Chapter 40

Bert Finds a Clue

When he heard that a mail coach had reached the heart of Chouxville, Spittleworth seized a heavy wooden chair and threw it at Major Roach’s head. Roach, who was far stronger than Spittleworth, batted the chair aside easily enough, but his hand flew to the hilt of his sword and for a few seconds, the two men stood with teeth bared in the gloom of the Guard’s Room, while Flapoon and the spies watched, open-mouthed.

‘You will send a party of Dark Footers to the outskirts of Chouxville tonight,’ Spittleworth ordered Roach. ‘You will fake a raid – we must terrify these people. They must understand that the tax is necessary, that any hardship their relatives are suffering is the fault of the Ickabog, not mine or the king’s. Go, and undo the harm you’ve done!’

The furious major left the room, privately thinking of all the ways he’d like to hurt Spittleworth, if given ten minutes alone with him.

‘And you,’ said Spittleworth to his spies, ‘will report to me tomorrow whether Major Roach has done his work well enough. If the city’s still whispering about starvation and penniless relations, well then, we’ll have to see how Major Roach likes the dungeons.’

So a group of Major Roach’s Dark Footers waited until the capital slept, then set out for the first time to make Chouxville believe that the Ickabog had come calling. They selected a cottage on the very edge of town that stood a little apart from its neighbours. The men who were most skilful at breaking into houses entered the cottage, where, it pains me to say, they killed the little old lady who lived there, who, you might like to know, had written several beautifully illustrated books about the fish that lived in the River Fluma. Once her body had been carried away to be buried somewhere remote, a group of men pressed four of Mr Dovetail’s finest carved feet into the ground around the fish expert’s house, smashed up her furniture and her fish tanks and let her specimens die, gasping, on the floor.

Next morning, Spittleworth’s spies reported that the plan seemed to have worked. Chouxville, so long avoided by the fearsome Ickabog, had at last been attacked. As the Dark Footers had now perfected the art of making the tracks look natural, and breaking down doors as though a gigantic monster had smashed them in, and using pointed metal tools to mimic tooth marks on wood, the Chouxville residents who flocked to see the poor old woman’s house were entirely taken in.

Young Bert Beamish stayed at the scene even after his mother had left to start cooking their supper. He was treasuring up every detail of the beast’s footprints and its fang marks, the better to imagine what it would look like when at last he came face-to-face with the evil creature that had killed his father, because he’d by no means abandoned his ambition to avenge him.

When Bert was sure he had every detail of the monster’s prints memorised, he walked home, burning with fury, and shut himself up in his bedroom, where he took down his father’s Medal for Outstanding Bravery Against the Deadly Ickabog, and the tiny medal the king had given him after he’d fought Daisy Dovetail. The smaller medal made Bert feel sad these days. He’d never had a friend as good as Daisy since she’d left for Pluritania, but at least, he thought, she and her father were beyond the reach of the evil Ickabog.

Angry tears started in Bert’s eyes. He’d so wanted to join the Ickabog Defence Brigade! He knew he’d be a good soldier. He wouldn’t even care if he died in the fight! Of course, it would be extremely upsetting for his mother if the Ickabog killed her son as well as her husband, but on the other hand, Bert would be a hero, like his father!

Lost in thoughts of revenge and glory, Bert made to replace the two medals on the mantelpiece when the smaller of them slipped through his fingers and rolled away under the bed. Bert lay down and groped for it, but couldn’t reach. He wriggled further under his bed and found it at last in the furthermost, dustiest corner, along with something sharp that seemed to have been there a very long time, because it was cobwebby.

Bert pulled both the medal and the sharp thing out from the corner and sat up, now rather dusty himself, to examine the unknown object.

By the light of his candle, he saw a tiny, perfectly carved Ickabog foot, the last remaining piece of the toy carved so long ago by Mr Dovetail. Bert had thought he’d burned up every last bit of the toy, but this foot must have flown under the bed when he’d smashed up the rest of the Ickabog with his poker.

He was on the point of tossing the foot onto his bedroom fire when Bert suddenly changed his mind, and began to examine it more closely.

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