Sentinel Flame Book One
By Adam Freestone
Alaskan Writer of Imaginative Creativity
From the shore of the creek, Hyroc looked down into the calmly flowing water at his feet, spots of shimmering sunlight glowing brightly across its gently flowing surface. His distorted reflection gazed back at him, reminding him of how inescapably different he looked from a normal person. He understood why people feared him. His features didn’t exactly give him the appearance of something non-threatening. He probably reminded most people of a wolf. It made sense they wouldn’t want something that looked like that around them. For all they knew, he looked upon them as a meal. He pushed the thought aside; there wasn’t much point in dwelling on something he couldn’t change.
Lifting his gaze to the other shore, he did his best to gauge the depth of the water. Save for catching a single deer rabbit at the back of the valley; all his traps had been empty. The trap he had set at the incline had yet to capture anything, and with his reprieve from hunting the girl named Elsa had given him with her gift of food; this seemed a perfect opportunity to scout for an alternate trap site. His encounter with her the day before felt like a dream. If not for her gift, he might not still believe it had actually happened. Both the bread and cheese tasted amazing. He never remembered feeling so thankful to eat either one. It was starting to get a little tiresome eating nothing but meat and whatever berries he managed to find. But above everything else, he was actually able to speak to somebody. He hadn’t done that since his parting words with June. It seemed years had passed since then. He felt a pang of sadness at the memory of her face. He forced it from his mind.
He stood at a shallow part of the creek he had crossed through a few times while hunting during those days he was observing Elsa’s family. He remembered seeing some promising areas on the other side, and those seemed the best places to start. Carefully he walked out into the cool water. He grimaced when he reached the deepest part of the crossing as water cascaded into his boots, soaking his feet as it had during every crossing. The soggy sensation reminded him he needed to roll up the bottoms of his leggings and walk barefoot across the creek. With a long sigh, he continued to the opposite shore. Once on dry land, he removed his boots and waterlogged socks before dumping the water out. I really need to stop doing this, he thought bitterly to himself. He shook the bottom of his damp pant legs to shed some of the soaked in water, then put his bare feet in his boots. After ringing his socks out as best he could, he slung them over his shoulder to dry as he continued searching for trap spots.
Away from the creek, where the brush began to form, he found what appeared to be the faint line of an animal trail leading off into the trees. Following the trail, it steadily became more defined and easier to see the thicker the plant growth it ran through became. After walking a short distance, he found what looked to be the nexus point where numerous tendrils split off from the main path. Most of the surrounding foliage seemed somewhat flimsy and insubstantial, which did not necessarily guarantee any animal bigger than a mouse traveling through here would use the trail. Looking farther ahead, he saw a closely grouped line of pine trees with a gap toward the middle where the trail cut through. The line of trees was no easy obstacle to pass through. Setting a trap there would vastly increase his odds of catching something. On his approach to the gap, he saw a tiny oval shaped clearing dotted with dandelions on the other side.
He froze when he saw something brown and furry lying in the clearing. Drawing his bow, he silently crept closer. He felt a thrill of excitement when the thing resolved into the shape of a deer. If he got a deer, he would be free of the fear of going hungry for quite a while and would have more time to focus on other important things. As he walked up behind a tree on the right side of the gap to take a shot, he realized the deer was lying on its side. Focusing on the animal, he saw what looked to be an arrow wound in its side. Its chest did not move with breath; it was dead. He wondered if a hunter had wounded it, the deer had gotten away, then succumbed to its injury sometime later. If that were the case, those same hunters might still be looking for it. He listened intently to his surroundings for several minutes, but other than the knocking of a distant woodpecker and the sound of leaves being rustled by a mild breeze, all was quiet. He began to entertain the thought of dragging the carcass away or cutting the back haunches off before the hunters found it. It was risky, but the reward seemed well worth it. Smiling at his good fortune, he lowered his bow and made his way toward the deer.
As he approached, he noticed a pile of leaves directly in the middle of his path. For some reason, they felt out of place to him though he was unsure why it should. Leaf litter was obviously common in the forest. He studied the pile and found nothing dangerous poking out from under it. He shook his head. Those hunters might arrive at any moment. I don’t have time for this. They’re just leaves. At the edge of the leaves, he cautiously put his foot on it.
Other than a dry crackle under his boot, nothing happened. He smiled. Just like I thought, nothing. He had taken two more steps when he felt his foot push against what felt like a taut rope. A snap sounded nearby, and the resistance suddenly disappeared. Then the dark shape of a net exploded out of the ground beneath his feet, closing in around him like a flower blooming in reverse, and he was violently yanked into the air. When the world settled, only one thought entered his mind, get out! Fighting through a wave of panic threatening to consume him, he frantically unsheathed his knife and started cutting the net. He had nearly sliced through the side when a sudden sense of weightlessness came over his body as he plummeted to the ground. The impact knocked the breath from his lungs, and pulsing black spots appeared in his vision. A flare of terror struck when he was unable to take a breath, but after what felt like an eternity, he finally gasped.
Just as he started getting to his feet, a disabling weight appeared at the center of his back, shoving him back to the ground. Before he could try throwing the weight off, two hands grabbed both his arms, pulling them behind him at a painful angle. He struggled desperately to free himself, but it only caused the weight to press down on him even harder. His hands were pulled together and he felt the roughness of a rope close around them. Once the rope was secured, his sword was removed from his belt. He was then rolled onto his back and roughly sat up on his knees with his hands resting in an uncomfortable position behind his back. He looked up at the man who had subdued him as he tossed his things aside and stepped back. The man wore a green tinged leather-hunting jerkin with its hood shadowing the main features of his face, and the feathered ends of arrows stuck up from behind his shoulder from a quiver on his back. A large hunting knife scabbard hung on a simple brown leather belt at his waist, holding up a pair of slightly darker patched leggings, and on his feet, he wore a pair of supple boots. The man studied him with hidden eyes, then turned his head away and made a waving motion at something. With that slight turn, the sunlight illuminated his face enough for Hyroc to recognize him as Elsa’s father. Hyroc strained a glance in the direction Elsa’s father waved and saw the oldest son emerge from the tree line with a bow held at the ready. The brother was dressed much the same as his father, but his clothes seemed fresher and less worn.
“So, you’re the little sneak who’s been prowling around our home,” Elsa’s father said coolly. “Thought we would make an easy mark, eh? Well, we weren’t so easy after all, were we now. We don’t take too kindly to thievery around here. I found your tracks all over, and then my son over there found where you dumped that wolf you pouched.” Elsa’s father paused, smiling mockingly. “It wasn’t nearly as light as you thought it was, hmm.”
“I’m not a thief,” Hyroc retorted. “I never stole anything, and I didn’t poach that wolf.”
“You didn’t steal anything yet, but to me, catching someone before they can steal anything still makes them a thief. And if you didn’t pouch that wolf, then why did you kill it?”
“It was going to attack your daughter, so I killed it.”
“Now I know you’re a liar and a thief.”
“I’m not lying!”
Elsa’s father shook his head dismissively. “If my daughter had been attacked by that wolf, she would have told us. And I trust her a whole lot more than you.”
“She didn’t tell you because – because she didn’t want you to find me.”
“I think I’ve heard enough of your nonsense. Donovan, why don’t you take his mask off so we can have a good look at his face?”
Narrowing his eyes, Hyroc gave Elsa’s father a strange confused look. “I’m not wearing a mask,” he said. That was the first time anyone had accused him of that.
“Think we’re being smart, are we?” Elsa’s father said, shaking his head in annoyance. “I don’t have the patience for any more games.”
Donovan reached over and gave one of Hyroc’s ears a hard yank. Hyroc grimaced as his ear popped and the rest of his head turned. Donovan frowned, stepped behind him, pulled back the collar of his jerkin, and began running a finger across the base of his neck, searching for something.
“Umm, I can’t find the end of it,” Donovan said in a puzzled tone.
“It should be right there at the base of his neck.”
“I know that’s where it should be,” Donovan said in an irritated tone. “But I’m telling you, it’s not there.”
“Let me see,” Elsa’s father said, walking over.
Hyroc considered running at that moment, but with his hands bound, he doubted he would get far, and without his bow, escape seemed somewhat pointless. He looked up to see Shimmer circling the clearing. Besides, all he needed to do was wait for Ursa to show up, and everything would be okay. He envisioned her crashing through the forest as she rushed to his aid. She hadn’t done that yesterday but he presumed that was because he wasn’t actually in any danger. Now he was.
Elsa’s father ran his finger across the base of Hyroc’s neck as Donovan had done. “What kind of a mask is this? Is it glued on? It almost looks as if –” There was a long pause. A shiver ran up Hyroc’s back; he knew what they were realizing.
“What is he? Is he a witch?” Donovan said in a clearly shocked voice.
Else’s father was quite a moment. “Well, whatever he is, we need to take him to the village elders. They’ll know what to do. Let’s get him on his feet.” They stood Hyroc on his feet in a less than gentle manner. “If you try anything, I’ll put a knife in your back, got it.” Hyroc nodded his understanding.
Stepping in front of him, Elsa’s father collected a coil of rope from beneath a nearby tree. After unwinding the rope, he made a loop at one end with some of the remaining rope trailing off. He put the loop over Hyroc’s head and cinched it down. Grabbing hold of the length of rope, Elsa’s father started leading him out of the clearing. Hyroc stole a quick glance in the direction of his cabin, worried what would happen to Kit, tied to a tree all alone. Sadness gripped him at the thought. Ursa, I need you, where are you?