Sentinel Flame Book One
By Adam Freestone
Alaskan Writer of Imaginative Creativity
Hyroc awoke to the sound of hushed voices. When he opened his eyes, standing beside Marcus’ bed, he saw the healer talking quietly with his father. Hyroc stretched and rubbed the sleep from his eyes before climbing out of bed. Marcus opened his mouth to say something to the healer when a coughing fit struck him. His coughs sounded even worse. Hyroc winced as he caught a whiff of the strange, unnerving scent he had been smelling on Marcus ever since he had gotten sick. The scent seemed much stronger now, and Hyroc could barely keep himself from coughing on it. That smell was worrying him. It made him feel like something was wrong, something the healer wasn’t seeing. He forced the feeling aside. Marcus wouldn’t be saying he felt better if he didn’t feel better. The person who was sick could tell the most about such things.
Sparing a look in Hyroc’s direction, the healer took a cup of water from the table and held it up to Marcus’ mouth. Marcus took a drink, and his fit subsided.
“Your fever seems to have gone down,” the healer said, replacing the cup on the table.
Marcus nodded. “That’s good,” he said weakly. Marcus looked toward Hyroc. ”You hear that we still might be able to get in one more hunt before the season ends.” Hyroc smiled gratefully. It seemed his next weekend wouldn’t be boring as he had feared. “Now, get yourself ready for the day. Just because I’m still sick doesn’t mean you can skip out on your schoolwork.” Hyroc sighed and turned away to start getting himself ready.
“How’s your dad?” Thomas said at breakfast.
“He’s doing better,” Hyroc replied. “The healer says his fever has gone down.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?”
Hyroc nodded. He paused a moment, uncertain if he wanted to say more. “But his cough sounds worse.”
“I’m sure he’s fine. The healer would know if he’s not getting better.”
Hyroc gave him a thankful look, but his friend’s reassurance did not seem to make him feel any better. He still couldn’t shake the feeling something was very wrong this morning.
In his first and most disliked class of the day, he seemed incapable of focusing on the lesson more so than usual. His thoughts kept drifting back to Marcus. It seemed the only thing that mattered to him today. He sat at his desk staring out the window as raindrops plinked against the glass. He got a start when something smacked down hard on his hand. Wrenching his hand back from the pain of the strike, he found Miss Duncan standing in front of his desk with a willow rod in hand and a wrathful expression on her face. Hyroc now had a vague recollection of someone saying something to him. He realized with dismay that someone was probably Miss Duncan asking him a question about the lesson. Ignoring her questions was sure to incur a swat from her rod and often resulted in a more unpleasant lesson for him.
“Was I boring you?” Miss Duncan said crossly.
“No, no ma’am,” Hyroc said quickly. He had an urge to explain he had been thinking about Marcus but refrained from doing so as Miss Duncan would likely think he was lying to her, resulting in him receiving additional punishment. It would just be better to take whatever discipline she dished out.
She smiled derisively. “No? There must be something outside more deserving of your attention than my lesson.”
“No, ma’am, just rain. I – I was thinking.”
“Oh, you were thinking. That’s something very important to do. Were you by chance thinking about the consequences of your actions?”
Hyroc repressed a grimace. “No, ma’am.”
“Hold out your hand.” With a slight tip of her head, she indicated his hand she had already hit. Hyroc unwillingly held his hand out, bracing himself for imminent pain. Miss Duncan struck him in the hand with the willow rod. Hyroc’s hand stung, but he did his best to keep his expression impassive.
“Since the rain was so much more interesting, you will spend the remainder of class standing at the window. That should give you plenty of time to think.”
Hyroc breathed a silent sigh as he got up from his desk and walked over to the window. Compared to the willow rod, looking out a window wasn’t bad at all. He leaned forward, resting one of his elbows on the sill. A swift smack on his rear made him stand straight.
“And don’t slouch,” Miss Duncan said sharply.
He gazed absentmindedly at the streaks of rain running down the window. Miss Duncan’s voice sounded in the background, but she sounded far away as his thoughts drifted back to Marcus. It felt as if there was something he needed to be doing, but he couldn’t think of a single thing. Why did everything feel so wrong? Both Marcus and the healer seemed confident the sickness was going away. Marcus’ fever had gone down; that was a good thing. Why should a good thing make him feel like something was wrong? It wasn’t as if Witch Hunters were involved here. Maybe he was just worried about Marcus. There wasn’t anything wrong with that. Marcus was sick. It seemed like a normal thing to be worried about when the man was so uncomfortable. Still, it felt like he could do something he wasn’t doing, something much more important than schoolwork. And more important than this window.
Through the downpour, he picked out the dark shape of one of the trees on the grounds. As he studied its outline, his thoughts turned toward the apple tree. An idea slowly crept into his mind. The last time he had been near the tree, he remembered seeing it still held a single apple. He could give it to Marcus. There was no doubt Marcus would be grateful for the gift, especially after some of the foods full of unpleasant smelling herbs he had been eating. A sweet apple would be a welcome relief.
The only problem was the rain. Hyroc didn’t mind going through the discomfort of getting soaked by the cold rain to do something for Marcus, but he would get into a lot of trouble for walking through the halls sopping wet. He turned his gaze toward the clouds. The sky overhead was dark, flanked by a lighter patch of clouds. There seemed a chance the rain could stop by the time his lunch break came.
He then spent the rest of his time at the window mentally going through his plan. His hopes began to dwindle as his class ended, and the rain still showed no signs of stopping. Then as he finished eating lunch, the rains slowed to a sprinkle. Fearing the reprieve would only last mere minutes, Hyroc rushed outside, dashing across the soggy grass over to the apple tree. He was relieved to see the apple still hanging from its branch. After kicking off his shoes and stuffing his socks inside them to keep them dry, he began climbing the tree. With the bark still slippery from the rain, he gripped the trunk a lot harder than usual. The base of his claws hurt, but pushing through the pain; he continued his ascent. When he reached his designated branch, his arms burned from the exertion, and the base of his claws ached. He stuck the apple in his pocket and started back down. The pain was now worse on his foot claws. Gritting his teeth, he descended, fueled by the knowledge he was doing this for Marcus. About a third of the way from the bottom, one of his feet slipped, sending him plummeting to the bottom. He gasped as his tailbone smacked one of the waiting roots at the base of the tree. Glowering, he got to his feet. His tailbone throbbed, but it didn’t seem broken. He sighed with relief. Breaking his tailbone would not have accomplished anything useful. Marcus would not have wanted him hurting himself just to give him an apple.
Hyroc was a few steps from the door when the rain broke back into a downpour. Luckily, he was back inside before he could get wet enough for anybody to notice. Smiling, he made his way to Marcus’ office. The door to the sleeping quarter was closed, and the muffled sound of voices was emanating through it. Hyroc pulled out the apple and shined it with his shirt. When he was satisfied with its appearance, he pushed the sleeping quarter’s door open.
He held the apple out in front of him as he spoke. “Marcus, I –” he stopped talking abruptly, and his eyes widened with horror. The healer sat on a stool beside Marcus’ bed with a blood covered knife in one hand. In the healer’s other hand, he held a bowl and caught blood running down Marcus’ arm from two thin slices in his skin. June stood nearby with a concerned look on her face as she watched.
“What are you doing?” Hyroc yelled out. June, the healer, and Marcus stared at Hyroc in astonishment.
“You shouldn’t be in here,” June said as she rushed over to him. She grabbed him by the arm and pulled him out of the room, closing the door behind her.
Hyroc fought to push past her back into the room, but she prevented him from doing so. “He’s hurting him!” Hyroc called out.
“Hyroc, stop,” she said sternly. “He is not hurting him.”
Hyroc stopped struggling and gave her a baffled look. If anything qualified as hurting someone, slicing into them with a knife should. “He’s cutting Marcus!” June nodded calmly, which only furthered his puzzlement. It seemed crazy she should be fine with what the healer was doing.
“You remember the leeches you saw the healer using yesterday?”
“Well, what the healer is doing now is sort of like what he was doing with the leeches. He’s making a few little cuts in Marcus’ arm so he can help thin out some of the bad blood that’s making Marcus sick.”
“Why can’t the healer just use the leeches? They don’t hurt when they bite.”
She sighed uncertainly. “The healer was worried that using too many leeches could make Marcus’ condition even worse, and since they weren’t working, he’s letting the blood out himself.”
Hyroc stared at her thoughtfully a moment before speaking. “But he’s getting better?”
June glanced toward the door. “The healer believes he is, so yes.” Hyroc breathed a sigh of relief. It didn’t make sense to him how cutting someone could help cure sickness, but the healer wouldn’t be doing it unless it worked. “Why did you come in there in the first place?” She looked at the apple in his hand.
Hyroc smiled and held the apple out. “I wanted to give Marcus an apple. I thought he would like something nice like this after all the nasty food he’s been eating.”
June returned his smile. “That’s very thoughtful of you.” She picked the apple up. “I’ll make sure he gets it.” Hyroc nodded happily. “Now off you go. Lunch is almost over.” Hyroc turned and headed out the door.
The strange feeling of wrongness vanished as he walked through the hall, and without its distraction, he found himself strangely focused on his schoolwork during his next class. He was so much so; he managed to finish copying his scroll before any of the other students had. After making sure he had done all his assignment, he handed it to the teacher. Looking somewhat surprised, the teacher took his work and began going over it.
“Very good,” the teacher said. Hyroc nodded his thanks and moved back toward his seat at the table. “Hold up.” Hyroc sighed, turning to the teacher. It seemed too good to be true for him to get through his work so fast without doing something wrong. “Since you got your work done early and will be sitting there with nothing to do, I’ve got something for you.” The teacher walked behind his desk with Hyroc following. From a drawer, the teacher removed a small piece of parchment with writing scrawled across it. “One of the cooks down in the kitchen needs this recipe for rhubarb pie,” the teacher said, holding the parchment out to Hyroc. “Take it to them.” Hyroc nodded. The teacher grabbed his shoulder as he turned to leave. “And if tomorrow I learn it never got there, then you will be in for a world of trouble. Got it?” Hyroc nodded again. He had no intentions of disobedience. “Good.” The teacher released his shoulder, letting him leave. Hyroc made his way straight to the kitchen.
Within, he found two of the kitchen staff preparing a stew for the school’s dinner. One was chopping vegetables on a long counter near the door while the other was busy stirring a steaming pot.
“Good afternoon, Hyroc,” the woman at the counter said with a smile.
She was an older woman with thin streaks of white running through her silver hair. The two of them had gotten to know a little about each other when Hyroc had begun bringing the ducks Marcus, and he had downed during their hunts. At first, she had treated him with the same mistrust everyone else at the school had, but for some reason, she hadn’t done that for long. She had started having conversations with him about how his trips had gone, and she kindly spoke whenever she did so. Then to make his kitchen deliveries even better, she occasionally slipped him a honey pastry when nobody was looking. He had actually found himself looking forward to coming to school on those days because of her.
“How’s my favorite fuzzball doing today? We haven’t seen you in here for a while. Have those fowl been giving you trouble?”
Hyroc shook his head. “No, Marcus has been sick, and we haven’t been able to go to the pond ever since.”
She nodded sympathetically. “I heard about that. How’s he doing?”
“The healer says he’s doing better.”
“Well, that’s good to hear.” Hyroc nodded in agreement. “Did the healer have to use leeches? I saw him bringing in a jar full of them the other morning.”
She shook her head. “Disgusting creatures those are. How they can help anybody is beyond me.”
“I don’t understand either,” Hyroc said in agreement. “And earlier, I was bringing Marcus an apple from the apple tree –” he paused “– and the healer was cutting him.”
She gave him a look of surprise. “Really?” He nodded. “Bloodletting, that’s something else I’ll never understand.” A long pause passed between them. “So, what have you got there?”
Hyroc stared at her blankly a moment before he remembered why he had been sent to the kitchen in the first place. He held the piece of parchment out to her as he spoke. “My scribing teacher told me to bring this to the kitchen.”
She accepted the parchment and gave it a quick look over. “Oh yes, his recipe for rhubarb pie. I’ve been dying to try making this.”
Hyroc gave her a questioning look. “You can make rhubarb into a pie?”
“Apparently so. Thank you love.”
She glanced warily at the other cook who had their back to them. She snatched a warm honey pastry off a nearby table and held it out to Hyroc. She winked as he took it from her.
“Now off with you. I don’t want to make you late for class with my gabbing.”
Hyroc nodded happily before making his way out of the kitchen and heading toward his arithmetic class. Unlike what had happened with his work in the scribing class, he felt no urge to complete his assignment. He wondered how adding up the prices of imaginary bags of grain could teach him anything. With a shrug, he began slogging through his work. Near the end of class, when he was close to finishing his assignment, June entered the room. She wore a grave expression on her face. She glanced toward Hyroc, and the look in her eyes told him something was very wrong. The teacher got up from his desk and made his way over to her. They talked quietly to one another. The teacher shook his head unhappily and used his hand to gesture toward Hyroc.
“What’s wrong,” Hyroc said, fear seeping into his voice as he stood.
She shook her head, tears glazing in her eyes. “Just – just come with me.” She put her hand on his shoulder and guided him out of the room and to Marcus’ office.
Marcus was lying in his bed with the healer standing over him. Marcus was paler than he was earlier, with dark, exhausted eyes, and his whole appearance radiated a complete lack of strength. When he saw Hyroc entering the room with June, he dismissed the healer. The man had a gloomy resigned look in his eyes as he left. Marcus motioned for Hyroc to come closer and Hyroc did so without hesitation.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” Marcus said in a frighteningly weak gravelly voice. “Hyroc, I’m very sick.” A knot formed in Hyroc’s stomach at the words, and he felt the chill of dread run across his body.
“But you’re going to be all right?” Hyroc said tentatively.
Marcus shrugged. “I wish I could say that; I’m dying.” Marcus began coughing.
“Don’t say that,” Hyroc pleaded, tears starting to run down his face, darkening the fur below his eyes. “The healer said you were getting better and your fever had gone down and – and – and that we could go duck hunting next week.”
“Healers don’t always know what will happen. He truly thought I was going to be fine and did everything in his power to ensure that. But when a man’s end draws near, he can feel it, and I feel mine approaching. I’m sorry I have to leave you.” He coughed as he finished speaking.
“I don’t want you to leave. You have to stay. I want you to stay. Please, stay.”
“Hyroc, I wish more than anything in the world that I could have more time with you. But I’m afraid fate has decided against my wishes.”
“No, don’t say that.”
“June’s going to take good care of you. You may not have been of my blood, but I still loved you as a son. Hold out your necklace.” With a sniffle, Hyroc slowly pulled off his necklace. His body didn’t seem to want to move. “Look at the back of the medallion.” Hyroc turned the medallion over. Intricately etched into the metal was the name Foxclaw above a badger, a fox, and a claw symbol. “From what I’ve been able to figure, that is your true family’s name, Foxclaw. From now on, I want you to use it as your last name instead of Burk, my last name.” Hyroc somberly nodded his agreement then slipped the necklace back around his neck.
“Others may fear you, but never let their fear drive you into despair or hatred. Constantly strive to show them their fear is needless. Never forget only you can decide if you are good or if you are evil no matter what others say or how they treat you. You are the master of your fate. One day you will find the answers I was unable to give you.” Marcus lifted his hand and wiped away the tears running down Hyroc’s face. “I deeply cherished every moment I spent with you. I would have very much liked to have seen you grow up as would have your mother.” Marcus smiled. “She loved you more than life itself.” A deep sadness seeped into his expression. It was an expression of regret. Regret for not doing more and trying harder to find answers. “I’m so sorry I didn’t do more.” Tears began welling up in Marcus’ eyes. “There were so many things I should have done, and I regret not having done them. I hope you can forgive me for that one day.”
Hyroc gave him a sad smile. There wasn’t anything to forgive. He knew Marcus was trying. “You took me duck hunting.”
Marcus smiled weakly as his eyes began to close. “And a fine hunter you became. There is always light in the dark.” Marcus’ eyes closed. His chest rose and fell with one final ragged breath.
A torrent of hot tears began pouring out of the corners of Hyroc’s eyes. “No,” Hyroc cried out, burying his head in the bed blanket. “No.” He felt June’s hand settle on his shoulder.
“He’s gone,” she said in a sorrowful but gentle tone.
“No.” Hyroc cried out, turning and burying his head into the folds of her dress. June held him, trying her best to soothe him, but there was no comfort here. Hyroc knew he was now more alone than he had ever been.