The Way of the Wilderking

Jonathan Rogers

The Wilderking Chant When fear of God has left the land,

To be replaced by fear of man;

When Corenwalders free and true

Enslave themselves and others too;

When justice and mercy disappear,

When life is cheap and gold is dear,

When freedom’s flame has burned to ember

And Corenwalders can’t remember

What are truths and what are lies,

Then will the Wilderking arise.

To the palace he comes from forests and swamps.

Watch for the Wilderking!

Leading his troops of wild men and brutes.

Watch for the Wilderking!

He will silence the braggart, ennoble the coward.

Watch for the Wilderking!

Justice will roll, and mercy will toll.

Watch for the Wilderking!

He will guard his dear lambs with the staff of his hand.

Watch for the Wilderking!

With a stone he shall quell the panther fell.

Watch for the Wilderking!

Watch for the Wilderking, widows and orphans.

Look to the swamplands, ye misfit, ye outcast.

From the land’s wildest places a wild man will come

To give the land back to her people.

Chapter One

Intruder in the Swamp

A civilizer captured in the Feechiefen. More civilizers on the way with cold-shiny spears and swords and axes and saws. The swamp was abuzz with rumors of new civilizer trouble. When the news reached Bug Neck, Dobro Turtlebane and Aidan Errolson-or Pantherbane, as the feechies knew him-left immediately. They poled all night for Scoggin Mound, where Chief Tombro’s feechies held the captured civilizer.

The chill of morning was still on the air when Aidan caught his first glimpse of the towering spruce pines of Scoggin Mound. Well before they could see the island itself, the high, nasally shouts and squeals of a dozen excited wee-feechies carried across the black water to the ears of the two flatboaters.

Then, above the wee-feechies’ shrill racket echoed a deeper, prolonged scream-a scream of fear and helplessness. It couldn’t have come from a feechie.

It had been three years since Aidan had heard the voice of another civilizer. It had been that long since Aidan had fled the dangers of his civilized life and taken to the swamp to live the life of a feechie. Three years since he had worn anything besides his snakeskin kilt and the panther cape to which he owed his feechie name. Three years since he had eaten from a plate or ridden a horse or been inside a building. With his face and hands daubed with swamp mud, his matted hair draping almost to his shoulders, he hardly looked like a civilizer. He himself had almost forgotten what he was. But something about that throaty howl of human terror-so out of place in the Feechiefen- brought Aidan back to a world he had almost left completely.

With brisker strokes Aidan and Dobro poled for Scoggin Mound. The civilizer’s shouts grew even more desperate. “Help me!” he wailed. “Help!” It was a prayer of desperation. And Aidan somehow knew he was the answer to the civilizer’s prayer.

The flatboat had scarcely grounded itself before Aidan and Dobro leaped nimbly onto the white sand of the landing at Scoggin Mound. Aidan and Dobro hadn’t spoken a word to one another since they first heard the shouts of the wee-feechies, and they didn’t speak now as they pounded down the trail toward the ruckus.

When Aidan and Dobro crashed through the palmetto and into the clearing, there was already so much commotion that nobody noticed them. It took Aidan a few moments to understand what was going on. A tight knot of wee-feechies was gathered beneath a moss-hung oak tree, arranged in a half circle with their backs to Aidan and Dobro. Though they could hear the civilizer well enough, all Aidan and Dobro could see of him was his boots and black leggings, dangling above the wee-feechies’ heads and suspended upside down by a vine rope looped over a branch. A cluster of wee-feechies at the other end of the vine rope raised or lowered their captive by pulling or giving slack.

The screaming of the civilizer was more or less constant, but it grew louder when his tormentors lowered him and less urgent as they raised him. Aidan understood why when he took a step closer. The weefeechies were gathered around an alligator they had rustled from the swamp-a hungry one by the look of things. It lunged and snapped at the civilizer every time the wee-feechies lowered him, and though the alligator hadn’t caught its dinner yet, it wasn’t missing by much.

When Dobro understood what the wee-feechies were up to, he was impressed with their ingenuity. “Heh, heh,” he chuckled. “Them’s some clever rascals.” But when he noticed the grim look on Aidan’s face, he quickly changed his tune. “Hey, you bumptious scapers!” he yelled at the wee-feechies. “You barbous stinkers, you criminals, you rowdies! Leave that civilizer alone.”

“Ooik!” shouted one of the wee-feechies. “It’s Pantherbane and Dobro!”

The youngsters scattered, howling with frustration and disappointment. “I don’t never get any fun!” one of them complained.

“What I’m supposed to feed my alligator now?” asked another, to nobody in particular.

The wee-feechies who held the rope scattered, too, and when they did, their civilizer thudded to the ground, almost on top of the alligator. Though bound hand and foot, the poor civilizer managed to roll away from the alligator’s first lunge. Before it could make a second, Aidan ran up its back and held its jaws shut.

Dobro, meanwhile, was cutting through the vines that tied the civilizer’s feet and hands. While he was getting the powerful reptile under control, Aidan could hear Dobro talking to the civilizer.

“You know how younguns is,” Dobro was saying. “Always wanting to frolic, always getting into some mischief or other.” From the way the civilizer’s back was heaving, it appeared he was still gasping for air; in any case, he wasn’t answering Dobro. But Dobro didn’t seem to notice. “If my remembrance don’t mistake me,” he continued, “a passel of wee-feechies set old Aunt Seku on Aidan here the first time he come to Scoggin Mound. She ’bout skewered him on the spot.”

The civilizer looked over his shoulder at the young man astride the alligator. “Aidan?” the civilizer asked. He nodded in Aidan’s direction. “His name’s Aidan?”

Aidan was concentrating on the task at hand, but when he heard his name spoken, he looked into the civilizer’s face for the first time. His mouth dropped open in astonishment. “Percy!” he shouted, at last recognizing

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