Sentinel Flame Book One
By Adam Freestone
Alaskan Writer of Imaginative Creativity
Hyroc awoke with a sense of relief; the week of his grounding had finally ended. He had not been allowed to go fishing, and every day Marcus had made him come up with one merit regarding the importance of honesty before he could eat breakfast. Then to make his grounding even more painful, Marcus made him replace the board in the fence where the rabbit had gained entry and made him weed the entire garden without offering any assistance. It still didn’t seem fair for him to be punished so severely after all the hard work he put into catching the rabbit. He hadn’t meant for it to destroy those cabbage plants. If he had just kept his mouth shut, none of that would have happened. Marcus would have given him the praise he deserved instead of making him do chores all day and preventing him from doing anything fun. But, mercifully, he could now do whatever he wanted.
He got dressed and eagerly headed down for breakfast. Marcus was already at the table with a steaming bowl of porridge in front of him as he read a scroll. Another bowl sat on the other side of the table, waiting for Hyroc. Hyroc watched Marcus warily as he approached his seat, unsure if his father would punish him with one final honesty merit. Other than a slight twitch of his eyes in Hyroc’s direction, Marcus gave no signs of doing so. Breathing a silent sigh of relief, Hyroc seated himself at the table. From a wooden container at the center of the table, he added a drizzle of dark yellow honey onto the porridge and started blowing on his first spoonful.
“I need to head into town to get some things this morning,” Marcus said.
Hyroc stopped mid-bite, staring at Marcus with disbelief. He had suffered for a week, and Marcus wished to prolong his discomfort by making him go into town! There were always more eyes on him there than at the boarding school. Even the way people stared at him felt worse there. It felt like he was naked and every inch of his body was being examined. Out of the corners of his eyes, he often saw people craning their necks to get a better look at him. It made him extremely uncomfortable seeing those people trying so hard to stare at him. People accompanied the stares with pointing and speaking in hushed tones. Passersby gave him a wide birth, but what bothered him the most was how the people who had children with them reacted. Mothers and fathers pulled their children close to them as if shielding them from an imminent animal attack. It made him feel like he was the monster Miss Duncan always made him out to be.
Hyroc irritably dropped his spoon back into his bowl, folded his arms, and stared sourly at the tabletop.
“Don’t be like that,” Marcus said, turning his eyes from the scroll to Hyroc.
“I don’t like going there,” Hyroc glowered. And why Marcus thought he should when it was clear how much he hated it was beyond him.
“Sometimes we have to do things we don’t like.”
“I’m not supposed to be grounded anymore; I was going to go fishing! This isn’t fair.”
Marcus sighed half humoredly. “And you still can when we get back. This won’t take very long.” He paused. “And if you’re good, there’s a surprise waiting for you.”
Hyroc perked up at the mention of a surprise. He felt a streak of excitement as he wondered what the surprise might be. Then his euphoria substantially faded when he remembered what he would soon be enduring in the town. Deflated, he forcefully slunk down into his chair. It seemed impossible any surprise would be worth that.
Marcus shrugged. “Now eat your porridge before it gets cold.”
Hyroc quietly grumbled to himself how mean Marcus was being and continued eating. After consuming his breakfast as slowly as he could manage without getting into trouble, he and Marcus slipped on their jackets and boots. Hyroc pulled his jacket’s hood over his head. The hood didn’t do much to keep his appearance concealed since the end of his nose poked out of it, and anyone close by would easily see how he looked, but the stares never felt quite as bad while he wore it.
“Going with the hood today?” Marcus said as he secured a coin pouch to his belt. Hyroc gave him a perplexed glare. Marcus nodded his understanding then the two of them stepped outside and made their way down the road into town.
A steady flow of townsfolk trickled in and out of the gate. Hyroc bowed his head instinctively to keep his face concealed as long as possible as he and Marcus passed through the entrance. The first few people seemed to take no notice of him, but not long afterward, he felt the steadily growing discomfort of being watched. A group of teenage boys on the opposite side of the cobblestone street spotted him and pointed. Their behavior rapidly attracted the attention of anyone close by. Hyroc grabbed his hood and made sure to pull it as far forward as it would go. He felt Marcus place a reassuring hand on his shoulder. The gesture seemed to give him strength and the town didn’t seem quite as bad. Determinedly, he lifted his head back into the air. They could look all they wanted; it wasn’t going to bother him.
Rounding a corner leading to the town center, Hyroc and Marcus came face to face with two men on horseback. Marcus yanked Hyroc out of the way of the horses and held him close. The men wore dark brown leather frocks tinged with patches of red. A sword hung from one man’s hip and a cudgel from his companion’s. Hyroc felt a wave of fear when he saw above each man’s shoulder the embroidering of a silver raven holding a scythe in its talons. They were Witch Hunters.
Witch Hunters were those who hunted down witches and anyone or anything that used black magic. Even though through their work they offered a great boon to those they served, Marcus had warned Hyroc never to go anywhere near them. His words had confused Hyroc because it made no sense how someone doing something good for others would be dangerous. His confusion had only lasted up until he had seen one in person. The Witch Hunter looked at him with a disgusted, menacing glare and the man’s whole body seemed to radiate hostility. There was no doubt the man would harm him if given a chance. The realization had frightened Hyroc and he never remembered being more grateful Marcus was there with him.
The two men stared down at Hyroc with cold, uncaring glares as they trotted their horse’s past. The two men looked away from Hyroc shaking their heads disappointedly. Marcus and Hyroc watched the two men intently for several paces of their horses. Hyroc let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding as Marcus relaxed his grip. Marcus gave him a reassuring look and they continued on their way.
Marcus led Hyroc to the shop of the town’s bow maker. Wide varieties of finely crafted bows, quivers, and many kinds of arrows fletched with an array of colorful feathers were on display throughout the shop. The shopkeeper gave Hyroc a quick wary glance before enthusiastically welcoming Marcus. They engaged in a brief conversation Hyroc paid little attention to as he studied a bow with what appeared to be animals carved in the wood. He wondered how much work the maker of the bow had put into creating such elaborate designs and if it were possible for him ever to learn to do the same.
“Hyroc, I’ll be right back,” Marcus said. “This will only take a moment. Don’t leave the shop, and don’t touch anything.”
Hyroc nodded his acknowledgment. The shopkeeper led Marcus into a back room. While Hyroc looked through the shop’s wares – restraining the strong urge to touch something – he heard the shouting and laughter of children playing outside. Walking back toward the half open door of the shop, he saw a group of three boys about his age, playing a game he had never seen before. They had a small ball made from sackcloth and the boys were taking turns bouncing it off their feet trying to keep it from falling to the ground. Hyroc watched them with growing intrigue. The boys at the school wouldn’t play with him, but maybe these three would. While bouncing the ball, one of the boys lost their balance, and the ball fell to the ground. As the next boy bent down to pick up the ball, he started, noticing Hyroc watching them through the shop’s door. Hyroc gave the boy a friendly wave. The boy studied Hyroc with an odd look on his face, but he showed no sign of annoyance like the group at the boarding school he had tried so hard to be part of. Excitement shot through Hyroc as he wondered if the boy was about to invite him to join the game. He had taken one eager step toward the group when one of the other two children pointed at him, said something he couldn’t hear and the group burst into jeering and laughing. Hyroc sighed irritably, feeling some warmth spread across his face. He put his back to the group, folded his arms and kicked at a thin patch of dirt on the floor. Those boys weren’t any different. Marcus emerged from the back room holding a rectangular box beneath one arm.
“Are you all right?” Marcus said with a concerned frown.
“I’m fine,” Hyroc replied sharply. Marcus’ eyes narrowed when he spotted the group of boys outside the shop laughing. The boy’s laughter immediately ceased, and with an alarmed expression on each of their faces, the group scattered. Hyroc felt a little better seeing the group flee in terror.
Marcus patted the box with his other hand. “This will probably make you feel better when we get home,” he said, smiling. All Hyroc wanted to do was play a game with someone his age; it seemed unlikely the contents of the box could ever give him that kind of enjoyment.
Marcus bought some meat, then they made their way to the leatherworking shop near the edge of town then headed back to the house.
“There’s something I want to show you,” Marcus said eagerly after entering the living room. Curious about what could excite Marcus, Hyroc followed him over to the fireplace. Marcus set the box down on the floor. “Open it.”
Hyroc did as instructed. Inside he found a small, caringly polished child’s bow. “I used to be quite the duck hunter in years past,” Marcus said. He indicated his bow that hung above the fireplace. “Recently, I’ve been thinking of renewing my trips to the pond. But hunting alone just isn’t as fun.” He paused, smiling. “And now that you have a bow, the two of us can hunt fowl together.” Hyroc beamed, forgetting all the unpleasantness of the day. “Unfortunately, the duck hunting season proper isn’t until fall. But that’s okay because we have all summer to get ready for it.” Hyroc rushed over and hugged Marcus so hard he nearly knocked him over. Marcus smiled broadly. “I take it you like it.” Pulling away from Marcus, Hyroc nodded energetically.
After lunch, Marcus showed him how to shoot a bow then they spent the rest of the day punching holes in a target with their arrows. The next morning, Marcus had a few errands to attend to at the school. He offered for Hyroc to come with him, but Hyroc promptly declined. Marcus instructed him to weed the ground around the new strawberry plant and not to try shooting arrows without him. Hyroc quickly did his chores. Disobeying Marcus’ instructions to practice his archery was a strong temptation. But after overhearing two men talking in town yesterday about how many Flecks they made while trapping, he was eager to experiment with it.
After collecting as much fishing line as he could find around the house, he headed into the thicket not far behind the house. Remembering how he had caught the pesky garden rabbit with his trap at the fence, he searched for similar natural chokepoints. He placed a trap between two birches growing close together on the sides of a hollow, then one in a space between two patches of thick bushes and a similar divide in a patch of tall grass. Then just as he had done with the thief-rabbit in the garden, he would check the traps in the morning. He arrived back at the house just as Marcus had returned. The two of them spent the rest of the day practicing their archery.
When Hyroc checked his traps the next day, he found a large black rat caught in the one he placed between the thick bushes. Though he was still uncertain what animals were worth, he was certain nobody would pay anything for the ugly rodent. Seeing no real reason to kill it, he slipped on a pair of gloves and reached over to release it. The rat hissed when his hands drew close, giving him a slight start.
“I’m trying to let you go,” Hyroc snapped. “Do you want me to leave you there for a cat?” In response, the rat rapidly fluttered its whiskers while staring at him with its beady black eyes. Taking a breath, Hyroc grabbed the rat by the mid-section. It ferociously bit at his fingers, but he only felt a mild pinch through the leather of his gloves. Once he had freed the rat, he released his grip, and it darted out of view.
Over the next two weeks, he made minor adjustments to his traps until, to his satisfaction, he finally caught a rabbit. After dispatching the animal the same way he had seen Marcus do it to the garden thief, he realized he didn’t know what to do with the rabbit. He remembered seeing animal skins hanging outside the leatherworking shop and decided to skin the rabbit was the best course of action. When he had finished, he had completely mangled the pelt and it was difficult to tell what animal it had originally come from. Undeterred, he continued trapping. He mangled each animal skin he got a hold of, but just as with his first traps, he got better with each mistake. About a month after his first caught rabbit, he successfully skinned one properly. As he proudly held the pelt up to examine his handiwork, the hair began to fall off in large clumps. By the time he made it to the house, all the hair was missing, leaving only an ugly gray dermis. Confused, he disposed of the skin among the trees and continued trapping.
A few days later, he was surprised to find a cat snagged in the trap between the two trees near the hollow. The cat hissed and spat wildly the moment he came into view. A wave of fear washed over Hyroc when it occurred to him this cat could belong to somebody. Marcus might not look kindly upon his trapping in secret, but if he found one of the neighbor’s cats caught in it, Hyroc could only imagine how much trouble he would get into. He needed to free the enraged feline before that happened. He took a calming breath, then put his gloves on. When he reached for the back of the cat’s neck, it hissed again and made a violent flailing movement. Hyroc yanked his hand back. He watched the cat with a growing sense of dread. How was he going to free it without bleeding? Maybe he had no choice but to tell Marcus. He dismissed the thought with the shake of his head. Marcus didn’t need to know. He was positive he could figure this out on his own; it was only a house cat.
Gathering his courage, he threw his hand around the scruff of the cat’s neck. The cat erupted into hissing and resumed its flailing. It took all of his strength to prevent the struggling animal from breaking free of his grip as he worked to release it. He had barely removed the snare when he lost his hold on the cat. Faster than he could react, the cat flipped over onto its back, swatted at the top of his wrist and raked one of its claws across his skin. Growling savagely, the cat tore out of view. Hyroc looked at his wrist and saw blood oozing out of the injury. Grimacing, he pressed the cloth of his shirt onto the wound.
As soon as he stopped bleeding, driven by a gnawing fear Marcus would find out about his activities, he quickly set about dismantling his traps. If he got rid of them, there was no chance of Marcus discovering their existence, and he couldn’t get into trouble.
When he had finished with his traps, with the materials in hand, he rushed back to the house. He peeked through the back door into the kitchen and saw Marcus standing at the hearth. He had his back to the door and appeared to be cooking lunch. Hyroc had gotten most of the fishing twine from Marcus’ room, so he crept around the front of the house to see if he could sneak in there. He peered through the keyhole, but Marcus wasn’t in sight. Silently he opened and closed the door before stealthily making his way upstairs into Marcus’ room. He deposited the twine where he had found it then quickly left. Just as he came through the doorway, he started when he spotted Marcus coming up the stairs. Heart thumping, Hyroc darted across the hall to the doorway of his room, turning so it appeared he was leaving it.
“There you are,” Marcus said as he came to the top of the stairs. “I’ve been looking all over for you. Lunch is almost ready.” Breathing a silent sigh of relief, Hyroc nodded and walked toward Marcus. “I wanted to ask you something.”
A bolt of fear shot through Hyroc. What was the something! Had he been caught? Barely maintaining his composure, speaking in the most casual tone he could muster, he said, “what is it, Marcus?”
“Do you remember where I put the fishing twine? I can’t seem to find it anywhere.”
Hyroc breathed a silent sigh of relief. His secret was still safe. “I thought you kept that in your room.”
Marcus rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I swear I already looked in there.” He waved his hand dismissively. “Bah, I’m sure it’ll turn up; probably just misplaced it.” He paused. “What happened to your arm?”
Hyroc subdued a sense of dread and calmly lifted his arm as if he were unaware of the claw marks. “It’s just a scratch.”
Marcus nodded. “You should be more careful then.”
Repressing a smile, Hyroc said, “I will.”