Sentinel Flame Book One
By Adam Freestone
Alaskan Writer of Imaginative Creativity
The surface of the gently flowing stream was serenely smooth beside Hyroc as he knelt shirtless, scrubbing his jerkin with one of the old rags from the chest in his cabin. Kit lay sprawled out beneath the bristly skirt of a nearby tree, half asleep. He had exhausted himself by spending the previous night and most of the day unsuccessfully trying to get his collar off. Hyroc hoped this would be the last of Kit’s defiance; he had not slept much because of the cub’s incessant spasms to rid himself of the collar.
He wetted his rag in the stream. This was the first time he had been invited into someone’s home, and making sure his clothes were clean seemed an appropriate response to the occasion. It should help prove to the Shackleton family he had a sense of cleanliness and wasn’t some manner less thing. Marcus had always said, “If you don’t want people to think you’re no better than an animal, make sure your clothes are spotless.”
Returning his gaze to his jerkin, he frowned, noticing a dried blood smear on its right side. It looked a few days old, making him wonder how long it had been there. Was it there when he ventured into the village? Maybe that’s why the woman had reacted so violently. It might have made her think he just attacked somebody on his way to her shop. Then again, she was probably too preoccupied with his features and grabbing a broom to notice the blood. Regardless of the reason, it would only make him look unsightly at dinner with the Shackletons. Luckily, after some hard scrubbing, the blood came off. The rest of the jerkin looked as clean as he was going to get it. Satisfied, he slipped it back on.
“Okay, Kit, time to go,” he said, rising to his feet. Other than an ear twitch, Kit remained asleep. Hyroc poked him with the end of his boot. Kit stretched his limbs absentmindedly then shoved his head under his paws without opening his eyes. “You can sleep when you get back to the cabin. Now get up; I’ve got to get going soon.” Kit remained motionless. Rolling his eyes, Hyroc reached down and picked him up. Kit yowled in protest, giving him a scathing look. “Don’t give me that look; you’re the one who wouldn’t get up.” Kit growled but made little effort to free himself. “Yeah, I can tell how much you want down,” Hyroc said sarcastically.
He headed off toward his cabin with his unhappy passenger in his arms. As usual, he tied Kit to a tree outside his cabin, securing the twine to the small loop of leather on the collar. Using his back leg, Kit scratched at the collar. Hyroc smiled with relief when Kit’s foot returned to the ground. He rested his chin on his paws and closed his eyes. I actually might be able to sleep tonight, Hyroc thought to himself relieved. He frowned at the bite marks all over the twine. How much longer could it restrain the cub? He figured he should probably replace it with rope soon. With that thought in mind, he headed off toward the Shackleton’s cabin.
He approached the cabin from the road, as it seemed the proper way to come to the cabin. The instant he entered the clearing, the family’s hound made his presence known with a chorus of excited barks. It rushed up to him in a flurry and began growling. He stood his ground. “I’m sorry; I hit you with a rock,” he said apologetically. “I won’t do it again. Just please let me by.” The dog suddenly stopped growling, regarding him curiously. He gave the hound a strange look, surprised by its sudden change in behavior.
“Dilo, stop harassing our guest,” Svald called out as he stepped from behind the cabin. He made a stern sweeping motion with his arms as he drew close. “Come on get, you crazy mutt.” The dog bounded off. “I hope she didn’t bother you too much.”
“No, she wasn’t a bother,” Hyroc said. “Not compared to how dogs usually react to me.”
Svald looked thoughtful a moment. “I know we got off on the wrong foot with that whole incident the other day. It wasn’t anything against you. I misunderstood the situation and was doing what I thought was best for my family. I hope you understand that. And I’d like to put all that behind us and start over.”
“I would too.” Though he suspected forgetting about it would be a lot harder.
“I’m glad to hear that. Supper should be done soon; you can head inside if you want. We’re finishing up a few chores while we wait, and then we’ll be right in.”
Hyroc nodded, heading for the cabin door. On the porch, he saw the old man sitting on a stool.
“I warned my daughter about feeding strays,” the old man said, without turning his head to look at him. “You feed them once, and they’ll just keep coming back for more. And they might seem tame, but as soon as you stop feeding them, they’ll show you their true nature. And when they eventually do, there’s only one way to deal with them.”
Hyroc gave him a sideways look. Being called a stray was pleasant compared to most of the demeaning things people said to him. But he sometimes did feel like a stray no one wanted. He opened the door and stepped inside. Helen stood at the cabin’s fireplace, stirring the steaming contents of a tin soup pot hanging above the flames. Sweeping his eyes around, he took a moment to take in the cabin’s interior. It was much nicer than his cabin. He couldn’t help feeling a little envious of what he saw.
“I’m glad you could make it,” Helen said, looking at him with a grateful smile. Hyroc nodded thankfully. She tapped the wooden spoon off on top of the pot. “Could you help me get this dished up so it can cool?” He regarded her curiously then took a step toward her. She frowned and he felt a bolt of fear at her expression; what had he done wrong? “Take your boots off please,” she said, indicating his feet. He looked down at his boots; feeling irritated something so simple had elicited such a response from him. These people weren’t going to hurt him. They wouldn’t have invited him into their home otherwise. He took his boots off, setting them by the door. Helen looked at his feet inquisitively before beckoning him over. “This one’s yours,” she said, filling a bowl and holding it out to him. Hesitantly, he accepted it. “You can sit wherever you want.” He set his bowl on the opposite side of the table, where he could see the other family members as they entered. Then in likewise manner, the two of them set a bowl out for the rest of the family. “Thank you,” she said, gently squeezing his hand.
“You’re welcome,” Hyroc replied, looking at her hand. It seemed a strange thing for someone to do, but it was comforting.
She let go, headed over to the door, and stuck her head outside. “DINNER,” she called out. Taking that as his cue to sit, Hyroc sat down at his bowl. One by one, the rest of the family filed in.
The old man frowned in mild surprise, seeing Hyroc seated at the table. “Well, at least it has manners,” the old man scoffed as he settled into a chair. Helen glared at him.
“Before we eat,” Helen said. “I’d like to introduce everyone. You’ve already met my husband, daughter, and I.” She indicated Elsa’s oldest brother. “This is Donovan.” Next, she indicated their youngest son, followed by the old man. “This is Curtis and Walter. Donavan, Curtis and Walter, this is Hyroc.” Hyroc and the two boys acknowledge each other with a simple head nod, while Walter grumbled something inaudible under his breath, warranting another glare from Helen and Elsa, then everyone started eating.
Hyroc eagerly took a bite of his soup. He sighed happily louder than he had meant to at the taste of the hot food entering his mouth.
Helen smiled. “You like it?”
Embarrassed, he nodded sheepishly before taking another bite. He had almost forgotten how good even a mildly seasoned meal tasted.
“I hear you got into a bit of trouble with Carla yesterday,” Walter said. “What did you do, threaten to eat her daughter?”
Hyroc regarded him inquiringly. “Is she the one who owns the shop with all the kitchen things?” he said after swallowing.
“She hit me in the face with a broom!” Donavan and Curtis snickered but immediately stopped when he looked in their direction.
“Don’t mind her too much. She hasn’t been the same since her oldest daughter went missing,” Helen said.
Hyroc studied her thoughtfully. “What umm – what happened?”
Helen sighed. “We don’t know. She went out one day to pick berries and never came back.”
“Her father thought an animal had gotten her,” Svald said. “But we never found any tracks heading off from where she had gone to. It was as if she just disappeared.”
“Where did this happen?”
“Out past the western edge of the village, a ways from here. She’s been the only person to up and vanish like that, but around fall last year, animals started going missing the same way. People would find the ground torn up a little as if the animal had been struggling with something, but then nothing. And if you’re worried about us thinking it was you, don’t. The town elders know you weren’t responsible.”
He was glad to know they knew he had nothing to do with that, but hearing about disappearance was disconcerting. What else could there possibly be here beside giant spiders? Asking Ursa about them later might be a good idea. He didn’t want to have another nasty surprise. “I was just curious.”
“Like a fox in a hen house,” Walter said under his breath.
“Would you like some more?” Helen said, indicating Hyroc’s empty bowl.
“Yes – yes, please,” Hyroc said, holding his bowl out to her.
“Other than Carla, how’d everyone else treat you?” Svald said.
“Good, I guess. But the lady who runs the tailoring shop was very nice to me.”
Svald’s eyes lit a little at that. “Oh, Luna. Yeah, she’s a sweet old woman. She’s actually one of the people responsible for allowing you to stay.”
Hyroc gave him a look of intrigue. It seemed reasonable someone who could treat him so kindly would play a part in that. “I’m very grateful she did,” he said sincerely.
“So, you’ve been looking to tan hides.”
Hyroc snapped his head in Svald’s direction excitedly. “Yes – yes, I am.”
“Well, I can help you.”
“You’ll teach me?”
“Of course, you won’t be able to use any of those pelts if you can’t tan them. But I’m letting you know right now this isn’t a handout; you’ll need to give me something in exchange for my knowledge. And since you don’t have anything I want – and frankly I wouldn’t feel right taking anything from you in your current situation – so you’ll pay me in work. Does that sound like a reasonable trade to you?”
Hyroc studied the man’s face thoughtfully. He didn’t like the idea of adding even more work to his days, but he needed the knowledge Svald possessed if he was going to make a living here. He didn’t seem to have a choice in the matter.
“Okay, it’s a deal.”
“Good to hear.”
Svald reached toward him with one hand. Hyroc stared at his hand, trying to figure out how he was supposed to react to the gesture. Racking his brain, he remembered seeing people in Forna shaking hands. It was related to finalizing trades or something. Hesitantly he reached out with one hand, mindful of his claws and shook Svald’s hand. Then he let go.
“When umm do we start?”
“We can start tomorrow if you like. I assume you check your traps in the morning?”
Hyroc nodded. “Yes.”
“About when do you usually finish?”
“Before noon normally.”
“Okay, then I’ll expect you sometime around noon tomorrow.” He paused a long moment. “It’s getting late; you should probably get headed home soon.”
Hyroc finished off the rest of his bowl’s contents before standing. “Thank you for the meal,” he said. “It was very good.”
“Thank you for coming,” Helen said. “If you should need anything, our door is always open.”
After a quick goodbye to the rest of the family, with a full stomach, he headed off toward his cabin, feeling much happier than he had in a long time.