyes through his surroundings and warily walking toward her. Tentatively he reached over to accept it. Taking a step back, he set the basket down and slowly started putting its contents in his knapsack, intermittently glancing at her as he did so.
“I know it’s not much,” she said. “But it’s the least I could do to thank you after what you did for me.” She lowered herself into a crouch, so the two of them were at the same eye level. “My name’s Elsa.
He gave her a thoughtful look, then said, “My name’s Hyroc.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Hyroc,” she said, making sure she pronounced his name properly.
Then to his dismay, Kit yowled and wandered out from behind the tree toward him. An instant later, Elsa’s eyes widened in alarm. “That’s a mountain lion cub!” she yelled, jumping to her feet. “If the mother –”
“It’s all right. He doesn’t have a mother. She was killed by –” he paused, wondering if nightmarishly huge spiders were common around the mountain. He had seen only two of them and, for the time being, decided it probably best to avoid mentioning them. “She was killed.”
Elsa stared at him without speaking a long moment. “You – you adopted him?” Hyroc nodded. Her eyes lit with admiration. “I knew I was right about you,” she said smiling. Avoiding a sharp-toothed smile in return, he nodded happily. “Would it be all right if I held him?”
“I don’t see why not, just umm – be careful of his claws. They’re sharp.”
Elsa walked over to Kit and held out her hand. Kit cautiously stepped forward, sniffing the ends of her fingers. As soon as he finished taking in her scent, Elsa scooped him into her arms. Yowling in alarm, he began squirming to get free. He instantly went limp when Elsa started scratching behind his ears. He appeared to enjoy the scratching, but at the same time, he seemed to detest the fact he was being held.
“Does he have a name?”
“Kit?” she said, then nodded approvingly. “It’s a good name.”
“Thank – thank you.”
She hesitated before saying, “Are you a forest spirit?”
Hyroc gave her a strange look. “I’m not a forest spirit.” Whatever those were supposed to be.
“You’re not? I heard they were furry creatures that live in the forest, and sometimes they help people who are in trouble.”
Hyroc shook his head. His life would’ve been a lot easier if people saw him as something so benign.
“If you’re not a forest spirit, then what are you? If you don’t mind my asking.”
Hyroc sighed, staring down at the pine needle littered ground. “I wish I knew.”
A sad look came into her eyes. “You never knew your parents?” He shook his head. She put a reassuring hand on his shoulder, which gave him a start. She pulled her hand back, giving him an apologetic look. “I’m so sorry to hear that.” An awkwardly long moment of silence passed between them. “Were you adopted?” Hyroc nodded. “Did you run away?”
“Yes, but not from him – my foster father, I mean – he was one of the few people that treated me like I was worth something.”
A sorrowful comprehending look came into her eyes. For a moment, the look in her eyes reminded him of how June looked when she was displeased with how he was being treated. “Why is it that you are here alone?”
Hyroc took a deep breath. “He died when I was nine.”
Another awkward silence descended between them. Elsa eventually broke it by asking, “Where do you live?” Hyroc gazed at her, wondering if telling her that was a good idea. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone,” she said, lifting her hand in a reassuring manner, realizing the reason for his reluctance.
After a moment’s deliberation, he eventually said. “In an abandoned cabin near the foot of the mountain.” With his hand, he indicated the general direction from where they were.”
She gave him an alarmed look. “You must be extremely brave to live in that place.”
“Why would I need to be brave to live there?” Hyroc said, concerned. Her words didn’t sound very reassuring.
“Because a witch once lived there.”
He stared at her in horror. People already thought he was some type of monster, and if they found out he lived in a cabin where the previous owner was a witch, they would definitely be hostile toward him.
“What did this witch do exactly?” Hyroc said, hoping the witch had not done anything too serious; if such a thing were even possible.
Elsa looked thoughtful a moment. “From what I’ve heard, bodies went missing from the graveyard. Then shortly after that, bodies began getting out of their graves and started walking around and trying to kill people.” Elsa shivered with disgust. “Then the witch was found out and killed.”
Hyroc slumped and covered his face with his hands. Necromancers were one of the most hated of witches solely because they reanimated the dead. He knew how incredibly painful burying someone was, but then having that loved one reanimated into a mindless monster was most people’s worst nightmare. Anyone caught practicing necromancy was usually killed on the spot, and their bodies burned. Anyone with half a brain would figure out he was definitely not a necromancer, but the mere association coupled with his appearance would make people far from understanding.
He put his hands down, turning his attention back to Elsa. “You cannot tell anyone about me or where I live.”
“I know; you don’t have to worry about me telling anyone. My lips are sealed.”
“Thank you,” Hyroc said, taking a deep breath.
“But if no one can know that you’re here, why did you come here in the first place?”
“I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. I just needed a place far away, and this was the best place for that.”
“You won’t be able to stay hidden out here forever.”
Hyroc sighed. “I know; I just – I just need time to figure out what to do.”
“You should also stay away from our cabin. My father thought he saw someone lurking through the forest behind the shed the other day.”
He gave her an alarmed look. Speaking hastily, he said, “I was only trying to see how they tanned animal hides; I don’t know how.”
“Were you what got into the shed then?”
“Yes, but I didn’t take anything. I just looked at what was in the barrels; that’s all, I promise.”
“That explains the argument between Donovan and my father.”
He scratched the back of his head nervously. “I umm – forgot to put the board back on the door when I left.”
“You shouldn’t sneak around our home anymore, or anyone’s home for that matter.”
“I won’t unless it’s a dire emergency.”
“Thank you. I would hate for you –” she indicated Kit with her eyes “– or your friend to get hurt.”
Hyroc paused as a thought entered his mind. “Do you know what that liquid in those barrels your family keeps in the shed is used for or how to make it?”
“I don’t work with the hides. My father and brothers do that. But I could try and find out for you.”
“It’s very important that I know how to do that myself.”
“I understand. Where should I meet you when I find out?”
He stared up at the sky thoughtfully a moment before answering. “Along the shore, there is a lone tree where I have a trap set.” He pointed in the direction of the trap; Elsa followed his finger with her eyes. “I check it almost every day before noon. You can meet me there; just make sure you’re not followed.”
She nodded. “It may be a few days before I’m able to meet you again. But I don’t know how long I can help you without someone getting suspicious and figuring out what I’m doing.”
“I know; I’ll figure something out by then.” Elsa nodded, set Kit on the ground, and picked up the now empty basket. “It was nice to meet you, Hyroc.”
“And it was nice to meet you, Elsa.”
“I hope you enjoy the bread and cheese.” He nodded thankfully. “I’ll see you in a few days then.”
“I’ll be here.”
She nodded, then headed off. He watched her until she disappeared from view. He breathed a sigh of relief and gave Kit a disbelieving look. “I think I might have just made a friend,” he said.