Sentinel Flame Book One
By Adam Freestone
Alaskan Writer of Imaginative Creativity
A chill wind pulled at the edges of Hyroc’s hood, nicking the end of his nose with its bite and sending billowing waves through his cloak. His fur kept most of the nipping wind away from his skin, but enough got through for him to be aware of its coolness. The sun’s light shone a silvery gray through a layer of rainless clouds. It was mid-fall, and the deep greens of the leaves had begun their shift to yellow and orange. Winter was not far off. Its rapid approach worried Hyroc. He wondered if he would have enough food and if his clothing was enough to get him through those frigid months. In Forna, he only needed to spend short amounts of time outside when it got cold; he would have no such luxury in this place. When those days came, he would spend most of his time outside in the snow.
He shook the thought from his mind, he had time before then, and there was something requiring his immediate attention. He looked warily upon the threatening grin of the coyote standing before him caught in his trap beside the creek. Kit stood off to his left, tensed for a fight, growling a deep warning. His coat had developed a deeper reddish hue, and the spots speckling it had started to fade. Standing just short of Hyroc’s waist, he was nearly the same size as the coyote. Hyroc regarded the animal a moment more before knocking an arrow. He carefully aimed at the coyote’s eye so he wouldn’t damage the pelt and put an arrow through it. The animal shuddered and collapsed. Kit stopped growling, his body returning to a more relaxed posture.
Hyroc untied the coyote’s foot and dragged the body away from the trap. He wasn’t going to eat any of the animal’s meat; he planned to use it to feed Kit. After skinning the carcass, he gutted and butchered it, placing the meat inside his knapsack.
Shouldering the knapsack, he moved off. From there, he headed to the easier creek crossing Donovan had shown him. Growling and hissing, Kit beat him across the creek with a series of frantic jumps. Hyroc stopped at the hill. When he had subdued his trepidation about coming through this area and explored it more thoroughly two months ago, he had discovered a promising spot to put a trap at its base. It was empty now, but he had previously caught two squirrels in it.
Next, he checked the trap at the line of trees beside the clearing.
There was a crow caught in it, and Kit prepared to pounce on it the moment he saw it. “No, not this one,” Hyroc said, putting a foot in front of Kit to break his focus. He didn’t think this crow was one of Ursa’s, but he couldn’t actually tell the difference, so he avoided killing any of them. The crow squawked a shriek and fluttered its wings at Hyroc’s approach. “Don’t yell at me,” he snapped back at the bird. “I’m trying to let you go.” The crow cocked its head, seeming to calm a little. Cautiously, he reached down to release the bird. When it was free of his snare, it eagerly flew off. Kit gave Hyroc an annoyed glare. “It was a crow! I don’t think there’s any meat on those anyway.” Kit flicked his tail in what Hyroc thought was disagreement.
Returning to the cabin, Kit energetically scrambled up his favorite tree, perching on a thick limb halfway up. Hyroc laid a few pieces of coyote meat at its base before passing his newly constructed smoking rack on his way inside the cabin. He flipped open the chest at the foot of the bed. Inside lay two oilskin wrappings, one containing smoked meat and the other with three strips of uncooked meat he used for feeding Kit. He added the meat from his knapsack to the oilskin of uncooked meat, shut the chest, and went back outside.
Sliding into a sitting position, he put his back against the cabin’s wall and held the coyote pelt in front of him, trying to figure out what he could use it for. Selling it was the easiest choice, though bringing a pelt of unknown worth to Anton was unappealing. Anton accepted his pelts, but he didn’t exactly seem to want anything else to do with him. Svald would be able to tell him what a coyote was worth if they were worth anything. Throwing the pelt over his shoulder skin side out, he rose to his feet and started walking toward the lake.
At the lakeshore, he heard a distance quack. Lifting his eyes, he saw ducks lounging around in the water at the other end of the lake. He saw the pond in Forna, the tall water grasses, reeds gently swaying in a breeze, and dragonflies zipping through the air as Marcus instructed him on how to properly set up a shot. “The key is to remain quiet,” he had said. A pang of sadness stabbed at him, and he pushed the memory aside, returning back to the lakeshore.
When he arrived at the cabin, he found Helen out front wearing a coat as she stood beside a large basket. The two of them exchanged a quick greeting, punctuated by the sound of Dilo barking excitedly at him.
“Where’s Svald?” Hyroc asked, glancing around.
“Oh, he took the boys out hunting this morning,” Helen said. “He’s trying to teach Curtis how to shoot game. They probably won’t be back till tomorrow night. Is there something I can help you with?” Her eyes drifted over the coyote pelt.
Hyroc held the pelt up. “I got a coyote today, but I’m really not sure what to use it for.”
Helen held her hand out. “Let me see it.” He handed it to her. She gave the pelt a thorough look over. “Well, they’re mostly considered a pest around here because they like to go after people’s livestock, and most folks don’t even bother skinning them once they’re dead.”
That didn’t sound promising. “Is it worth selling?”
She nodded. “Yeah, you’ll probably get maybe ten Flecks from Anton for it.” She paused, looking toward him thoughtfully. “Do you have a hat?”
“No, but I’ve got a hood on my cloak.”
She frowned. “You’re going to need a hat for the winter. That hood of yours won’t do you much good when it gets cold. And that fuzz on your ears won’t help you much either. You need a hat.” She indicated the pelt. “You should use this to make one.” He nodded, thankfully re-accepting the pelt.
“Okay, I’m ready to go,” Elsa said, coming out the door of the cabin attired in the same fashion as her mother. She regarded Hyroc. “Hello, Hyroc.”
Hyroc nodded a greeting. “Where are you going?”
“Oh, we’re off to collect fireweed,” Helen said. Her eyes lit slightly. “We could use another hand. There’s a jar of jelly in it for you if you do.”
Hyroc gave her an attentive look. “Umm, sure.” He didn’t have anything urgent to deal with for the day.
Helen smiled. “This way,” she said.
She led them from the cabin across the trail leading to Hyroc’s to a gravelly hillock with a strip of purple fireweed running from one end to the top. Bee’s buzzed throughout the strip, working their way from plant to plant.
“Okay, Hyroc,” Helen said. “This is what I want you to do.” She bent down, grabbing the base of a fireweed plant with one hand where the purple petals began. “First of all, make sure there are no bees on the plant because this will make them very angry.” She smiled. “And I don’t expect I have to explain why you don’t want to make them angry. Then pull your hand up like so.” She moved her hand up the stalk, stripping off the petals with her fingers. She then dumped the petals into the basket. “And that’s all that’s to it.”
Hyroc nodded, moving over to a plant. He waited for a bee to finish its work before stripping the plant of petals.
“Hyroc, you doing all right getting ready for winter?” Helen said.
“I think so,” Hyroc said, brushing another handful of petals into the basket.
“You’re making sure to stock up on meat.” She ran her hand up the stalk of a plant.
Hyroc sighed. “I’ve been trying to.”
Helen frowned. “You might want to do better than ‘try,’ winter isn’t far off.”
“I know, but I’ve been really busy.”
“Then make time for it. You won’t be very happy with yourself when you’re going to bed hungry.”
“But you’re still going to help me if I need it?”
Helen sighed. “We are, but what if something happens and we don’t have anything to give you. You’ll starve; that’s what’ll happen. If we can help you, we will, but you need to do more of the work yourself.” Hyroc nodded. “And how are you doing on firewood?”
Hyroc grimaced; collecting firewood hadn’t seemed a high priority. He remained silent and avoided her eyes, hoping she wouldn’t take his response as a no.
Helen’s frown deepened. “Don’t go neglecting that either. I know it might not seem important now, but you don’t want to be chopping firewood in the middle of a blizzard.” Hyroc nodded somberly. Her expression softened. She put a hand on his shoulder. “I really don’t mean to sound like a nag; I just worry about you, is all.”
“We all do,” Elsa added.
Hyroc gave them an appreciative half smile. “You don’t need to worry about me.” People worrying about him was almost as aggravating as people thinking he was going to sink his teeth into them. He had spent weeks all by himself, and he did just fine. It seemed absurd to think people could worry about him when he had done something like that.
She smiled. “I’m a mother, and you’re a boy who lives all alone, so yes, yes, I do.”
They returned to the cabin shortly before dusk after they had filled the baskets. Then Helen convinced Hyroc to stay for dinner.
The following day, Hyroc caught nothing in his traps, felled a small tree, and spent the rest of the day chopping it into firewood. Then the day after, he only caught a single rabbit and killed a wild turkey while hunting. After working the coyote pelt the next morning, Donavan and Curtis showed up. Donovan held a sack filled with something heavy from the way it weighed down his arms. Kit climbed down from his perch, fixating on the sack.
“How’d your trip go?” Hyroc said.
“Good,” Donovan said, gently pushing Kit’s head away. “We got a moose.”
“Really, you got a moose?” He wished he could get a moose.
Donovan nodded. “Pretty big one too. We almost ran out of room to carry all the meat.” He indicated the sack as he held it out to Hyroc. “Some of it’s in here. My mother told us to bring this up to you.”
“Thank you,” Hyroc said gleefully.
“This is kind of heavy. Where do you want it?”
“Oh, umm…set it on the table in there,” Hyroc said, pushing the door open and cleaning a spot off on his table. Kit rushed toward Donovan, but Hyroc caught him by the collar before he crossed the threshold.
“Our mother wants you to smoke every bit of that meat, and she says if you make a meal out of it before we have snow on the ground, she’ll make you clean the barn for a month.” Hyroc grimaced. Her orders were duly noted. “Oh, and she also told me to give you this.” Donovan removed a wooden container from his pocket and held it out to him. “This is fireweed jelly.”
Hyroc gratefully accepted the container. He opened it, dipped a finger in the purplish jelly, and stuck it in his mouth. He smiled at the sweet taste.
“I killed a grouse,” Curtis said gleefully.
“Is that your first?” Hyroc said, putting the lid back on the container. Curtis nodded happily.
Donovan ruffled his little brother’s hair. “Yeah, this little goober can shoot now.” There was a pause. “I wanted to ask you something.”
“What?” Hyroc said.
“Well, I was wondering if you wanted to try getting some ducks with us tomorrow morning.”
Hyroc gave him a stunned look, a wave of nostalgia washing over him. “Of course I would!”
Donovan grinned. “Good. Meet us at our cabin early tomorrow, and I mean early, before the sunrises.”
“I’ll be there.”
A faint line of rising sunlight illuminated the darkened sky, shadowing the clouds with black. Hyroc yawned as Svald, Donovan, Curtis and their dog Dilo stood at the tree line, looking across an empty field littered with broken wheat stalks. Up until he had arrived here, Hyroc had thought the only places to hunt ducks were rivers, ponds, and the edges of lakes. It had made perfect sense to him before now, ducks were waterfowl, and they lived near water. Svald had disturbed his simple logic by telling him this place was where they were going to hunt ducks. He still wondered if this was some misunderstanding. Marcus had always taken him to a pond with water, not a freshly harvested farm field. There had to be a reason for that. Maybe this close to the wilderness the term duck actually referred to an entirely different type of bird? There were rabbits living in this area with antlers coming out of their heads, a talking bear, to say nothing of brain tanning, so it wouldn’t be the weirdest thing to happen since he arrived at Elswood.
“See, I told you those were contagious,” Hyroc said dryly.
“They are not. We’re just tired,” Donovan said. “It’s not like you coughed on me and made me sick.”
Then Curtis yawned. He stamped his foot in annoyance.
Hyroc and the two other boys leaned forward, turning their attention on Svald to see when he would yawn. Several minutes passed without a yawn. Svald met their gazes with a smirk on his face.
Donovan pointed at Svald. “He didn’t yawn,” he said triumphantly.
Hyroc paused thoughtfully. “How do you know he didn’t start it?” He challenged.
Dilo stood, suddenly growing excited about something. Svald held his hand up, ending the debate. Everyone listened intently. Hyroc heard the faint gaggle of ducks. Svald cupped his hands together, blowing three bursts of air into them, making three noises sounding surprisingly like duck calls. Slowly, the quacking grew louder. Svald made the noise again. He drew his bow and dropped into a crouch. Hyroc and the other two did the same. A formation of ducks came into view over the treetops. The flock descended, landing in the middle of the field.
Hyroc cocked his head; apparently, they were indeed hunting ducks in a field. This seemed a lot more comfortable than slogging through cold knee-high water to retrieve a kill. Why had Marcus only hunted at the pond? There were plenty of farms around Forna? He then wondered if it was because none of the farmers would allow him onto their land or if it would have given The Ministry an excuse to kill him. He pushed his pondering aside and returned his focus to the flock of ducks in front of him. He didn’t need to worry about The Ministry anymore.
“Everyone ready,” Svald said in a barely audible whisper. All four of them silently rose to their feet. “On three… one…two…three.”
Simultaneously, the four of them let their arrows fly. Hyroc and Svald’s arrows found their mark, but Donovan and Curtis missed. In a flutter of wings, the flock took flight. Hyroc rushed forward, loosing another arrow. His shot came close but missed.
“Go get ’em,” Svald said, sweeping his hand forward. Dilo eagerly took off, running in the direction of the nearest duck. She picked it up in her jaws, brought it back and dropped it at Svald’s feet. Then she headed off to collect the others. Hyroc studied the hound as she worked. He had no idea dogs were even capable of such useful things.
“Nice shot,” Svald said. He turned his attention to Donavan and Curtis. “Don’t get hung up on that. We just started; there’ll be more. Go find your arrows before you forget where any of them landed.”
A long stretch of boredom passed before another flock landed in the field. Donovan and Svald got one each, while Curtis and Hyroc missed. Then Svald and Hyroc got one each from the next flock. On the following group, something made the fowl take to the air before anyone was ready, but with a lucky shot, Hyroc got one mid-flight. The momentum of the duck carried it close to the trees on the other side of the field.
“Nice shot,” Svald commented excitedly. “I didn’t think any of us were going to get anything from that flock.” Hyroc nodded thankfully. “Go get it,” Svald said to Dilo. The hound gave him an uncertain look but remained where she stood. “Go get it,” he repeated. Dilo still didn’t move. He nudged her with his boot. “What’s wrong with you, girl? Go get it.” Svald shook his head in annoyance when she still didn’t move. “Hyroc, I don’t know what she’s doing, so I guess you’ll have to go get it.” Hyroc nodded his understanding and made his way across the field to collect his prize.
When he was a few steps from the felled bird, the shriek of a dying rabbit sliced through the air. Startled, he looked in the direction of the disturbance. Peering between the trees, he felt a thrill of terror when he found the rabbit. A giant black spider stood over the rabbit with its enormous fangs buried in its flesh. His shoulder itched with pain as he struggled to nock an arrow. The spider pulled its bloodied fangs from the rabbit and turned its attention on him. His breath caught in his throat. The spider regarded him with its ebony eyes then used its mouth to grab one of the rabbit’s back legs and drag it further into the shadows. Heart still hammering away in his chest, he scooped up the duck and ran back to join the rest of the group. He didn’t care what they were going to think about him. He needed to tell them about the nightmarish creature.
“SVALD, SVALD,” Hyroc yelled as he came up to Svald, who was looking over the dead fowl.
Svald’s happy expression sharpened into alarm. “What – what wrong,” he called out.
Gasping, Hyroc pointed where he had seen the spider. “There’s – there’s – there’s –” He couldn’t seem to say what he wanted.
“There’s a what? Take a deep breath.”
Hyroc took a deep breath. “There’s a –” A crash in the trees behind Svald cut him off, drawing everyone’s attention. Kit came into view, walking toward them. A new kind of fear took hold of Hyroc.
Dilo instantly started barking in alarm. Svald swore, throwing his arms out and yelling menacing warnings at the cub. Kit paused, regarding Svald curiously. Still yelling, Svald nocked an arrow. Hyroc threw himself in front of Svald to block his shot. “GET OUT OF THE WAY, HYROC,” Svald roared.
“I can’t,” Hyroc said sternly.
Svald swore and lunged forward to throw him out of the way. Hyroc backpedaled out of reach. Svald stopped as Kit ran up beside Hyroc, with his teeth bared, ears flat against his head, and growling savagely.
“KIT STOP,” Hyroc snapped. Kit covered his teeth, his ears rose, and he stopped growling.
Svald looked from Kit to Hyroc in bewilderment.
“STOP!” Donavan and Curtis yelled as they came between their father and Kit. “That’s his pet. Don’t shoot.”
“Pet?” Svald stated, focusing a stern gaze on Hyroc. Hyroc nodded, knowing he was about to be in trouble. Svald folded his arms, his expression darkening. He indicated Donovan and Curtis with a look. “The two of you go.” Donavan and Curtis gave Hyroc a sympathetic look before they turned and walked off. “Why have I not heard of this?” The anger in his voice was clear.”
Hyroc cringed. He was in for it now. “I was afraid you would kill him.”
“Kill him? And why would I kill him if he’s your pet, hmm?”
Hyroc bit down. “To protect your livestock.”
“And why’s that?”
“Because… mountain lions… kill… livestock.”
“Yes, mountain lions kill livestock. You might see why I’m upset with you,” he said pointedly. “If you were one of my children, I’d give you a whipping for this. Fortunately for you, you’re not.”
“I’m sorry, I –”
“I’m disappointed you kept this from me.”
“I meant no harm; please don’t kill him.”
“I’m not going to hurt your pet,” Svald said irritably.
“No, needlessly killing somebody’s pet isn’t a decent thing to do.” Hyroc breathed a sigh of relief. Svald’s expression darkened further. “But don’t go thinking you’re off the hook. I’m not finished with you yet.” Hyroc stiffened, bracing himself. “Right now, he’s not much of a threat to anything much bigger than a house cat. But he won’t be like that forever, you know. If I catch him stalking around my home –” Svald paused “– I won’t hesitate to protect my family. Am I understood?”
Hyroc nodded, avoiding eye contact.
“Good. Take your ducks, and you and your pet had better head on home before I change my mind.” Svald stalked off.
Hyroc bowed his head guiltily as he collected his felled ducks and headed off with Kit. When he arrived at the cabin, Ursa was lying in the shade of Kit’s tree. Hyroc grumbled to himself; he was in no mood to talk with her, especially if everything she said was in riddles.
“What happened?” she said calmly. “It felt like you were in danger, and then the feeling vanished.”
Hyroc shrugged. “I saw a spider,” he said scathingly. He glared at Kit. “Then stupid here got seen by Svald.” Kit growled in response.
“I see. You should have known better than to think he would be content to spend his morning idle while you hunt.”
“Well, he picked the worst possible moment to go exploring, and he got me yelled at. And now Svald doesn’t trust me.”
“For the moment, maybe, but it will pass soon enough. They will not abandon you over something so trivial. All you can do now is learn from your mistake and move forward.” Her expression darkened slightly. “But you must still be careful; you can never come back from the shadowed tunnels.” Hyroc glowered at her. He knew he should have expected nothing less of her. The darkness vanished from her face, and she got to her feet. “You need not worry about that spider. It will not harm you.” With that, she left, leaving Hyroc to wonder about the mysterious tunnels she had mentioned.