9. The Shepherd’s Story
‘Your Majesty,’ said Herringbone, hurrying towards King Fred, who’d just risen from the throne. ‘There is a shepherd from the Marshlands here to petition you, sire. He’s a little late – I could send him away, if Your Majesty wants his lunch?’
‘A Marshlander!’ said Spittleworth, waving his scented handkerchief beneath his nose. ‘Imagine, sire!’
‘Dashed impertinence, being late for the king,’ said Flapoon.
‘No,’ said Fred, after a brief hesitation. ‘No – if the poor fellow has travelled this far, we shall see him. Send him in, Herringbone.’
The Chief Advisor was delighted at this further evidence of a new, kind, and considerate king, and hurried off to the double doors to tell the guards to let the shepherd inside. The king settled himself back on his throne and Spittleworth and Flapoon sat back down on their chairs, their expressions sour.
The old man who now tottered up the long red carpet towards the throne was very weather-beaten and rather dirty, with a straggly beard, and ragged, patched clothes. He snatched off his cap as he approached the king, looking thoroughly frightened, and when he reached the place where people usually bowed or curtsied, he fell to his knees instead.
‘Your Majesty!’ he wheezed.
‘Your Maaaaaa-jesty,’ Spittleworth imitated him softly, making the old shepherd sound like a sheep.
Flapoon’s chins trembled with silent laughter.
‘Your Majesty,’ continued the shepherd, ‘I have travelled for five long days for to see ye. It has been a hard journey. I has ridden in hayricks when I could, and walked when I couldn’t, and my boots is all holes—’
‘Oh, get on with it, do,’ muttered Spittleworth, his long nose still buried in his handkerchief.
‘—but all the time I was travelling, I thought of old Patch, sire, and how ye’d help me if I could but reach the palace—’
‘What is “old Patch”, good fellow?’ asked the king, his eyes upon the shepherd’s much-darned trousers.
‘’Tis my old dog, sire – or was, I should perhaps say,’ replied the shepherd, his eyes filling with tears.
‘Ah,’ said King Fred, fumbling with the money purse at his belt. ‘Then, good shepherd, take these few gold coins and buy yourself a new—’
‘Nay, sire, thank ye, but it bain’t a question of the gold,’ said the shepherd. ‘I can find meself a puppy easy enough, though it’ll never match old Patch.’ The shepherd wiped his nose on his sleeve. Spittleworth shuddered.
‘Well, then, why have you come to me?’ asked King Fred, as kindly as he knew how.
‘To tell ye, sire, how Patch met his end.’
‘Ah,’ said King Fred, his eyes wandering to the golden clock on the mantelpiece. ‘Well, we’d love to hear the story, but we are rather wanting our lunch—’
‘’Twas the Ickabog that ate him, sire,’ said the shepherd.
There was an astonished silence, and then Spittleworth and Flapoon burst out laughing.
The shepherd’s eyes overflowed with tears which fell sparkling onto the red carpet.
‘Ar, they’ve laughed at me from Jeroboam to Chouxville, sire, when I’ve told ’em why I was coming to see ye. Laughed themselves silly, they have, and told me I was daft in the head. But I seen the monster with me own two eyes, and so did poor Patch, afore he was ate.’
King Fred felt a strong urge to laugh along with the two lords. He wanted his lunch and he wanted to get rid of the old shepherd, but at the same time, that horrid little voice was whispering selfish, vain, and cruel inside his head.
‘Why don’t you tell me what happened?’ King Fred said to the shepherd, and Spittleworth and Flapoon stopped laughing at once.
‘Well, sire,’ said the shepherd, wiping his nose on his sleeve again, ‘’twas twilight and right foggy and Patch and me was walking home round the edge of the marsh. Patch sees a marshteazle—’
‘Sees a what?’ asked King Fred.
‘A marshteazle, sire. Them’s bald rat-like things what lives in the marsh. Not bad in pies if ye don’t mind the tails.’
Flapoon looked queasy.
‘So Patch sees the marshteazle,’ the shepherd continued, ‘and he gives chase. I shouts for Patch and shouts, sire, but he was too busy to come back. And then, sire, I hears a yelp. “Patch!” I cries. “Patch! What’s got ye, lad?” But Patch don’t come back, sire. And then I sees it, through the fog,’ said the shepherd in a low voice. ‘Huge, it is, with eyes like lanterns and a mouth as wide as that there throne, and its wicked teeth shining at me. And I forgets old Patch, sire, and I runs and runs and runs all the way home. And next day I sets off, sire, to come and see ye. The Ickabog ate me dog, sire, and I wants it punished!’
The king looked down at the shepherd for a few seconds. Then, very slowly, he got to his feet.
‘Shepherd,’ said the king, ‘we shall travel north this very day to investigate the matter of the Ickabog once and for all. If any trace of the creature can be found, you may rest assured that it shall be tracked to its lair and punished for its impudence in taking your dog. Now, take these few gold coins and hire yourself a ride back home in a haycart!
‘My lords,’ said the king, turning to the stunned Spittleworth and Flapoon, ‘pray change into your riding gear and follow me to the stables. There is a new hunt afoot!’
10. King Fred’s Quest
King Fred strode from the Throne Room feeling quite delighted with himself. Nobody would ever again say that he was selfish, vain, and cruel! For the sake of a smelly, simple old shepherd and his worthless old mongrel, he, King Fred the Fearless, was going to hunt the Ickabog! True, there was no such thing, but it was still dashed fine and noble of him to ride to the other end of the country, in person, to prove it!
Quite forgetting lunch, the king rushed upstairs to his bedroom, shouting for his valet to come and help him out of the dreary black suit and help him into his battledress, which he’d never had the chance to wear before. The tunic was scarlet, with buttons of gold, a purple sash, and lots of medals that Fred was allowed to wear because he was king, and when Fred looked in the mirror and saw how well battledress became him, he wondered why he didn’t wear it all the time. As his valet lowered the king’s plumed helmet onto his golden curls, Fred imagined himself painted wearing it, seated on his favourite milk-white charger and spearing a serpentlike monster with his lance. King Fred the Fearless indeed! Why, he half hoped there really was an Ickabog, now.
Meanwhile, the Chief Advisor was sending word throughout the City-Within-The-City that the king was setting off on a tour of the country, and that everyone should be ready to cheer him as he left. Herringbone made no mention of the Ickabog, because he wanted to prevent the king from looking foolish, if he could.
Unfortunately, the footman called Cankerby had overheard two advisors muttering together about the king’s strange scheme. Cankerby immediately told the between maid, who spread the word all over the kitchens, where a sausage seller from Baronstown was gossiping with the cook. In short, by the time the king’s party was ready to leave, word had spread all through the City-Within-The-City that the king was riding north to hunt the Ickabog, and news was also beginning to leak out into wider Chouxville.
‘Is it a joke?’ the capital’s inhabitants asked each other, as they thronged out onto the pavements, ready to cheer the king. ‘What does it mean?’
Some shrugged and laughed and said that the king was merely having fun. Others shook their heads and muttered that there must be more to it than that. No king would ride out, armed, to the north of the country without good reason. What, the worried folk asked each other, does the king know, that we do not?
Lady Eslanda joined the other ladies of the court on a balcony, to watch the soldiers assembling.
I shall now tell you a secret, which nobody else knew. Lady Eslanda would never have married the king, even if he’d asked her. You see, she was secretly in love with a man called Captain Goodfellow, who was now chatting and laughing with his good friend Major Beamish in the courtyard below. Lady Eslanda, who was very shy, had never been able to bring herself to talk to Captain Goodfellow, who had no idea that the most beautiful woman at court was in love with him. Both Goodfellow’s parents, who were dead, had been cheesemakers from Kurdsburg. Though Goodfellow was both clever and brave, these were the days when no cheesemaker’s son would expect to marry a highborn lady.
Meanwhile, all the servants’ children were being let out of school early to watch the battle party set off. Mrs Beamish the pastry chef naturally rushed to collect Bert, so that he’d have a good spot to watch his father passing by.
When the palace gates opened at last, and the cavalcade rode out, Bert and Mrs Beamish cheered at the top of their lungs. Nobody had seen battledress for a very long time. How exciting it was, and how fine! The sunlight played upon the golden buttons, silver swords, and the gleaming trumpets of the buglers, and up on the palace balcony, the handkerchiefs of the ladies of the court fluttered in farewell, like doves.
At the front of the procession rode King Fred, on his milk-white charger, holding scarlet reins and waving at the crowds. Right behind him, riding a thin yellow horse and wearing a bored expression, was Spittleworth, and next came Flapoon, furiously lunch-less and sitting on his elephantine chestnut.
Behind the king and the two lords trotted the Royal Guard, all of them on dapple-grey horses, except for Major Beamish, who rode his steel-grey stallion. It made Mrs Beamish’s heart flutter to see her husband looking so handsome.
‘Good luck, Daddy!’ shouted Bert, and Major Beamish (though he really shouldn’t have done) waved at his son.
The procession trotted down the hill, smiling at the cheering crowds of the City-Within-The-City, until it reached the gates in the wall onto wider Chouxville. There, hidden by the crowds, was the Dovetails’ cottage. Mr Dovetail and Daisy had come out into their garden, and they were just able to see the plumes in the helmets of the Royal Guard riding past.
Daisy didn’t feel much interest in the soldiers. She and Bert still weren’t talking to each other. In fact, he’d spent morning break with Roderick Roach, who often jeered at Daisy for wearing overalls instead of a dress, so the cheering and the sound of the horses didn’t raise her spirits at all.
‘There isn’t really an Ickabog, Daddy, is there?’ she asked.
‘No, Daisy,’ sighed Mr Dovetail, turning back to his workshop, ‘there’s no Ickabog, but if the king wants to believe in it, let him. He can’t do much harm up in the Marshlands.’
Which just goes to show that even sensible men may fail to see a terrible, looming danger.
11. The Journey North
King Fred’s spirits rose higher and higher as he rode out of Chouxville and into the countryside. Word of the king’s sudden expedition to find the Ickabog had now spread to the farmers who worked the rolling green fields, and they ran with their families to cheer the king, the two lords and the Royal Guard as they passed.
Not having had any lunch, the king decided to stop in Kurdsburg to eat a late dinner.
‘We’ll rough it here, chaps, like the soldiers we are!’ he cried to his party as they entered the city famed for its cheese, ‘and we’ll set out again at first light!’
But, of course, there was no question of the king roughing it. Visitors at Kurdsburg’s finest inn were thrown out onto the street to make way for him, so Fred slept that night in a brass bed with a duck-down mattress, after a hearty meal of toasted cheese and chocolate fondue. The lords Spittleworth and Flapoon, on the other hand, were forced to spend the night in a little room over the stables. Both were rather sore after a long day on horseback. You may wonder why that was, if they went hunting five times a week, but the truth was that they generally sneaked off to sit behind a tree after half an hour’s hunting, where they ate sandwiches and drank wine until it was time to go back to the palace. Neither was used to spending hours in the saddle, and Spittleworth’s bony bottom was already starting to blister.
Early the following morning, the king was brought word by Major Beamish that the citizens of Baronstown were very upset the king had chosen to sleep in Kurdsburg rather than their splendid city. Eager not to dent his popularity, King Fred instructed his party to ride in an enormous circle through the surrounding fields, being cheered by farmers all the way, so that they ended up in Baronstown by nightfall. The delicious smell of sizzling sausages greeted the royal party, and a delighted crowd carrying torches escorted Fred to the best room in the city. There he was served roasted ox and honey ham, and slept in a carved oak bed with a goose-down mattress, while Spittleworth and Flapoon had to share a tiny attic room usually occupied by two maids. By now, Spittleworth’s bottom was extremely painful, and he was furious that he’d been forced to ride forty miles in a circle, purely to keep the sausagemakers happy. Flapoon, who’d eaten far too much cheese in Kurdsburg and had consumed three beefsteaks in Baronstown, was awake all night, groaning with indigestion.
Next day, the king and his men set off again, and this time they headed north, soon passing through vineyards from which eager grape pickers emerged to wave Cornucopian flags and receive waves from the jubilant king. Spittleworth was almost crying from pain, in spite of the cushion he’d strapped to his bottom, and Flapoon’s belches and moans could be heard even over the clatter of hooves and jingle of bridles.
Upon arrival at Jeroboam that evening, they were greeted by trumpets and the entire city singing the national anthem. Fred feasted on sparkling wine and truffles that night, before retiring to a silken four-poster bed with a swansdown mattress. But Spittleworth and Flapoon were forced to share a room over the inn’s kitchen with a pair of soldiers. Drunken Jeroboam dwellers were reeling about in the street, celebrating the presence of the king in their city. Spittleworth spent much of the night sitting in a bucket of ice, and Flapoon, who’d drunk far too much red wine, spent the same period being sick in a second bucket in the corner.
At dawn next morning, the king and his party set out for the Marshlands, after a famous farewell from the citizens of Jeroboam, who saw him on his way with a thunderous popping of corks that made Spittleworth’s horse rear and ditch him on the road. Once they’d dusted Spittleworth off and put the cushion back on his bottom, and Fred had stopped laughing, the party proceeded.
Soon they’d left Jeroboam behind, and could hear only birdsong. For the first time in their entire journey, the sides of the road were empty. Gradually, the lush green land gave way to thin, dry grass, crooked trees, and boulders.
‘Extraordinary place, isn’t it?’ the cheerful king shouted back to Spittleworth and Flapoon. ‘I’m jolly glad to see these Marshlands at last, aren’t you?’
The two lords agreed, but once Fred had turned to face the front again, they made rude gestures and mouthed even ruder names at the back of his head.
At last, the royal party came across a few people, and how the Marshlanders stared! They fell to their knees like the shepherd in the Throne Room, and quite forgot to cheer or clap, but gaped as though they’d never seen anything like the king and the Royal Guard before – which, indeed, they hadn’t, because while King Fred had visited all the major cities of Cornucopia after his coronation, nobody had thought it worth his while to visit the faraway Marshlands.
‘Simple people, yes, but rather touching, aren’t they?’ the king called gaily to his men, as some ragged children gasped at the magnificent horses. They’d never seen animals so glossy and well fed in their lives.
‘And where are we supposed to stay tonight?’ Flapoon muttered to Spittleworth, eyeing the tumbledown stone cottages. ‘No taverns here!’
‘Well, there’s one comfort, at least,’ Spittleworth whispered back. ‘He’ll have to rough it like the rest of us, and we’ll see how much he likes it.’
They rode on through the afternoon and at last, as the sun began to sink, they caught sight of the marsh where the Ickabog was supposed to live: a wide stretch of darkness studded with strange rock formations.
‘Your Majesty!’ called Major Beamish. ‘I suggest we set up camp now and explore the marsh in the morning! As Your Majesty knows, the marsh can be treacherous! Fogs come suddenly here. We’d do best to approach it by daylight!’
‘Nonsense!’ said Fred, who was bouncing up and down in his saddle like an excited schoolboy. ‘We can’t stop now, when it’s in sight, Beamish!’
The king had given his order, so the party rode on until, at last, when the moon had risen and was sliding in and out behind inky clouds, they reached the edge of the marsh. It was the eeriest place any of them had ever seen, wild and empty and desolate. A chilly breeze made the rushes whisper, but otherwise it was dead and silent.
‘As you see, sire,’ said Lord Spittleworth after a while, ‘the ground is very boggy. Sheep and men alike would be sucked under if they wandered out too far. Then, the feeble-minded might take these giant rocks and boulders for monsters in the dark. The rustling of these weeds might even be taken for the hissing of some creature.’
‘Yes, true, very true,’ said King Fred, but his eyes still roamed over the dark marsh, as though he expected the Ickabog to pop up from behind a rock.
‘Shall we pitch camp then, sire?’ asked Lord Flapoon, who’d saved some cold pies from Baronstown and was eager for his supper.
‘We can’t expect to find even an imaginary monster in the dark,’ pointed out Spittleworth.
‘True, true,’ repeated King Fred regretfully. ‘Let us – good gracious, how foggy it has become!’
And sure enough, as they’d stood looking out across the marsh, a thick white fog had rolled over them so swiftly and silently that none of them had noticed it.
12. The King’s Lost Sword
Within seconds, it was as though each of the king’s party was wearing a thick white blindfold. The fog was so dense they couldn’t see their own hands in front of their faces. The mist smelled of the foul marsh, of brackish water and ooze. The soft ground seemed to shift beneath their feet as many of the men turned unwisely on the spot. Trying to catch sight of each other, they lost all sense of direction. Each man felt adrift in a blinding white sea, and Major Beamish was one of the few to keep his head.
‘Have a care!’ he called. ‘The ground is treacherous. Stay still, don’t attempt to move!’
But King Fred, who was suddenly feeling rather scared, paid no attention. He set off at once in what he thought was the direction of Major Beamish, but within a few steps he felt himself sinking into the icy marsh.
‘Help!’ he cried, as the freezing marsh water flooded over the tops of his shining boots. ‘Help! Beamish, where are you? I’m sinking!’
There was an immediate clamour of panicked voices and jangling armour. The guards all hurried off in every direction, trying to find the king, bumping into each other and slipping over, but the floundering king’s voice drowned out every other.
‘I’ve lost my boots! Why doesn’t somebody help me? Where are you all?’
The lords Spittleworth and Flapoon were the only two people who’d followed Beamish’s advice and remained quite still in the places they’d occupied when the fog had rolled over them. Spittleworth was clutching a fold of Flapoon’s ample pantaloons and Flapoon was holding tight to the skirt of Spittleworth’s riding coat. Neither of them made the smallest attempt to help Fred, but waited, shivering, for calm to be restored.
‘At least if the fool gets swallowed by the bog, we’ll be able to go home,’ Spittleworth muttered to Flapoon.
The confusion deepened. Several of the Royal Guard had now got stuck in the bog as they tried to find the king. The air was full of squelches, clanks, and shouts. Major Beamish was bellowing in a vain attempt to restore some kind of order, and the king’s voice seemed to be receding into the blind night, becoming ever fainter, as though he was blundering away from them.
And then, out of the heart of the darkness, came an awful terror-struck shriek.
‘BEAMISH, HELP ME, I CAN SEE THE MONSTER!’
‘I’m coming, Your Majesty!’ cried Major Beamish. ‘Keep shouting, sire, I’ll find you!’
‘HELP! HELP ME, BEAMISH!’ shouted King Fred.
‘What’s happened to the idiot?’ Flapoon asked Spittleworth, but before Spittleworth could answer, the fog around the two lords thinned as quickly as it had arrived, so that they stood together in a little clearing, able to see each other, but still surrounded on all sides by high walls of thick white mist. The voices of the king, of Beamish and of the other soldiers were becoming fainter and fainter.
‘Don’t move yet,’ Spittleworth cautioned Flapoon. ‘Once the fog thins a little bit more, we’ll be able to find the horses and we can retreat to a safe—’
At that precise moment, a slimy black figure burst out of the wall of fog and launched itself at the two lords. Flapoon let out a high-pitched scream and Spittleworth lashed out at the creature, missing only because it flopped to the ground, weeping. It was then that Spittleworth realised the gibbering, panting slime monster was, in fact, King Fred the Fearless.
‘Thank heavens we’ve found you, Your Majesty, we’ve been searching everywhere!’ cried Spittleworth.
‘Ick – Ick – Ick—’ whimpered the king.
‘He’s got hiccoughs,’ said Flapoon. ‘Give him a fright.’
‘Ick – Ick – Ickabog!’ moaned Fred. ‘I s-s-saw it! A gigantic monster – it nearly caught me!’
‘I beg Your Majesty’s pardon?’ asked Spittleworth.
‘The m-monster is real!’ gulped Fred. ‘I’m lucky to b-be alive! To the horses! We must flee, and quickly!’
King Fred tried to hoist himself up by climbing Spittleworth’s leg, but Spittleworth stepped swiftly aside to avoid getting covered in slime, instead aiming a consoling pat at the top of Fred’s head, which was the cleanest part of him.
‘Er – there, there, Your Majesty. You’ve had a most distressing experience, falling in the marsh. As we were saying earlier, the boulders do indeed assume monstrous forms in this thick fog—’
‘Dash it, Spittleworth, I know what I saw!’ shouted the king, staggering to his feet unaided. ‘Tall as two horses, it was, and with eyes like huge lamps! I drew my sword, but my hands were so slimy it slipped from my grasp, so there was nothing for it but to pull my feet out of my stuck boots, and crawl away!’
Just then a fourth man made his way into their little clearing in the fog: Captain Roach, father of Roderick, who was Major Beamish’s second-in-command – a big, burly man with jet-black moustaches. What Captain Roach was really like, we are about to find out. All you need to know now is that the king was very glad to see him, because he was the largest member of the Royal Guard.
‘Did you see any sign of the Ickabog, Roach?’ whimpered Fred.
‘No, Your Majesty,’ he said, with a respectful bow, ‘all I’ve seen is fog and mud. I’m glad to know Your Majesty is safe, at any rate. You gentlemen stay here, and I’ll round up the troops.’
Roach made to leave, but King Fred yelped. ‘No, you stay here with me, Roach, in case the monster comes this way! You’ve still got a rifle, haven’t you? Excellent – I lost my sword and my boots, you see. My very best dress sword, with the jewelled hilt!’
Though he felt much safer with Captain Roach beside him, the trembling king was otherwise as cold and scared as he could ever remember being. He also had a nasty feeling that nobody believed he’d really seen the Ickabog, a feeling that increased when he caught sight of Spittleworth rolling his eyes at Flapoon.
The king’s pride was stung.
‘Spittleworth, Flapoon,’ he said, ‘I want my sword and my boots back! They’re over there somewhere,’ he added, waving his arm at the encircling fog.
‘Would – would it not be better to wait until the fog has cleared, Your Majesty?’ asked Spittleworth nervously.
‘I want my sword!’ snapped King Fred. ‘It was my grandfather’s and it’s very valuable! Go and find it, both of you. I shall wait here with Captain Roach. And don’t come back empty-handed.’
13. The Accident
The two lords had no choice but to leave the king and Captain Roach in their little clearing in the fog and proceed onto the marsh. Spittleworth took the lead, feeling his way with his feet for the firmest bits of ground. Flapoon followed close behind, still holding tightly to the hem of Spittleworth’s coat and sinking deeply with every footstep because he was so heavy. The fog was clammy on their skin and rendered them almost completely blind. In spite of Spittleworth’s best efforts, the two lords’ boots were soon full to the brim with fetid water.
‘That blasted nincompoop!’ muttered Spittleworth as they squelched along. ‘That blithering buffoon! This is all his fault, the mouse-brained moron!’
‘It’ll serve him right if that sword’s lost for good,’ said Flapoon, now nearly waist-deep in marsh.
‘We’d better hope it isn’t, or we’ll be here all night,’ said Spittleworth. ‘Oh, curse this fog!’
They struggled onwards. The mist would thin for a few steps, then close again. Boulders loomed suddenly out of nowhere like ghostly elephants, and the rustling reeds sounded just like snakes. Though Spittleworth and Flapoon knew perfectly well that there was no such thing as an Ickabog, their insides didn’t seem quite so sure.
‘Let go of me!’ Spittleworth growled at Flapoon, whose constant tugging was making him think of monstrous claws or jaws fastened on the back of his coat.
Flapoon let go, but he too had been infected by a nonsensical fear, so he loosened his blunderbuss from its holster and held it ready.
‘What’s that?’ he whispered to Spittleworth, as an odd noise reached them out of the darkness ahead.
Both lords froze, the better to listen.
A low growling and scrabbling was coming out of the fog. It conjured an awful vision in both men’s minds, of a monster feasting on the body of one of the Royal Guard.
‘Who’s there?’ Spittleworth called, in a high-pitched voice.
Somewhere in the distance, Major Beamish shouted back:
‘Is that you, Lord Spittleworth?’
‘Yes,’ shouted Spittleworth. ‘We can hear something strange, Beamish! Can you?’
It seemed to the two lords that the odd growling and scrabbling grew louder.
Then the fog shifted. A monstrous black silhouette with gleaming white eyes was revealed right in front of them, and it emitted a long yowl.
With a deafening, crashing boom that seemed to shake the marsh, Flapoon let off his blunderbuss. The startled cries of their fellow men echoed across the hidden landscape, and then, as though Flapoon’s shot had frightened it, the fog parted like curtains before the two lords, giving them a clear view of what lay ahead.
The moon slid out from behind a cloud at that moment and they saw a vast granite boulder with a mass of thorny branches at its base. Tangled up in these brambles was a terrified, skinny dog, whimpering and scrabbling to free itself, its eyes flashing in the reflected moonlight.
A little beyond the giant boulder, face down in the bog, lay Major Beamish.
‘What’s going on?’ shouted several voices out of the fog. ‘Who fired?’
Neither Spittleworth nor Flapoon answered. Spittleworth waded as quickly as he could towards Major Beamish. A swift examination was enough: the major was stone-dead, shot through the heart by Flapoon in the dark.
‘My God, my God, what shall we do?’ bleated Flapoon, arriving at Spittleworth’s side.
‘Quiet!’ whispered Spittleworth.
He was thinking harder and faster than he’d thought in the whole of his crafty, conniving life. His eyes moved slowly from Flapoon and the gun, to the shepherd’s trapped dog, to the king’s boots and jewelled sword, which he now noticed, half-buried in the bog just a few feet away from the giant boulder.
Spittleworth waded through the marsh to pick up the king’s sword and used it to slash apart the brambles imprisoning the dog. Then, giving the poor animal a hearty kick, he sent it yelping away into the fog.
‘Listen carefully,’ murmured Spittleworth, returning to Flapoon, but before he could explain his plan, another large figure emerged from the fog: Captain Roach.
‘The king sent me,’ panted the captain. ‘He’s terrified. What happ—’
Then Roach saw Major Beamish lying dead on the ground.
Spittleworth realised immediately that Roach must be let in on the plan and that, in fact, he’d be very useful.
‘Say nothing, Roach,’ said Spittleworth, ‘while I tell you what has happened.
‘The Ickabog has killed our brave Major Beamish. In view of this tragic death, we shall need a new major, and of course, that will be you, Roach, for you’re second-in-command. I shall recommend a large pay rise for you, because you were so valiant – listen closely, Roach – so very valiant in chasing after the dreadful Ickabog, as it ran away into the fog. You see, the Ickabog was devouring the poor major’s body when Lord Flapoon and I came upon it. Frightened by Lord Flapoon’s blunderbuss, which he sensibly discharged into the air, the monster dropped Beamish’s body and fled. You bravely gave chase, trying to recover the king’s sword, which was half-buried in the monster’s thick hide – but you weren’t able to recover it, Roach. So sad for the poor king. I believe the priceless sword was his grandfather’s, but I suppose it’s now lost forever in the Ickabog’s lair.’
So saying, Spittleworth pressed the sword into Roach’s large hands. The newly promoted major looked down at its jewelled hilt, and a cruel and crafty smile to match Spittleworth’s own spread over his face.
‘Yes, a great pity that I wasn’t able to recover the sword, my lord,’ he said, sliding it out of sight beneath his tunic. ‘Now, let’s wrap up the poor Major’s body, because it would be dreadful for the other men to see the marks of the monster’s fangs upon him.’
‘How sensitive of you, Major Roach,’ said Lord Spittleworth, and the two men swiftly took off their cloaks and wrapped up the body while Flapoon watched, heartily relieved that nobody need know he’d accidentally killed Beamish.
‘Could you remind me what the Ickabog looked like, Lord Spittleworth?’ asked Roach, when Major Beamish’s body was well hidden. ‘For the three of us saw it together and will, of course, have received identical impressions.’
‘Very true,’ said Lord Spittleworth. ‘Well, according to the king, the beast is as tall as two horses, with eyes like lamps.’
‘In fact,’ said Flapoon, pointing, ‘it looks a lot like this large boulder, with a dog’s eyes gleaming at the base.’
‘Tall as two horses, with eyes like lamps,’ repeated Roach. ‘Very well, my lords. If you’ll assist me to put Beamish over my shoulder, I’ll carry him to the king and we can explain how the major met his death.’