Authors: Jonathan Rogers
Â© 2005 by Jonathan Rogers
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America
Published by Broadman & Holman Publishers,
Dewey Decimal Classification: F
Subject Headings: ADVENTURE FICTION
Interior illustrations by Greg Pope
Map by Kristi Smith and Greg Pope
For Heyward, Henry, Lawrence,
Margaret, William, and Betsy,
the original wee-feechies
He's making for the canebrake!” Aidan shouted over the thunder of horses' hooves. Both he and Prince Steren heaved their spears, but the quarry was too far away. The great boar hog slashed his way between wrist-thick stalks of river cane, and his black, bristling mass vanished into the blackness of the canebrake.
Aidan and Steren reined up at the verge of the thicket and pulled their spears out of the spongy ground. “I'll drive him through the cane on the Bear Trail,” said Aidan. He knew he had no chance of spearing the boar amid the close-set cane stalks, especially without the boar dogs. But if he could drive the big hog through the brake to the trail along the river's edge, they might get him yet. Aidan gestured toward the south with his spearpoint. “You circle around the canebrake,” he ordered, “and come back up the River Trail. I'll try to steer him right into you.”
Steren clucked once to his hunting horse and bolted down the edge of the canebrake. Steren was crown prince of Corenwald, the only son of King Darrow. But there was no question about it: When he and Aidan were in the forest, Aidan was in charge.
Aidan nudged his own horse, and they plunged into the narrow gap where the boar had entered the canebrake. Horse and rider crashed down the twisting trail that bears and wildcats used to cut through the vast canebrake to the River Tam. It seemed more tunnel than trail. On either side, cane stalks stood just inches apart, and a foot or so above Aidan's head, their leafy tops closed together in a thick canopy that filtered most of the morning sunlight.
Leaves and wiry branches slapped at Aidan's face on either side as he followed the sound of the boar hog's grunts and the pounding of his sharp hooves. A ropy spider web, stretching across the trail like a birder's net, enfolded Aidan's head and neck in a sticky gauze. He plucked the meaty spider from his hair, wiped his eyes and mouth free of spider web, and kept charging, driving the hog to the other side of the thicket.
Aidan wasn't far behind his quarry. He was close enough to hear the hog but not close enough to see him. Hard though he pressed the chase, he didn't actually want to catch the hogâat least not in the depths of the canebrake. He hardly had room to turn around, much less maneuver a long hunting spear. The hog, on the other hand, was cut out for that kind of close work. He would have more than enough room to use his curving, finger-length tusks to vicious effect.
If the boar had realized he was being pursued by a single fifteen-year-old boy, surely he would have turned and showed tusk rather than tail. But Aidan used a trick he learned from old Lord Cuthbert to make sure he sounded like more than a single hunter. He dragged the butt of his spear along the bamboo stalks as he galloped down the trail, setting up a clatter that sounded like a hundred hunters storming through the brake.
Aidan added to the confusion with a series of feechie battle yells:
The boar never slowed and never looked back at his pursuer. Terrified by the sounds of the pursuit, he was running harder than ever when he burst out of the canebrake and into the clearing of the River Trail. Aidan's horse emerged twenty strides behind, just in time to see the boar's black rump disappear around the first bend to the north. Prince Steren was nowhere to be seen; he hadn't had nearly enough time to make the wide circuit around the canebrake. And he would be coming from the south. Aidan had not succeeded in driving the hog in Steren's direction the way he had hoped. He clucked to his hard-breathing horse and directed it northward, upstream, in the slim hope that he might be able to overtake the hog before he disappeared into the swamp.
But just as the horse began to lunge forward, a shadow dropped from the limbs of the water oak above Aidan's head. Aidan felt his horse shudder as something lit on its haunches, just behind the saddle skirt. Aidan felt a clammy hand on the nape of his neck, another on
his shoulder. The hairs on Aidan's neck prickled at the hot, swampy breath of his attacker. Shocked and frightened, Aidan instinctively swung his elbows behind him, first one then the other, in an effort to knock the shadowy figure to the ground. But the attacker was as agile as a squirrel and easily jumped clear of Aidan's swinging elbows.
Meanwhile, the terrified horse wheeled and bucked to shake free of this second rider. Aidan flew from the saddle and into the sparkleberry bushes that lined the trail. He scrambled for his spear, ducking away from the flying hooves of the horse, which still cavorted and kicked in panic. Aidan backed away to safety and crouched defensively with his hunting spear outthrust.
His attacker, Aidan could now see, was a bare-chested heâfeechie, more or less full-grown, in a snakeskin kilt and tortoiseshell helmet. He was doing a ridiculous loose-limbed jig on the horse's back, while it reared, bucked, and whirled. Even when the horse threw the gray-skinned feechie into the air, he somehow managed to regain his footing on the horse's back. The poor horse had a better chance of bucking off a tick.
Then the feechie leaped from the saddle horn, turned a perfect flip, and landed flat-footed in the sand just a stride or two from Aidan's spearpoint.
“Is that how a civilizer howdies an old friend?” asked the feechie, pushing back his helmet and breaking into a greenish, gap-toothed grin. “Poking a cold-shiny jobber stick right in his face?”
Overjoyed, Aidan dropped his spear and opened his arms wide to receive his long-lost friend. “Dobro Turtlebane!” he shouted. “I'd know that smell anywhere!”
Dobro stepped forward as if to embrace Aidan, but he head-butted him instead, then flipped him over his shoulder onto the sandy trail. Dobro pounced on Aidan, meaning to pin him. But the cooks at Tambluff Castle had fed Aidan well in the three years since Dobro had last seen him, and the civilizer had grown strong and big. He easily threw the wiry feechie clear into the bushes.
Rubbing his forehead but grinning nevertheless, Aidan got up to hoist Dobro out of the bushes. But Dobro was nowhere to be found. He had done his old feechie trick. He disappeared, just as he had disappeared three years earlier after they killed the panther in the bottom pasture.
“Dobro!” shouted Aidan. “Dobro! Where have you gotten off to?” But there was no answer. Aidan poked in the bushes with his foot but with no success. Perplexed, he wandered back into the trail to get a wider view.
That's when Dobro dropped from an overhanging tree limb onto Aidan's back. He gripped Aidan in a bear-like headlock. “This here's how feechiefolks says howdy,” Dobro laughed.
Aidan's head felt as if it would burst, but he couldn't help laughing, too, from joy and surprise at this unexpected reunion with Dobro. He soon realized he would never pry Dobro's sinewy arms loose, so he dropped onto his back, flattening the scrappy feechie
under him. That loosened Dobro's grip just enough for Aidan to escape, and the two friendly combatants rolled on the sandy trail, each trying to pin the other.
Aidan and Dobro were so focused on their rough reunion that they didn't pay attention when Prince Steren reined up beside them and leaped from his horse, spear flashing. Steren was fiercely loyal to Aidan, his best friend in the world. He would never stand idly by and watch Aidan fight off an attack by this â¦ this â¦ gray-skinned monster or whatever it was.
Steren pointed his spear at the twisting, struggling mass. “Cease!” he shouted, trying to sound as royal and commanding as he could. Startled and still locked in a clench, Aidan and Dobro looked up. Steren brought the spearpoint closer to Dobro. He trembled a little at the fierce glint in the feechie's eye, but he spoke bravely. “I don't know who you areâor what you are. But if you don't unhand my friend, I'll stick this spearpoint right between your ribs.”
Dobro sighed in disgust at his own negligence. He could kick himself for letting another civilizer see him. If his mama found out about this, he'd be in deep trouble again. He did as Steren commanded and removed his hands from around Aidan's neck, fixing the prince with a piercing, almost hypnotic glare.
Then, before Steren knew what was happening, Dobro's left hand darted out like a striking rattlesnake and grabbed the spear shaft. With a quick twisting motion he wrenched the spear from Steren's hands, whirled it in a wide-looping circle, and thumped the
prince on the head with the butt of the handle. Steren staggered back a step, more astonished than hurt by Dobro's feat of strength and agility.
“You civilizers is the stick-jobbinest bunch I ever seen,” observed Dobro. “It ain't good manners.” He ran a finger along the steel spearhead. “You could hurt somebody with this cold-shiny thing.”
Aidan was laughing now. “Who'd have thought the crown prince of Corenwald would get a lesson in courtesy from a feechie? Steren, meet Dobro Turtlebane. Dobro, this is Steren Darrowson, son of the king.”
For a moment, Steren had gone surly, annoyed at Aidan for laughing at him after he had so bravely intervened on his behalf. But at the mention of the word
he stared bug-eyed at Dobro as if he were seeing an elf or a unicorn.
“Well, I reckon any friend of Aidan's is my friend,” said Dobro, “whatever his manners is like.”
He stepped forward to offer Steren a friendly head-butt, but Aidan stepped between. “Steren's head is sore enough, I imagine,” said Aidan.
Steren stood open-mouthed, still staring at Dobro. “I thought feechiefolk were made up,” he said. “Just in stories.”
Dobro was offended. “Made up? I'm as real as you are, brother!” He held out his hand as evidence. “Here, poke me. See, ain't I real?”
Steren reached out a finger and gingerly touched the back of Dobro's muddy hand.
It suddenly occurred to Dobro that he had said too much. Keeping civilizers ignorant of feechie waysâof
feechies' very existenceâwas a cornerstone of the Feechie Code. “If it's all the same to you,” said Dobro in a confidential tone, “let's keep this between us. Things work out better for us feechies when civilizers don't believe in us.”
Steren nodded slowly, blankly. He wasn't likely to tell anyone about this meeting in any case. Nobody would believe him; everyone would probably think he was crazy.
“Truth is,” Aidan explained, “Corenwald is crawling with feechiefolk.”
Steren looked doubtful. “Then why haven't I ever seen one before now?”
“Because we're sneaky rascals,” explained Dobro. “We stay in treetops and under the water when there's civilizers around.”
“And they usually stay away from the civilized parts of the island anyway,” added Aidan.
“We run things around the Feechiefen Swamp,” said Dobro. “Then there's the hill feechies up north, the beach feechies on the east edge of the island. There's a pretty big band of feechiefolks lives in the Eechihoolee Marshes, down below the plain you call Bonifay. And the scouts go up and down the rivers all over the island, keeping an eye on things.
“If it makes you feel any better,” Dobro said to Steren, who still looked skeptical, “there's plenty of feechiefolks don't believe civilizers is real either.”
“So, Dobro, why aren't you at Feechiefen?” asked Aidan.
“Feechiefen's a nice place,” said Dobro, “but I get itchy to see other things. I used to go to that meadow where you and me kilt that panther, but I given up on you.”
Steren was growing more astonished by the minute. He had heard that Aidan killed a panther with a stone sling, but he had no idea a feechie had been involved.
“I don't live there anymore,” said Aidan. “I live at the castle with King Darrow and Prince Steren here. I never knew how to get back in touch with you.”
Dobro shrugged at this explanation. “Anyway, I was collecting eggs at the buzzard rookery, upriver from here. And I got so lonesome for my mama that I headed down the river right that minute. I was passing through this neighborhood when I heard a âhaaweee' over in the canebrake. I moseyed over to join the fun, and a big old boar hog come crashing out of the cane. But it weren't a feechie hot after him. It was Aidan of the Tam. So I thought I'd say howdy.”
“Which reminds me,” said Aidan. “Your howdy cost me the biggest boar I've ever seen in these woods. We'll never catch him now.”
“Aw, that hog ain't gone far,” said Dobro.
Steren's astonishment was giving way again to peevishness, even jealousy at Aidan's friendship with this wild boy. “How do you know where the hog went?” he said.
“Boy,” Dobro retorted, “I've forgotten more about swamp hogs than a civilizer will ever know. I know most of the hogs in this forest by first and last name.”
Steren looked dubiously at the feechie, not sure whether to take that literally or not.
“If you was running that boar hog,” Dobro continued, “I guarantee he's in the swamp cooling off. And I guarantee I know where.” He pointed upstream. “There's a hog wallow not a quarter league up this way. He's laying under a gum tree in the greenbog just as sure as I'm standing here.”