We’re thrilled that J.K. Rowling has released 4 more chapters of her new children’s fairytale, The Ickabog! She’ll be releasing a new installment every weekday through July, and we’re already counting down the hours until tomorrow. We’ve loved reading it so much that we’ve started re-reading Harry Potter!
Remember to post your children’s artwork on Twitter with the hashtag #TheIckabog for a chance for their artwork to be featured in the published book coming in November.
We won’t keep you any longer… chapters 14-17 are below!
14. Lord Spittleworth’s Plan
When the fog cleared at last, it revealed a very different party of men to those who’d arrived at the edge of the marsh an hour earlier.
Quite apart from their shock at the sudden death of Major Beamish, a few of the Royal Guard were confused by the explanation they’d been given. Here were the two lords, the king and the hastily promoted Major Roach, all swearing that they’d come face-to-face with a monster that all but the most foolish had dismissed for years as a fairy tale. Could it really be true that beneath the tightly wrapped cloaks, Beamish’s body bore the tooth and claw marks of the Ickabog?
‘Are you calling me a liar?’ Major Roach growled into the face of a young private.
‘Are you calling the king a liar?’ barked Lord Flapoon.
The private didn’t dare question the word of the king, so he shook his head. Captain Goodfellow, who’d been a particular friend of Major Beamish’s, said nothing. However, there was such an angry and suspicious look on Goodfellow’s face that Roach ordered him to go and pitch the tents on the most solid bit of ground he could find, and be quick about it, because the dangerous fog might yet return.
In spite of the fact that he had a straw mattress, and that blankets were taken from the soldiers to ensure his comfort, King Fred had never spent a more unpleasant night. He was tired, dirty, wet, and, above all, frightened.
‘What if the Ickabog comes looking for us, Spittleworth?’ the king whispered in the dark. ‘What if it tracks us by our scent? It’s already had a taste of poor Beamish. What if it comes looking for the rest of the body?’
Spittleworth attempted to soothe the king.
‘Do not fear, Your Majesty, Roach has ordered Captain Goodfellow to keep watch outside your tent. Whoever else gets eaten, you will be the last.’
It was too dark for the king to see Spittleworth grinning. Far from wanting to reassure the king, Spittleworth hoped to fan the king’s fears. His entire plan rested on a king who not only believed in an Ickabog, but who was scared it might leave the marsh to chase him.
The following morning, the king’s party set off back to Jeroboam. Spittleworth had sent a message ahead to tell the Mayor of Jeroboam that there had been a nasty accident at the marsh, so the king didn’t want any trumpets or corks greeting him. Thus, when the king’s party arrived, the city was silent. Townsfolk pressing their faces to their windows, or peeking around their doors, were shocked to see the king so dirty and miserable, but not nearly as shocked as they were to see a body wrapped in cloaks, tied to Major Beamish’s steel-grey horse.
When they reached the inn, Spittleworth took the landlord aside.
‘We require some cold, secure place, perhaps a cellar, where we can store a body for the night, and I shall need to keep the key myself.’
‘What happened, my lord?’ asked the innkeeper, as Roach carried Beamish down the stone steps into the cellar.
‘I shall tell you the truth, my good man, seeing as you have looked after us so well, but it must go no further,’ said Spittleworth in a low, serious voice. ‘The Ickabog is real and has savagely killed one of our men. You understand, I’m sure, why this must not be widely broadcast. There would be instant panic. The king is returning with all speed to the palace, where he and his advisors – myself, of course, included – will begin work at once on a set of measures to secure our country’s safety.’
‘The Ickabog? Real?’ said the landlord, in astonishment and fear.
‘Real and vengeful and vicious,’ said Spittleworth. ‘But, as I say, this must go no further. Widespread alarm will benefit nobody.’
In fact, widespread alarm was precisely what Spittleworth wanted, because it was essential for the next phase of his plan. Just as he’d expected, the landlord waited only until his guests had gone to bed, then rushed to tell his wife, who ran to tell the neighbours, and by the time the king’s party set off for Kurdsburg the following morning, they left behind them a city where panic was fermenting as busily as the wine.
Spittleworth sent a message ahead to Kurdsburg, warning the cheesemaking city not to make a fuss of the king either, so it too was dark and silent when the royal party entered its streets. The faces at the windows were already scared. It so happened that a merchant from Jeroboam, with an especially fast horse, had carried the rumour about the Ickabog to Kurdsburg an hour previously.
Once again, Spittleworth requested the use of a cellar for Major Beamish’s body, and once again confided to the landlord that the Ickabog had killed one of the king’s men. Having seen Beamish’s body safely locked up, Spittleworth went upstairs to bed.
He was just rubbing ointment into the blisters on his bottom when he received an urgent summons to go and see the king. Smirking, Spittleworth pulled on his pantaloons, winked at Flapoon, who was enjoying a cheese and pickle sandwich, picked up his candle and proceeded along the corridor to King Fred’s room.
The king was huddled in bed wearing his silk nightcap, and as soon as Spittleworth closed the bedroom door, Fred said:
‘Spittleworth, I keep hearing whispers about the Ickabog. The stable boys were talking, and even the maid who just passed by my bedroom door. Why is this? How can they know what happened?’
‘Alas, Your Majesty,’ sighed Spittleworth, ‘I’d hoped to conceal the truth from you until we were safely back at the palace, but I should have known that Your Majesty is too shrewd to be fooled. Since we left the marsh, sire, the Ickabog has, as Your Majesty feared, become much more aggressive.’
‘Oh, no!’ whimpered the king.
‘I’m afraid so, sire. But after all, attacking it was bound to make it more dangerous.’
‘But who attacked it?’ said Fred.
‘Why, you did, Your Majesty,’ said Spittleworth. ‘Roach tells me your sword was embedded in the monster’s neck when it ran— I’m sorry, Your Majesty, did you speak?’
The king had, in fact, let out a sort of hum, but after a second or two, he shook his head. He’d considered correcting Spittleworth – he was sure he’d told the story differently – but his horrible experience in the fog sounded much better the way Spittleworth told it now: that he’d stood his ground and fought the Ickabog, rather than simply dropping his sword and running away.
‘But this is awful, Spittleworth,’ whispered the king. ‘What will become of us all, if the monster has become more ferocious?’
‘Never fear, Your Majesty,’ said Spittleworth, approaching the king’s bed, the candlelight illuminating his long nose and his cruel smile from below. ‘I intend to make it my life’s work to protect you and the kingdom from the Ickabog.’
‘Th-thank you, Spittleworth. You are a true friend,’ said the king, deeply moved, and he fumbled to extract a hand from the eiderdown, and clasped that of the cunning lord.
15. The King Returns
By the time the king set out for Chouxville the following morning, rumours that the Ickabog had killed a man had not only travelled over the bridge into Baronstown, they’d even trickled down to the capital, courtesy of a cluster of cheesemongers, who’d set out before dawn.
However, Chouxville was not only the furthest away from the northern marsh, it also held itself to be far better informed and educated than the other Cornucopian towns, so when the wave of panic reached the capital, it met an upswell of disbelief.
The city’s taverns and markets rang with excited arguments. Sceptics laughed at the preposterous idea of the Ickabog existing, while others said that people who’d never been to the Marshlands ought not to pretend to be experts.
The Ickabog rumours had gained a lot of colour as they travelled south. Some people said that the Ickabog had killed three men, others that it had merely torn off somebody’s nose.
In the City-Within-The-City, however, discussion was seasoned with a little pinch of anxiety. The wives, children and friends of the Royal Guard were worried about the soldiers, but they reassured each other that if any of the men had been killed, their families would have been informed by messenger. This was the comfort that Mrs Beamish gave Bert, when he came looking for her in the palace kitchens, having been scared by the rumours circulating among the schoolchildren.
‘The king would have told us if anything had happened to Daddy,’ she told Bert. ‘Here, now, I’ve got you a little treat.’
Mrs Beamish had prepared Hopes-of-Heaven for the king’s return, and she now gave one that wasn’t quite symmetrical to Bert. He gasped (because he only ever had Hopes-of-Heaven on his birthday), and bit into the little cake. At once, his eyes filled with happy tears, as paradise wafted up through the roof of his mouth and melted all his cares away. He thought excitedly of his father coming home in his smart uniform, and how he, Bert, would be centre of attention at school tomorrow, because he’d know exactly what had happened to the king’s men in the faraway Marshlands.
Dusk was settling over Chouxville when at last the king’s party rode into view. This time, Spittleworth hadn’t sent a messenger to tell people to stay inside. He wanted the king to feel the full force of Chouxville’s panic and fear when they saw His Majesty returning to his palace with the body of one of the Royal Guard.
The people of Chouxville saw the drawn, miserable faces of the returning men, and watched in silence as the party approached. Then they spotted the wrapped-up body slung over the steel-grey horse, and gasps spread through the crowd like flames. Up through the narrow cobbled streets of Chouxville the king’s party moved, and men removed their hats and women curtsied, and they hardly knew whether they were paying their respects to the king or the dead man.
Daisy Dovetail was one of the first to realise who was missing. Peering between the legs of grown-ups, she recognised Major Beamish’s horse. Instantly forgetting that she and Bert hadn’t talked to each other since their fight of the previous week, Daisy pulled free of her father’s hand and began to run, forcing her way through the crowds, her brown pigtails flying. She had to reach Bert before he saw the body on the horse. She had to warn him. But the people were so tightly packed that, fast as Daisy moved, she couldn’t keep pace with the horses.
Bert and Mrs Beamish, who were standing outside their cottage in the shadow of the palace walls, knew there was something wrong because of the crowd’s gasps. Although Mrs Beamish felt somewhat anxious, she was still sure that she was about to see her handsome husband, because the king would have sent word if he’d been hurt.
So when the procession rounded the corner, Mrs Beamish’s eyes slid from face to face, expecting to see the major’s. And when she realised that there were no more faces left, the colour drained slowly from her own. Then her gaze fell upon the body strapped to Major Beamish’s steel-grey horse, and, still holding Bert’s hand, she fainted clean away.
16. Bert Says Goodbye
Spittleworth noticed a commotion beside the palace walls and strained to see what was going on. When he spotted the woman on the ground, and heard the cries of shock and pity, he suddenly realised that he’d left a loose end that might yet trip him up: the widow! As he rode past the little knot of people in the crowd who were fanning Mrs Beamish’s face, Spittleworth knew that his longed-for bath must be postponed, and his crafty brain began to race again.
Once the king’s party was safely in the courtyard, and servants had hurried to assist Fred from his horse, Spittleworth pulled Major Roach aside.
‘The widow, Beamish’s widow!’ he muttered. ‘Why didn’t you send her word about his death?’
‘It never occurred to me, my lord,’ said Roach truthfully. He’d been too busy thinking about the jewelled sword all the way home: how best to sell it, and whether it would be better to break it up into pieces so that nobody recognised it.
‘Curse you, Roach, must I think of everything?’ snarled Spittleworth. ‘Go now, take Beamish’s body out of those filthy cloaks, cover it with a Cornucopian flag, and lay him out in the Blue Parlour. Put guards on the door and then bring Mrs Beamish to me in the Throne Room.
‘Also, give the order that these soldiers must not go home or talk to their families until I’ve spoken to them. It’s essential that we all tell the same story! Now hurry, fool, hurry – Beamish’s widow could ruin everything!’
Spittleworth pushed his way past soldiers and stable boys to where Flapoon was being lifted off his horse.
‘Keep the king away from the Throne Room and the Blue Parlour,’ Spittleworth whispered in Flapoon’s ear. ‘Encourage him to go to bed!’
Flapoon nodded and Spittleworth hurried away through the dimly lit palace corridors, casting off his dusty riding coat as he went, and bellowing at the servants to fetch him fresh clothes.
Once in the deserted Throne Room, Spittleworth pulled on his clean jacket, and ordered a maid to light a single lamp and bring him a glass of wine. Then he waited. At last, there came a knock on the door.
‘Enter!’ shouted Spittleworth, and in came Major Roach, accompanied by a white-faced Mrs Beamish, and young Bert.
‘My dear Mrs Beamish… my very dear Mrs Beamish,’ said Spittleworth, striding towards her and clasping her free hand. ‘The king has asked me to tell you how deeply sorry he is. I add my own condolences. What a tragedy… what an awful tragedy.’
‘W-why did nobody send word?’ sobbed Mrs Beamish. ‘W-why did we have to find out by seeing his poor – his poor body?’
She swayed a little, and Roach hurried to fetch a small golden chair. The maid, who was called Hetty, arrived with wine for Spittleworth, and while she was pouring it, Spittleworth said:
‘Dear lady, we did in fact send word. We sent a messenger – didn’t we, Roach?’
‘That’s right,’ said Roach. ‘We sent a young lad called…’
But here, Roach got stuck. He was a man of very little imagination.
‘Nobby,’ said Spittleworth, saying the first name that came into his head. ‘Little Nobby… Buttons,’ he added, because the flickering lamplight had just illuminated one of Roach’s golden buttons. ‘Yes, little Nobby Buttons volunteered, and off he galloped. What could have become of him? Roach,’ said Spittleworth, ‘we must send out a search party, at once, to see whether any trace of Nobby Buttons can be found.’
‘At once, my lord,’ said Roach, bowing deeply, and he left.
‘How… how did my husband die?’ whispered Mrs Beamish.
‘Well, madam,’ said Spittleworth, speaking carefully, for he knew that the story he told now would become the official version, and that he’d have to stick by it, forevermore. ‘As you may have heard, we journeyed to the Marshlands, because we’d received word that the Ickabog had carried off a dog. Shortly after our arrival, I regret to say that our entire party was attacked by the monster.
‘It lunged for the king first, but he fought most bravely, sinking his sword into the monster’s neck. To the tough-skinned Ickabog, however, ’twas but a wasp sting. Enraged, it sought further victims, and though Major Beamish put up a most heroic struggle, I regret to say that he laid down his life for the king.
‘Then Lord Flapoon had the excellent notion of firing his blunderbuss, which scared the Ickabog away. We brought poor Beamish out of the marsh, asked for a volunteer to take news of his death to his family. Dear little Nobby Buttons said he’d do it, and he leapt up onto his horse, and until we reached Chouxville, I never doubted that he’d arrived and given you warning of this dreadful tragedy.’
‘Can I – can I see my husband?’ wept Mrs Beamish.
‘Of course, of course,’ said Spittleworth. ‘He’s in the Blue Parlour.’
He led Mrs Beamish and Bert, who was still clutching his mother’s hand, to the doors of the parlour, where he paused.
‘I regret,’ he said, ‘that we cannot remove the flag covering him. His injuries would be far too distressing for you to see… the fang and claw marks, you know…’
Mrs Beamish swayed yet again and Bert grabbed hold of her, to keep her upright. Now Lord Flapoon walked up to the group, holding a tray of pies.
‘King’s in bed,’ he said thickly to Spittleworth. ‘Oh, hello,’ he added, looking at Mrs Beamish, who was one of the few servants whose name he knew, because she baked the pastries. ‘Sorry about the major,’ said Flapoon, spraying Mrs Beamish and Bert with crumbs of pie crust. ‘Always liked him.’
He walked away, leaving Spittleworth to open the door of the Blue Parlour to let Mrs Beamish and Bert inside. There lay the body of Major Beamish, concealed beneath the Cornucopian flag.
‘Can’t I at least kiss him one last time?’ sobbed Mrs Beamish.
‘Quite impossible, I’m afraid,’ said Spittleworth. ‘His face is half gone.’
‘His hand, Mother,’ said Bert, speaking for the first time. ‘I’m sure his hand will be all right.’
And before Spittleworth could stop the boy, Bert reached beneath the flag for his father’s hand, which was quite unmarked.
Mrs Beamish knelt down and kissed the hand over and over again, until it shone with tears as though made of porcelain. Then Bert helped her to her feet and the two of them left the Blue Parlour without another word.
17. Goodfellow Makes a Stand
Having watched the Beamishes out of sight, Spittleworth hurried off to the Guard’s Room, where he found Roach keeping watch over the rest of the Royal Guard. The walls of the room were hung with swords and a portrait of King Fred, whose eyes seemed to watch everything that was happening.
‘They’re growing restless, my lord,’ muttered Roach. ‘They want to go home to their families and get to bed.’
‘And so they shall, once we’ve had a little chat,’ said Spittleworth, moving to face the weary and travel-stained soldiers.
‘Has anyone got any questions about what happened back in the Marshlands?’ he asked the men.
The soldiers looked at each other. Some of them stole furtive glances at Roach, who’d retreated against the wall, and was polishing a rifle. Then Captain Goodfellow raised his hand, along with two other soldiers.
‘Why was Beamish’s body wrapped up before any of us could look at it?’ asked Captain Goodfellow.
‘I want to know where that bullet went, that we heard being fired,’ said the second soldier.
‘How come only four people saw this monster, if it’s so huge?’ asked the third, to general nods and muttered agreement.
‘All excellent questions,’ replied Spittleworth smoothly. ‘Let me explain.’
And he repeated the story of the attack that he’d told Mrs Beamish.
The soldiers who’d asked questions remained unsatisfied.
‘I still reckon it’s funny that a huge monster was out there and none of us saw it,’ said the third.
‘If Beamish was half-eaten, why wasn’t there more blood?’ asked the second.
‘And who, in the name of all that’s Holy,’ said Captain Goodfellow, ‘is Nobby Buttons?’
‘How d’you know about Nobby Buttons?’ blurted Spittleworth, without thinking.
‘On my way here from the stables, I bumped into one of the maids, Hetty,’ said Goodfellow. ‘She served you your wine, my lord. According to her, you’ve just been telling Beamish’s poor wife about a member of the Royal Guard called Nobby Buttons. According to you, Nobby Buttons was sent with a message to Beamish’s wife, telling her he’d been killed.
‘But I don’t remember a Nobby Buttons. I’ve never met anyone called Nobby Buttons. So I ask you, my lord, how can that be? How can a man ride with us, and camp with us, and take orders from Your Lordship right in front of us, without any of us ever clapping eyes on him?’
Spittleworth’s first thought was that he’d have to do something about that eavesdropping maid. Luckily, Goodfellow had given him her name. Then he said in a dangerous voice:
‘What gives you the right to speak for everybody, Captain Goodfellow? Perhaps some of these men have better memories than you do. Perhaps they remember poor Nobby Buttons clearly. Dear little Nobby, in whose memory the king will add a fat bag of gold to everybody’s pay this week. Proud, brave Nobby, whose sacrifice – for I fear the monster has eaten him, as well as Beamish – will mean a pay rise for all his comrades-in-arms. Noble Nobby Buttons, whose closest friends are surely marked for speedy promotion.’
Another silence followed Spittleworth’s words, and this silence had a cold, heavy quality. Now the whole Royal Guard understood the choice facing them. They weighed in their minds the huge influence Spittleworth was known to have over the king, and the fact that Major Roach was now caressing the barrel of his rifle in a menacing manner, and they remembered the sudden death of their former leader, Major Beamish. They also considered the promise of more gold, and speedy promotion, if they agreed to believe in the Ickabog, and in Private Nobby Buttons.
Goodfellow stood up so suddenly that his chair clattered to the floor.
‘There never was a Nobby Buttons, and I’m damned if there’s an Ickabog, and I won’t be party to a lie!’
The other two men who’d asked questions stood up as well, but the rest of the Royal Guard remained seated, silent, and watchful.
‘Very well,’ said Spittleworth. ‘You three are under arrest for the filthy crime of treason. As I’m sure your comrades remember, you ran away when the Ickabog appeared. You forgot your duty to protect the king and thought only of saving your own cowardly hides! The penalty is death by firing squad.’
He chose eight soldiers to take the three men away, and even though the three honest soldiers struggled very hard, they were outnumbered and overwhelmed, and in no time at all they’d been dragged out of the Guard’s Room.
‘Very good,’ said Spittleworth to the few soldiers remaining. ‘Very good indeed. There will be pay rises all round, and I shall remember your names when it comes to promotions. Now, don’t forget to tell your families exactly what happened in the Marshlands. It might bode ill for your wives, your parents and your children if they’re heard to question the existence of the Ickabog, or of Nobby Buttons.
‘You may now return home.’