Sentinel Flame Book One
By Adam Freestone
Alaskan Writer of Imaginative Creativity
“…Now make sure you keep your knife at an angle and don’t push in,” Svald said. He stood in front of a hide he had helped Hyroc obtain the night before, which was tacked onto a slanted board, using his knife to demonstrate what he meant. “Otherwise, you might cut through and damage the hide. Right now, you’re just removing the hair. This will take a few days, so there’s no need to get in a hurry. Take it nice and slow.”
Hyroc nodded, eagerly stepping up to the hide. Finally, he was learning about the thing that had eluded him for so long. After this was finished, it seemed improbable any more of his hides would rot. He leaned forward and, trying his best to copy Svald, carefully made a scraping motion with the side of his knife down the hide.
“A little bit more of an angle and not quite so hard.” Hyroc adjusted his next scrape to what Svald said. “Yeah, keep doing it just like that.” He picked up the long curved blade with handles on both ends Hyroc had seen once before and held it up. “Your hunting knife will work fine for this, but I’d recommend getting a fleshing knife like this when you can afford it. It makes scraping much easier.” Hyroc nodded, returning his attention back to the hide.
“That’s probably good enough for now,” Svald said approvingly, a little over an hour later. “Now take it down, roll it up and stick it in the shed.
Hyroc wiped the flat of his knife blade on his leggings before slipping it back into its sheath on his belt and taking care of the hide.
“I’ve done my part of our bargain. Now it’s your turn,” Svald said. He indicated a pile of wood rounds lying beside an ax buried in a stump. “Head over and start getting those chopped.” Hyroc dejectedly sighed as he headed over to the chopping stump. He had hoped Svald had forgotten about that part of their deal. But it was the price of learning what Svald had offered to teach.
Hyroc set the smallest wood round he could find on the stump. Lifting the ax, he brought the blade down as close to the center as he could. With a satisfying crack, the wood round split partway down the middle, and another strike split it the rest of the way. He tossed the two pieces of wood off to the side before collecting another to chop. This round and the next two split easily, but the fourth was considerably larger, requiring several strikes to split. Hyroc ruffled the fur around his neck with his hand, letting the air dry the sweat forming on it. On the following round, the ax blade stopped, hitting a hard spot in the wood. Turning the round, he growled in mild irritation seeing a knot where the ax had stopped. He leaned forward and pushed on the back of the ax head with the palms of his hands, trying to drive the blade through the knot. No matter how hard he pushed, the ax wouldn’t cut any further. Glowering, he extricated the blade. Looking around, he found a small wooden mallet and a wedge propped against a tree. He stuck the wedge where he had split the wood and used the mallet to hammer it in. Each hit slowly drove the wedge through the hard knot until the round split in half.
With a sigh of relief, he aired out his dampened neck with one hand and reached for his water skin with the other. To his dismay, the skin was empty. He chided himself for not refilling it earlier when he knew a day of work was ahead of him as he made his way toward the lakeshore. Coming around the back of the cabin, he saw Walter working with a smoking rack laden with deer meat. Curious, Hyroc walked over, stopping behind the old man. Smoking his meat or drying it would be another useful thing to know, especially if he got more than he or Kit could eat before it went bad.
“Are you just going to stand there and drool?” Walter said, without turning to face him. “Not that I expect you to do anything else when you see food, considering how I saw you eat the other night, but Svald expects to get some work out of you.” He pointed toward the lake. “Go wash your hands; I don’t want this meat getting covered in your hair because I actually plan on eating some of it.”
With an annoyed glare, Hyroc headed to the lake, washed his hands more thoroughly than was probably necessary just to spite the old man’s assumptions he was filthy, and refilled his water skin before heading back. With a sideways look, Walter studied his hands and gave what appeared to be some form of approval. Reaching into a small sack lying beside the smoking rack, Walter removed a handful of salt.
“Grab a handful and rub it into the part of the meat not already salted.” Walter demonstrated by rubbing his handful into a piece of meat. “Do it just like that, and try not to drop any; it’s not free – unlike what you seem to think about the food here.” Copying Walter, Hyroc grabbed a handful of salt and rubbed it into a piece of meat. Walter scrutinized the meat, but to Hyroc’s mild surprise, he nodded his satisfaction. “Well, would you look at that. You can follow instructions.” Walter smiled derisively. “Maybe we can train you for something useful after all.” Then in a sarcastic, overbearing voice, he said, “Good boy,” as if he were speaking to a pet. Rolling his eyes, Hyroc reached into the sack and started salting another piece of meat.
“There you are,” Svald said as he walked over to the smoking rack.
“I was helping Walter salt this meat,” Hyroc said, indicating the older man with his eyes. He was going to be irritated if helping the man was something he shouldn’t have done. He couldn’t afford to go without learning how to tan a hide.
“Yeah, it looks like we might get some good work out of him,” Walter replied. “I think you made a great deal with this one.”
Svald nodded appreciatively. “Well, thank you for that, Hyroc.” Hyroc breathed a silent sigh of relief. Everything was good. “Walter, do you mind if I take him? We need to get some more work done on his hide before it gets any later.”
“I suppose that’s fine. I was about done here anyway.”
Hyroc brushed the salt from his hands, followed Svald to the hide, and tacked it back up onto the stretching board. Then he began scraping it as he had done earlier.
“DINNER,” Helen called out. Hyroc looked skyward and was surprised to see it was close to dusk. It hadn’t felt like he was here long enough for it to be so late.
“You’re already here,” Svald said invitingly. “So you might as well stay for dinner.”
Hyroc smiled gratefully. “I – I would like that.”
“Good, we like having you.”
“You do?” Hyroc said, taken aback.
Svald smiled. “Of course we do. Now come on, I don’t want to keep everyone waiting.” Hyroc happily made his way to the cabin’s door.
“Oh, what a surprise, he’s still here,” Walter dryly said as Hyroc came into the kitchen. “He must have heard there’s food in here.” Helen frowned at Walter. “Try to leave some for the rest of us, if you don’t mind.”
Helen filled a bowl with stew and set it at an empty spot at the table. “How was your day?” she said conversationally.
Assuming the bowl was meant for him, Hyroc settled into that spot, watching for any signs of disapproval on Helen’s face. “It was good.” Helen nodded. Looking down to his bowl, he smiled when he saw it nearly overflowing. He began shoveling the stew into his mouth. He then noticed Walter watching him with an unsurprised look on his face while he rapidly devoured his meal. Hyroc forced himself to eat slower to prove to the old man he could. Other than Donovan and Elsa throwing joking insults at each other and Walter lobbing an annoying jibe in his direction, the meal passed peacefully.
When he returned to his cabin, the towering spruce had enveloped the structure in its looming shadow. Kit yowled hungrily from the base of the tree he had been tied to. “I hear you,” Hyroc said as he walked over and undid Kit’s leash. Yowling impatiently at an ever-increasing volume, the cub eagerly followed him inside the cabin. Hyroc cut a slice of venison from his portion of the deer he had been given and tossed it to the expectant cub. Kit immediately stopped making noise, content with tearing into the piece of meat. With his companions’ needs fulfilled, Hyroc stepped outside to try stealing a glance at the sun before it disappeared below the horizon. He was startled to see Ursa sitting beside the tree he tied Kit to, looking toward the red and orange strips cast across the sky by the setting sun.
“It’s a nice sunset tonight,” she said, without turning to look at him. “No clouds to disrupt our view.”
“It is,” Hyroc said, trying to calm his heart back to a normal rhythm. It was still alarming to suddenly see a big bear up close, even if it had no intentions of hurting him. Though the fact he hadn’t noticed her coming was a bit disturbing.
She tipped her head to look at him. “I see those hunters have accepted you into their pack.”
He nodded knowingly. “The father is teaching me how to tan hides. I just wish he didn’t make me do so much work for it.”
“Work is good; it makes you strong.”
Hyroc looked at her thoughtfully. “I know, I just meant, it makes it hard for me to get everything done that I need to do.”
“You’re building bonds, and that’s important. You’re less vulnerable with others than on your own. No such bonds can exist within the shadows, as it knows no light of companionship.”
Hyroc narrowed his eyes at her in an odd expression. Only about the first half of what she had just said made any sense. “Why do you speak in riddles? I don’t know what that means.”
Ursa regarded him with an annoyingly expectant look in her eyes. “In time, you will find the answer.” She returned her gaze to the orange sliver of the vanishing sun. Hyroc sighed in muted frustration and watched the sun sink out of view.
The next day, after working on the hide, Svald made him clean out their fireplace. After the fireplace, he made him clean out and put clean bedding in both the chicken coop and barn. He hated the reek of both structures, but he suspected his heightened sense of smell made it all the more unpleasant. He kept his aggravation toward the work to himself; it was what he had to do, and complaining about it wouldn’t do anything beyond psyching him into disliking it even more. Then mercifully, he was returned to chopping wood the day after.
While splitting a particularly stubborn round, he noticed the family’s youngest son Curtis watching him, and the boy looked as if he had a question burning in his mind.
“What?” Hyroc said, tossing the firewood into his pile and setting another on the chopping stump.
“What kind of animal are you?” Curtis said innocently. “Most people say you’re a wolf.”
Hyroc gave him a curious look. “What do you think I am?”
Curtis studied his face thoughtfully. “I thought you might be a bear when I first saw you, but up close, you remind me of a wolverine; I helped my father skin one once.” Hyroc nodded, centering the wood round on the stump. “He told me wolverines are really mean, but since you saved my sister from a wolf, you don’t seem very mean.”
“You really think so?”
Curtis nodded. “Bad things don’t do things like that.”
That was an encouraging comparison. With a thankful nod, Hyroc raised the ax over his head and brought it down on the wood round. It split all the way down the middle save for a tiny sliver of wood requiring a sharp twist of the ax to sever. “Most people think I’m really mean when I’m not.”
Curtis smiled. “But my grandpa says wolverines are greedy, and that’s why he says you eat the way you do.”
Hyroc shook his head irritably. It didn’t surprise him much the old man had said that. “Well, I hadn’t been eating very well up until that first night your mother invited me over for dinner, and I was really hungry then. I’m not a good cook, and what your mother made tasted really good.”
Curtis nodded comprehendingly. “That’s a little like what my mother said about you.” There was a pause. “Why were you scared of us?”
Hyroc sighed, turning his head to look at the boy. It seemed that subject was inevitable. “Well – a lot of people have tried to hurt me, and I thought your family would do the same.”
Curtis studied him thoughtfully. “We wouldn’t hurt you.”
Hyroc stared down at the ground. “I didn’t know at the time.”
“Do you miss your parents?”
Hyroc tightly squeezed his eyes shut. A flare of longing shot through him, and June’s face materialized in his mind. He opened his eyes, pushing her from his thoughts. It hurt too much to think about her. “So, what animal do you think I am?” Hyroc said quickly, hoping to change the topic back to something more benign.
Curtis looked toward the sky in contemplation. “Well, I think you look like a wolverine.”
Hyroc breathed a silent sigh of relief. Good. “Then I guess I’m a wolverine.”
“A nice wolverine.”
“A nice wolverine,” Hyroc agreed. If only everyone else in the village could see him in such terms.
“Curtis stop bothering Hyroc,” Donovan called out. “He’s got work to do.”
“I’m coming,” Curtis yelled back. He returned his attention to Hyroc, speaking conversationally. “I’ve got to go. He’ll keep yelling until I go. But I’ll keep trying to figure out what you really are. Bye.”
“Bye then,” Hyroc said.
Curtis turned and headed off toward his brother. Hyroc watched him a moment before sticking another wood round on the stump.
The next day, he had removed all the hair from the hide.
“It looks good,” Svald said after a quick examination.
“So now what do I do?” Hyroc said.
“Go ahead and take it down. I’ll be right back.”
Svald turned and headed off toward the shed. Hyroc took the hairless hide down. Svald returned, carrying the head of a deer in one hand and a wood ax in the other. Hyroc regarded the severed head ominously. What was that for?
“Why are you carrying a deer head?” Hyroc said.
Svald set the head on the ground and touched the top of it between the antlers with the back of the ax. “You see where I have the back of the ax?” Hyroc nodded warily. Where was this going? “I want you to hit that spot as hard as you can with the back of my ax.”
Hyroc gave Svald a confounded look as he was handed the ax. “What are we doing this for?”
“How else are we supposed to get to its brains?”
Hyroc looked at him in bewilderment. Did he just say brains? “Why do you want the brains?”
“It’s what we’re going to use to tan the deer’s hide.”
“What do you mean we’re going to use its brains? That can’t be what’s in the barrels stored in your shed.”
“You’re right. What’s in those isn’t made from brain.”
“Then why are we doing this?”
Svald sighed in mild annoyance. “Because doing it the way I do it is not the best way for you to do it, at least not right now. I’m showing you the simplest and easiest way I know how to do this, which is with brains.”
Hyroc sighed dejectedly. What had he gotten himself into?
“Now hit the deer’s head between the antlers where I showed you.”
Hyroc reluctantly lifted the ax, took a breath, and brought it down as hard as he could. The back of the ax struck with the sickening sound of breaking bone. “Just like that; two more hits should do it.” Hyroc struck twice more, making a hole big enough to satisfy Svald. “Now set the hide fleshy side out beside the skull.” Hyroc did that. “Now reach inside and scoop up a handful.”
“You want me to WHAT,” Hyroc said indignantly. He wanted him to – to touch what was in there? That was the most disgusting thing he had ever heard of.
“You heard me. Reach inside and get a handful.”
Hyroc gave him a pleading look, but the man’s gaze did not waver. Oh no, he’s serious about this. He rolled his sleeves up and, after taking a deep breath, reached inside the deer’s head. The brain had a repulsive gelatinous texture reminiscent of a cold, undercooked egg, making him feel a little queasy. He took a long breath to try calming his stomach, then scooped up a handful of brain tissue.
“Now start smearing it over every inch of the hide.” Hyroc brought his handful of brain-mush over to the hide. As soon as he felt the slimy gelatinous substance squish between his fingers when he pressed down, he tasted acid in the back of his throat. He flew to his feet and managed a few steps away from the hide before doubling over and retching.
“Feel better?” Svald said, trying to hide a smile.
“I – I umm think I’m good now.”
“Are you sure about that?” Donovan said as he came around the side of the cabin, beaming. “You’re not going to faint, are you?”
“No,” Hyroc said defensively, a ting of warmth spreading across his face. Why did the other boy have to see him doing that? The one time, he thought it safe to let his guard down. “The texture just – just struck me wrong.”
An hour passed without another throwing up incident – though Hyroc came close twice – and only the occasional friendly, if not annoying, gibe from Donovan before he had completely covered the hide in brains.
“The brains will set in overnight,” Svald said. “And in the morning, you’ll need to work the hide. Just find something smooth to drape the hide over and start working it kind of like what you’d do when you’re washing clothes. Don’t use anything too rough, or you might damage the hide and have to start over with a new one. Keep doing that for about an hour every morning until the hide is soft and pliable. And if everything goes right, you’ve got yourself some leather.”
Hyroc nodded, glad there wasn’t another step. What he had done thus far was more than enough. “Does that mean we’re done,” he said, wearily hopeful.
Svald smiled. “Yes, other than what I said, you’re done.” Hyroc quietly groaned with relief. “And you’ve paid off your debt to me; you don’t owe me any more work.”
“What do I do if I want to keep the hair on?”
“It’s pretty much the same process; you just don’t necessarily need to do this last step – it’s just a good idea normally – or anything to take the hair off.”
“Thank you for showing me this.”
“You’re very welcome.