Sentinel Flame Book One
By Adam Freestone
Alaskan Writer of Imaginative Creativity
Hyroc scanned the reedy shore of the pond, searching for any signs of the fowl he was hunting. A wavy sheet of gray clouds covered the sky, and intermittent raindrops struck the surface of the pond, sending out thin circles of ripples as they landed. It was now a year since his first hunting trip with Marcus. The trips were the only times in his life he could remember feeling like he belonged somewhere. The ducks treated him no differently than Marcus, fleeing whenever they spotted either one of them, and sometimes he forgot he was different for a little while.
A faint quack emanated from a patch of reeds farther down the shore, and Hyroc made his way toward it. He found a single duck resting among the vegetation. Carefully he approached his quarry from behind. It was an easy shot and he quickly dispatched his target with no difficulty. After collecting the lifeless bird, he made his way back to Marcus. Marcus was crouched amongst a patch of tall reeds, observing a group of ducks paddling across a small indent in the shore.
Silently Hyroc set the duck down beside Marcus in a pile of three other birds they had downed earlier in the day. Marcus turned his head slightly in Hyroc’s direction. He noted the fresh fowl, giving Hyroc a proud nod, and turned back toward the ducks. A moment of silence passed between them as they watched their quarry. Marcus leaned back toward Hyroc.
“That’s the perfect place for an ambush,” Marcus whispered, pointing toward the shore of the indent. “I want you to circle around to the other side and take a shot. That way, when they take flight, they’ll have to fly past me, and I’ll have a perfect shot. That sound good to you?”
Hyroc nodded, then stealthily made his way to the other side of the indent. Once in position, Marcus raised a hand above the reeds signaling for him to take a shot. Hyroc quickly loosed an arrow. The arrow whistled through the air, striking the nearest duck. In a frantic flurry of wing beats, the rest of the group took flight in Marcus’ direction. A single arrow shot out of the reeds surrounding Marcus, and a duck tumbled into the water with a splash. Marcus stood, a proud smile on his face, and cheered.
“Great job!” he yelled excitedly at Hyroc.
Hyroc smiled proudly. The two of them collected their prizes before making their way to the boarding school.
The only downside toward their hunting trips was the first two months of the school year coincided with the duck season. And although Marcus only took Hyroc hunting on the weekends, many of the teachers, with Miss Duncan being the most concerned, thought he was neglecting his duties as headmaster. Then just as Hyroc thought his favorite activity would slip away from him, Marcus swiftly put the teachers’ concerns to rest by donating any fowl the two of them killed to the school meals, thus making the trips a service to the school. This arrangement had annoyed Hyroc because the other students got to eat his fowl when none of them had contributed anything toward acquiring the birds, but if that’s what had to be done, then he supposed he really didn’t mind. Eating them wasn’t the fun part. Though the kitchen staff never seemed capable of making the ducks taste as good as Marcus could.
As the two of them made their way to the kitchen, Marcus began to cough.
“Are you all right?” Hyroc asked, suppressing a yawn. The coughs sounded particularly uncomfortable.
“I’m fine,” Marcus said with a dismissive wave. He cleared his throat. “My throat is just a little dry this morning. I just need to drink something.” Hyroc nodded.
After dropping off the six fowl, the two of them returned to the headmaster’s office to dress into their formal clothing before separating for breakfast. As Hyroc made his way toward his usual spot at the table, he noticed a brown-haired boy about his age showing an unusual amount of interest in him. He recognized the boy as one of the new students that had arrived near the start of this school year. The only students who paid that much attention to him always felt the need to do something unpleasant to him. His bullying problem didn’t seem quite as bad anymore, but the beatings were hard to forget. He was safe in the dining hall; none of his bullies had ever been brave enough to attempt pestering him with so many teachers around.
Throughout the meal, the boy stole glances in his direction. When he finished breakfast, and the other boys filed out of the dining hall, he turned away from the door and studied Hyroc for an uncomfortable moment before continuing on his way. The boy was definitely a bully. He was probably trying to figure out the best way to harm him. Concerned by the prospect of an ambush at the door, Hyroc stayed in the dining hall until Marcus forced him to leave.
During the lunchtime break, Hyroc spotted the boy shadowing him down the hall leading to the library. Hyroc rounded a corner and darted outside through a side door. He ran along the side of the building, keeping his head below any windows. When he arrived at the nearest corner of the building, he stopped and watched for his pursuer. A few minutes passed, and the boy had yet to appear. Breathing a sigh of relief, Hyroc reentered the school from the other side. Keeping a careful eye out for the new bully, he made his way to the safety of Marcus’ office and stayed there until dinner.
Hyroc sat barefoot on the limb of an apple tree near the school’s back with his legs laid across the branch and his back against its trunk. Three apples lay at the tree’s base, and small brown worms absentmindedly devoured the remaining flesh of the bruised fruit. All the tree’s lower branches had been removed, as was the practice for any trees on the school grounds, preventing students from climbing them. Or it seemed to stop every student except for him. He had discovered this fact by accident shortly after beginning his second year at the school. A group of bullies pursued him across the campus, eventually cornering him at one of the trees. And of course, wishing to avoid the accompanying pain of such situations, he kicked off his shoes, exposing the claws on his feet through a hole he had torn in the ends of his socks, and tried climbing the tree.
The claws on his feet were duller than the ones on his hands, and therefore did not often need to be filed. His shoes were safe from their rubbing against the inside of them, but even with their relative lack of sharpness, his foot claws still tended to snag on his socks. That was why, whenever he got a new pair of socks, he would always tear a hole at the end of them at the first opportunity. Unfortunately, the destruction of a perfectly good pair of socks was a constant source of contention between him and Marcus, though Hyroc couldn’t understand why.
When Hyroc managed to climb his first tree without any handholds or claws of their own, the bullies pursuing him were unable to reach him with more than insults and eventually gave up. Because of this discovery, Hyroc often spent his afternoon breaks in the safety of a tree.
The apple tree was his favorite. It was the tallest tree on the school grounds, and it sat near the back of the school where students only seldom passed by and he never felt there were many eyes on him while he was in it. Then there were also the apples. The tree only produced a handful of apples in a year and because the tree’s lower branches had been removed, anyone wishing to partake of its bounty had to wait until it fell to the ground. So, if he got to the apples before then, they wouldn’t get bruised, and he had them all to himself.
Hyroc reached into his pocket and removed the carved figure of a wooden bear. He set the bear down in front of him on the branch, trying to imagine the inanimate beast moving on its own. He wished he was big and strong and fearless like a bear. He could do whatever he wanted and never feel afraid of anything. Maybe then being watched wouldn’t bother him anymore. A bear would never let something so trivial frighten them. And none of his bullies would be brave enough ever to heckle him again.
Marcus had given him the bear as a present on his sixth birthday. Then he learned his hands were not the first to glean enjoyment from it. The bear had once belonged to Marcus’ son Charlie. It always made Hyroc sad hearing about Charlie and seeing the pain in Marcus’ eyes whenever he talked about anything relating to his son. Charlie had been eight years old when he had gotten sick and died. Then Marcus’ wife Sarah followed shortly afterward. Hyroc couldn’t stand the thought of playing with the bear once he learned this. Marcus had then subdued his reluctance by insisting he wanted Hyroc to have the bear, and Charlie would have wanted it played with.
Hyroc often wondered if he and Charlie could have been friends if they would have had the chance to meet one another. He liked to think so. From what Marcus told him about Charlie, the two of them had a lot in common. There would have been so many things to do around the house, and chores could have gotten done so much faster. And with them watching each other’s backs at the school, bullies would have thought twice about messing with either one of them. But it wasn’t meant to be.
He grabbed the bear and began making it walk across the branch toward him, supplying growls for the wooden animal. Halfway through its march across an imaginary cliff face the branch acted as something thumped against the tree’s trunk. Putting both his hands against the trunk, Hyroc peered around it toward the other side of the tree where the impact had originated. On the ground, he saw the same brown-haired boy who had been following him the day before, accompanied by two other students. One of the other students reached down, picking up a rock. The boy studied the branches of the tree a moment, then chucked the stone at it. The rock thumped against the trunk, bouncing off the bark at a shallow angle. Looking up where the boy seemed to be aiming, Hyroc spotted two of the tree’s three remaining apples. He frowned, realizing they were trying to knock the fruit down with the rocks. The rocks would accomplish that, but they would also badly bruise them.
Hyroc felt conflicted about this. The boys didn’t seem to know he was there, and if the one with brown hair was a bully, those rocks might be suddenly aimed at him if he said anything. But he was a little higher up than the apples, and with as much trouble as they had to hit those, it seemed unlikely they could hit him even if they tried. There didn’t seem to be any danger posed to him if he spoke to them.
“You’re going to bruise the apples that way,” Hyroc called out. The three boys gave him a surprised look. The brown-haired boy’s companions gave an irritated wave in Hyroc’s direction, then turned and headed off. Keeping his eyes fixed on Hyroc, the brown-haired boy took two steps backward and stopped.
He studied Hyroc a moment before speaking. “How would you get the apples down?”
Hyroc gave the boy a puzzled look; why was a bully responding to his question in such a conversational manner? That had never happened before. They usually only called him names. Was this some strange new tactic? How talking to him could be part of a plan to hurt him didn’t seem to make any sense. Maybe this was something else. Maybe the boy wasn’t a bully at all. Continuing their conversation seemed the best way to find out.
“Like this,” Hyroc said. He stuck the wooden bear in his pocket and carefully climbed through the branches to where the two apples hung. He plucked down both apples. He studied one apple thoughtfully, glancing between it and the boy below. If the boy wasn’t a bully, then giving him an apple might be a good start to being liked by somebody. He held the apple out in offer to the boy. The boy stepped beneath the pro-offered apple and caught it when Hyroc dropped it. Settling into a sitting position with his legs hanging over the branch, he began eating the apple he had kept for himself.
After shining the apple on his shirt, the boy took a bite. “Do you really eat those ducks you kill, raw?” the boy said.
Hyroc narrowed his eyes. That was a ridiculous question. Nobody ate raw duck; that was disgusting. Maybe getting the boy to like him wasn’t such a good idea after all. “No, I do not,” he said coolly. “Do you eat your meat raw?”
Taken aback, the student shook his head. “That’s what the other boys say you do.”
“Well, since Marcus and I donate any fowl we get to the schools’ dinners, I wouldn’t believe everything you hear.”
“You really do that?”
Hyroc cocked his eyebrow, wondering why what he did seemed so unusual. “Yes.”
“Everyone says you’re a ferocious animal a witch turned into a boy.”
“I don’t think that’s what I am,” Hyroc said. He paused a moment in contemplation. “But if that’s what people say about me, then why weren’t you afraid to stay and talk with me?”
“I wanted to see if the rumors were true,” the student said proudly. “I’ve never seen an enchanted animal before.”
“What do you think of me now?”
The student paused. “You don’t look like everyone else, that’s for sure, but you don’t seem to act much differently.” The boy paused. “My name’s Thomas.”
“That’s a funny name.”
Hyroc shrugged. “Well, that’s what it is.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Hyroc.” Thomas indicated Hyroc’s face with his hand. “Did a witch do that to you?”
“No, I was born this way.”
“Everyone says that’s what your mother was.”
Hyroc gave him a hard glare. He didn’t want to be liked by somebody who said bad things about his mother. “I don’t like people talking about her that way.”
Thomas gave him a startled look. “S – sorry, I wasn’t trying to talk bad about her.” the boy added quickly. Hyroc gave Thomas a surprised look; no student had ever apologized for talking ill of his mother. “But, if you’re not an enchanted animal, then what are you?”
Hyroc sighed. Not even Marcus could come up with a definitive answer. He only seemed to know what he wasn’t. “I wish I knew.”
Thomas studied him thoughtfully. “Why were you avoiding me yesterday?”
“I thought you wanted to beat me up.”
Thomas gave him a strange look. “You get beat up?”
“Yeah, why do you think I’m in this tree?” It seemed a little strange Thomas didn’t know that. He thought his differences would make his reason pretty obvious. “What’s so unusual about that?”
“Because I would be afraid to try and beat you up.” Hyroc shrugged, wishing that were true. His life would be a lot easier. “Did you really beat up Billy Mason?” Hyroc nodded, smirking a little as he remembered what he had done to the older boy. Surprise and admiration lit Thomas’ eyes. “Wow, you must be a really good fighter to beat someone that much older.”
“I’m not, he just had a big mouth, and it made me want to hit him.”
Thomas nodded. “Well, it was nice talking to you –” Thomas held up his half-eating apple “– and thank you for the apple.”
“I’ll be seeing you.” Hyroc nodded. Thomas turned and headed off. Hyroc watched the boy until he disappeared around the side of the school. Maybe it wasn’t so bad being liked by him.
At dinner, Hyroc sat alone in his usual spot at the end of the table, waiting for the meal to be served. When Thomas entered the hall, Hyroc watched the boy hopefully but expected to remain alone for dinner as always. Thomas noticed him, and to Hyroc’s surprise, the boy made his way over to him.
“I was wondering,” Thomas said, settling into a seat beside Hyroc. “How good can you see in the dark?”
Hyroc had never really been out after dark, so he had never thought about it. He shrugged his shoulders. “I never thought to check,” he said, curiosity piquing his interest.
“Okay, stay awake until it’s completely dark tonight, and you’ll be able to check.”
“Why do you care if I can see in the dark? No one else does.”
“I’m just curious. Not to be rude, but you look like an animal, and well, I want to know if you can see in the dark like a cat. I thought it would be interesting if you could, is all.”
“I’ll give it a try and tell you at breakfast tomorrow.”
Dinner was served a short while later. Hyroc and Thomas spent the remainder of their time in the dining hall talking about their classes and anything else they could think of until they were forced to separate for the night.
“So,” Marcus said as he and Hyroc got ready for bed. “Who was your friend I saw you talking with at dinner?”
“His name’s Thomas,” Hyroc said happily. It was nice to have somebody else to talk with besides Marcus.
“See what I told you,” Marcus said smugly. “People just needed a little time to get used to you.” He affectionately ruffled the hair on Hyroc’s head. Marcus opened his mouth to say something, but a cough interrupted his statement. He pounded his chest with a fist and cleared his throat. “Great,” he said mildly irritated. “I just forgot what I was going to say. Oh well, I’m sure I’ll suddenly remember it in the middle of the night.” He helped Hyroc finish getting into bed, extinguished the room’s candles, and climbed into bed.
“Good night,” Marcus said.
“Night,” Hyroc replied.
Hyroc waited until the fullness of night had entered his room, and he was positive Marcuse was sound asleep before climbing out from under his covers. The shadows obscured the finer details of the objects around the room, but Hyroc could still tell what he was seeing. It had never occurred to him he might actually see things at night differently than everyone else. He crept over to the mirror above the washbasin to see how well he could see his reflection. His reflection had the same appearance as everything else in the room, but his dark fur made him blend into the shadows more, and he saw a very faint glow coming from his eyes. When he moved his head closer to the mirror, pulling his eyelid up with a finger, he could definitely see his eyes glowing. Marcus and June had always said that’s what his eyes did in the dark, but this was the first time he had seen it for himself. He started, nearly tripping over a stool in front of the basin when Marcus coughed loudly. As Hyroc took a deep calming breath, he thought he smelled something. It was a subtle indescribable odor, and something was unnerving about it. Curious, he moved closer to Marcus and sniffed. He found the odor again.
He pulled away from Marcus, puzzling over the unknown smell. He reached up and began feeling his nose and along the sides of his snout. If I can see in the dark, then maybe I can smell better too, he thought to himself. I’ve never actually sniffed Marcus, so maybe this scent is just the way he smells. Hyroc yawned. Knowing he had studies to get to in the morning, he climbed back into bed and went to sleep.