Sentinel Flame Book One
By Adam Freestone
Alaskan Writer of Imaginative Creativity
Hyroc focused on the tiny shape of a black spider crawling across the ground in front of him. Other than the families’ hound coming over to growl at him, the tiny creature was the most interesting thing he had seen for a while. Shortly after Elsa’s father had disappeared into the cabin, he found enough slack in the rope tying his wrists together for him to press the side of one claw into it and begin cutting through his restraints. He knew it would still take him an incredible length of time to cut through, but what choice did he have? They were going to kill him. The presence of guards clearly indicated they thought he was dangerous, and there was only one way they would deal with something dangerous. It was just fortunate they were taking so long to decide what to do. Their indecision would give him the time he needed to cut his restraints. Then once he did that, he just had to wait for an opening and make a break for the tree line. He was confident he could outrun those guarding him, but the dog was a problem. Outpacing the beast on open ground would be impossible. He had scared it off before by hitting it in the head with a rock, so maybe that was all he needed to do. Sweeping his eyes across the ground, he found several stones that would work. He could snatch one up as he made for the tree line. The only thing wrong with his plan was it required him to leave behind his bow, sword, and knife. Save for the sword, the other two were of vital importance, but he saw no way to recover them without dying. And being dead seemed a considerable step backward. Maybe in a few days after his escape, he could come back and get them.
When he got away from the men and the dog, he would make his way back up to the mountain and salvage as many of his traps as he could on his way to the cabin. Then he should have just enough time to get Kit, pack up his things and sneak off north toward the mountain. The wilderness would become his home. He was stupid for believing he could ever stay around people. They simply didn’t want him anywhere near them, no matter how honest his intentions were. The only exception had been Elsa. He felt no animosity toward her. He had actually liked her, though he wondered if that might have been because she was nice to him. His encounter with her made him think this whole thing could work out after all. Then reality came crashing down on him, shattering his deluded hope. He now knew it would never work. He couldn’t trust anyone, not even his so-called guardian Ursa. Her inaction was proof of that. Why else would she leave him in such a dire predicament? From now on, he would rely only on himself and no one else. He just had to get out of his restraints.
The spider disappeared into a clump of grass. Hyroc searched for it a moment before resuming staring absentmindedly at the ground, hoping some other creature would come along for him to look at.
Back and forth…
Back and forth…
The families’ hound rose to its feet from where it lay on the cabin’s porch and broke into a run, excitedly barking as it went. Following the dogs with his eyes, Hyroc felt a thrill of apprehension when he saw Elsa’s father and the other man – Harold might have been his name – walking down the trail leading to the cabin. It was too soon! He needed more time to cut through the rope.
Chiding himself for not working faster when he had plenty of time, he desperately began cutting as fast as he could. The two men continued their approach, almost seeming to fly toward him. The three guards turned to greet the returning men. Everyone exchanged a few words, indicating Hyroc once or twice as they spoke.
Then to his relief, Else’s father and the other man disappeared inside the cabin. He had a little more time. In a frighteningly short amount of time, they emerged through the door, making their way toward him. Dread engulfed him as he realized he wasn’t going to make it. His plan had failed before he even had a chance to attempt it.
Elsa’s father propped some things against a fence post and drew his knife. A cold shiver ran up Hyroc’s back, and every part of his mind screamed for him to run. He watched in horror, transfixed by the dull gray metal of the approaching blade. He closed his eyes; he didn’t want to see what was about to happen. It now almost seemed better if the spider bite had done him in. He had at least been fighting then; instead, he was going to die tied to a fence, helpless as a newborn kitten. He hoped it was going to be quick and wouldn’t hurt.
He felt a hand pull his up. His restraints grew tighter, then their pressure vanished altogether, and he felt them being slipped off. Confused, he opened his eyes to see Elsa’s father stand and step over to join the other man. He had an urge to break for the trees, but something about the looks on the men’s faces made him stay where he was. He didn’t see fear. They almost seemed glad to see him, as if they wished to talk with him. That didn’t make sense. Why would they want to speak with him when they were here to kill him? Those witch hunters had shown no interest in any such thing. He wondered if it was a trick, though neither one of them seemed ready to draw a weapon. He rubbed his wrist as he stared at the two men, unsure how to react. Elsa’s father looked at the rope in his hand and frowned at the frayed spot where Hyroc had been trying to cut through. Hyroc stared at the fray, which was barely a quarter of the way through the rope, and was gloomily surprised by his lack of progress
“You’re free to go,” the other man said.
Hyroc gave him a disbelieving look. Why would they simply let him go after going through all the hassle of capturing him? What was going on here? Was this some elaborate trick to get him to reveal something? Maybe if he played along, he could use this opportunity to get his things back. It was worth a shot, but that game was really starting to aggravate him. It would be so much easier if people would simply tell him what they wanted.
Using his hand, Elsa’s father indicated the things he had set against the fencepost. “All your things are right here,” he said, in a slightly gentler tone than last he spoke.
Glancing in the indicated direction, Hyroc saw his things. They knew he was dangerous. Why would they give him his things back? Making him more threatening seemed an odd thing to do. Maybe they really weren’t going to hurt him. He wanted to believe it, but part of him told him to be ready for an attack. At the first sign of trouble, he would bolt and never turn back. Cautiously, he got to his feet, ready to react, never taking his eyes off the men.
“My name’s Svald, Svald Shackleton.” Elsa’s father said. He indicated the other man with his hand. “And this is Harold.”
Hyroc stared at him, puzzled. It kind of sounded like they were introducing themselves to him. Why would they waste their time getting to know him if they were going to kill him? Could what they said be genuine?
Tentatively Hyroc said, “My – my name’s Hyroc.”
“Good to meet you, Hyroc,” both men said.
“The town elders have decided to let you stay,” Harold said after a brief pause. Hyroc gave the two men a baffled look. Had he heard the man correctly, had he said he could stay? Did they really mean that? Would he be able to keep the cabin? What was going on! None of it made any sense. “But we have rules here. Foremost of all, don’t kill anyone.” Hyroc raised an eyebrow wondering why they needed to tell him that. Didn’t everyone know that rule? “Stealing is another one,” Harold said, affixing a sterner gaze on him. Hyroc smiled uncomfortably. Harold indicated his things. “We know none of those are yours.”
“The bow is,” Hyroc said without thinking. He cringed, realizing he had inadvertently admitted to stealing everything else.
Harold gave him a flat stare. “But so long as it wasn’t from anyone in the village,” he continued. “And since you likely have a use for them, you can keep them, with one exception.” He reached into Hyroc’s quiver, removing the two silver-headed arrows and dropping them on the ground. Hyroc silently sighed, he had meant to sell those, but he would gladly part with them if it meant he could stay. “If you break any of those two rules, the deal is off, understood?”
Hyroc nodded. “Does this mean I can come into the village?” he asked hopefully.
“I believe it does, but I wouldn’t expect a friendly welcome, let alone a hello.” Hyroc nodded understandably; he expected nothing less. If he could go into the village without fear of being killed, everything else would be nothing.
“I hope I don’t find you sneaking around our home again,” Svald said.
With a sigh, Hyroc said, “You won’t.” He would figure out some other way to tan hides.
“Use the door next time.”
Hyroc cocked an eyebrow. Why did they want him to use the door? Were they actually suggesting he could come to ask them for things? Not that he really planned on doing so; it was just exciting that it was an actual possibility. He had never been invited into someone’s home before.
Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw Harold slip something into his hand. Glancing over, he noticed Harold had interlaced his fingers, holding his hands in front of his stomach as if concealing something. Harold smiled back at him.
“My family does most of its trapping from here, north to the river, and we usually hunt to the East,” Svald continued. “I don’t think of myself as a stickler for trapping or hunting rights. If you accidentally wander into our area, it’s not a big deal. Just don’t make it into a habit, understood.”
Hyroc nodded his understanding. He saw Harold steal a glance down into his hands. His expression turned to confusion. Then it immediately vanished when he noticed Hyroc looking at him.
“Is everything understood?”
“It is,” Hyroc said, returning his attention to Svald.
“Good. You probably have some things to get done, so let’s get you home.”
“Thank you.” Hyroc walked over and began warily collecting his things while at the same time keeping a close eye on Harold; he wanted to know what he was holding. After belting on his sword, he saw Harold put what looked like a small crystal ball in his pocket. Hyroc vaguely remembered Marcus saying something about that kind of object turning blue when it was used on him. It was called a Peering Orb, if he remembered correctly. It was supposed to turn purple or black if it detected any trace of witchcraft on a person or object. It must have turned blue otherwise Svald and Harold wouldn’t still be talking to him.
“Lead the way,” Svald said, once Hyroc had finished getting his things together.
Feeling nervous showing them the way, he began leading them to his cabin. A crow squawked angrily, fluttering a short distance away as the group passed its perch on the fencepost. Hyroc had seen a crow standing on that fencepost ever since he was brought to the cabin. Looking up into the sky, he saw the dark shape of Shimmer circling overhead. Glancing back at the first crow on the fence, he saw it watching him intently. Something strange was happening with that crow, but Hyroc dared not mention it to the two men escorting him.
Very little was said during the trip back to his cabin. When they arrived, the long shadows and cool light of dusk had settled on the mountain.
“This is it,” Hyroc said, presenting his cabin.
“You’re very fortunate to have found this,” Svald said.
Hyroc nodded knowingly.
“You two stay here,” Harold said, walking toward the cabin’s door. “I need to check something before we can finalize the deal.”
A sense of alarm crept into Hyroc’s mind. What was Harold looking for? A bolt of fear shot through him when he realized Kit was tied to a tree near the cabin’s front door. How would they react to him having a mountain lion cub? Hyroc stole a glance at the tree. Kit was nowhere to be seen. Repressing a surge of despair, he watched Harold pull the door open and step inside. What felt like hours passed before Harold walked back out.
“There’s nothing here,” Harold said.
“I didn’t think there would be,” Svald said. “But it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Hyroc breathed a mild sigh of relief. “We’ll let you get back to whatever you needed to do before dark,” Svald said. “Just don’t forget anything we said and we won’t have any more problems.” With that, the two men headed off.
The instant they were out of earshot, Hyroc rushed over to the tree he had tied Kit to. The twine that functioned as a collar looked like it had been cut. Kit must have finally managed to chew through it. The night was rapidly approaching, and the nocturnal predators would soon be out, and none of them would think twice about snapping up a mountain lion cub. Repressing a new feeling of urgency, he scoured the ground for tracks. He found none. “Kit,” he called out. No response. He continued yelling as he frantically checked in and under every nearby tree. Hoping Kit had gone to drink from the stream, he quickly made his way over there. He looked up and down the shore. There was no sign of the cub.
“Kit,” Hyroc yelled as loud as he could.
He heard a tiny, faint yowl. Doing his best to suppress a flood of excitement, he carefully listened. The yowl sounded a little closer. “Kit,” Hyroc called out, cautiously walking in the direction of the sound. Several paces later, he started, seeing Ursa come into view. Hanging limply from her mouth by the scruff of his neck, Hyroc saw Kit. “Kit, there you are,” he yelled excitedly. Kit yowled pathetically. After a few more steps, Ursa lowered her head and dropped Kit. With a hiss, he bolted behind Hyroc, growling at the large white bear.
“I thought something had happened to you,” Hyroc said, scratching Kit behind the ears.
“It’s fortunate,” Ursa said. “I had enough time to get him away.”
Hyroc narrowed his eyes, anger welling up within him. “I thought you were supposed to protect me!” he said acidly.
Ursa gave him a curious look. “Is that not what I have done for you?”
He gave her a baffled glare. “You could have gotten them to release me.
“What would that have accomplished, besides hurting two hunters that were doing what they thought best for their family? It turned out all right, didn’t it?”
“Yes, but what if they had decided to kill me instead?”
“Then I would have stopped them. I don’t see what your complaint is? You still have your den, don’t you?”
“Yes, but –”
A flutter of movement in one of the trees beside Ursa caught his attention. Perched on a branch, he saw Shimmer, but beside the raven stood half a dozen crows. Sweeping his eyes around the clearing, he saw still more crows perched amongst the trees, all of which were watching him.
“Are you making them do that?” Hyroc said, indicating the tree beside her.
“I’m not making them do anything. I’m asking them to.”
Hyroc gave her a bewildered look. “You’re asking them to watch me?”
“Yes, I made a deal with them, and they accepted my terms.” Hyroc stared at her strangely a long while, not quite sure how to respond. “In simplest of terms, I told them to watch you, and if they did that, the mountain would be safer for their eggs and fledgling.”
“How are you going the keep your end of the bargain without killing every predator on the mountain?”
“I’m not going to keep it. You are.”
Hyroc gave her a startled look. “WHAT! HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO DO THAT? I might think of myself as a good hunter, but I know I’m not nearly good enough to do that.”
“You’ve already done that,” she said in an amused tone.
“I’m pretty sure I’d remember killing scores of dangerous animals single-handedly,” he said indignantly. “About the best I’ve done is take out a few rabbits.”
“Your mere presence makes the mountain safer for them.” Hyroc raised a skeptical eyebrow at her. “By trapping and hunting around here, you reduce the number of predators that prey on birds, thus making this area safer for their eggs and fledglings.”
“But I haven’t killed enough animals to make a difference, have I?”
“Not really, but birds are just like any other animal. They’ll take whatever advantage they can get. A little safer may not seem like much of an improvement, but it is still an improvement nonetheless.”
“Are they worried about you, I don’t know, eating them?”
Ursa gave him a humored look. “I’m a bear. Unless a bird is dumb enough to sit there and to let me eat it, I really don’t have any hope of catching one, and they know it. But also because I’m a bear, no other animal, except for maybe a weasel or a wolverine, will make a deal with me because I’m a danger to them.”
“So, you told – I mean, asked them, to keep an eye on me?”
“Precisely, you couldn’t see me, but you never left my watch. Did you ever wonder why The Ministry never got to you after the man who adopted you died?” she said proudly. “They definitely tried.” Hyroc gave her a puzzled look. “The Ministry requires far more parchment than most people realize. Whenever I discovered an order went through related to harming you and other such dangerous instructions, that order would mysteriously go missing from a curer’s bag or someone’s desk beside an open window. With the help of my feathered friends, the ones in the capital who wanted to get rid of you could never get their orders to the ones who took care of those things –”
Hyroc smiled mischievously, imagining a man in a long robe turning from his desk to grab a book from a nearby shelf, then turning back to find his parchment suddenly went missing.
“– And that woman who looked after you was able to take care of any problems that happened near you. That is, until the incident with that boy happened. There was nothing losing a few orders would do to remedy that situation. Anyway, the villagers would not have allowed you into the fold if I had shown up to rescue you. The birds were the safest option. Do you understand now?” Hyroc nodded as he reached down to scratch Kit, who was lightly biting his leg. “Just make sure you don’t raid the nests of any birds on the mountain unless your need is dire. Your friend knows not to as well.” She paused, looking up into the sky. “It’s getting late; the two of you need to eat.”
With that, she turned, disappearing into the trees a moment later. Hyroc stood, looking down at Kit when she had gone. “Well, I think everything went a lot better than I had expected,” he said casually. “I thought we were going to have to run.” Kit yowled in what sounded almost like agreement. Hyroc smiled down at him. “But I think things are actually starting to look up.” And it even felt safe for him to allow himself to believe it.