Ma Grunter was one of the few Cornucopians who’d grown richer and richer in the last few years. She’d crammed her hovel with children and babies until the place was at bursting point, then demanded gold from the two lords who now ruled the kingdom, to enlarge her tumbledown house. These days the orphanage was a thriving business, which meant that Ma Grunter was able to dine on delicacies that only the richest could afford. Most of her gold paid for bottles of finest Jeroboam wine, and I’m sorry to say that when drunk, Ma Grunter was very cruel indeed. The children inside the orphanage sported many cuts and bruises, because of Ma Grunter’s drunken temper.
Some of her charges didn’t last long on a diet of cabbage soup and cruelty. While endless hungry children poured in at the front door, a little cemetery at the back of the building became fuller and fuller. Ma Grunter didn’t care. All the Johns and Janes of the orphanage were alike to her, their faces pale and pinched, their only worth the gold she got for taking them in.
But in the seventh year of Lord Spittleworth’s rule over Cornucopia, when he received yet another request for gold from Ma Grunter’s orphanage, the Chief Advisor decided to go and inspect the place, before he gave the old woman more funds. Ma Grunter dressed up in her best black silk dress to greet His Lordship, and was careful not to let him smell wine on her breath.
‘Poor little mites, ain’t they, Your Lordship?’ she asked him, as he looked around at all the thin, pale children, with his scented handkerchief held to his nostrils. Ma Grunter stooped down to pick up one tiny Marshlander, whose belly was swollen from hunger. ‘You see ’ow much they needs Your Lordship’s ’elp.’
‘Yes, yes, clearly,’ said Spittleworth, his handkerchief clamped to his face. He didn’t like children, especially children as dirty as these, but he knew many Cornucopians were stupidly fond of brats, so it was a bad idea to let too many of them die. ‘Very well, further funds are approved, Ma Grunter.’
As he turned to leave, the lord noticed a pale girl standing beside the door, holding a baby in each arm. She wore patched overalls which had been let out and lengthened. There was something about the girl that set her apart from the other children. Spittleworth even had the strange notion that he’d seen somebody like her before. Unlike the other brats, she didn’t seem at all impressed by his sweeping Chief Advisor’s robes, nor of the jangling medals he’d awarded himself for being Regimental Colonel of the Ickabog Defence Brigade.
‘What’s your name, girl?’ Spittleworth asked, halting beside Daisy, and lowering his scented handkerchief.
‘Jane, my lord. We’re all called Jane here, you know,’ said Daisy, examining Spittleworth with cool, serious eyes. She remembered him from the palace courtyard where she’d once played, how he and Flapoon would scare the children into silence as they walked past, scowling.
‘Why don’t you curtsy? I am the king’s Chief Advisor.’
‘A Chief Advisor isn’t a king,’ said the girl.
‘What’s that she’s saying?’ croaked Ma Grunter, hobbling over to see that Daisy wasn’t making trouble. Of all the children in her orphanage, Daisy Dovetail was the one Ma Grunter liked least. The girl’s spirit had never quite been broken, although Ma Grunter had tried her hardest to do it. ‘What are you saying, Ugly Jane?’ she asked. Daisy wasn’t ugly in the slightest, but this name was one of the ways Ma Grunter tried to break her spirit.
‘She’s explaining why she doesn’t curtsy to me,’ said Spittleworth, still staring into Daisy’s dark eyes, and wondering where he’d seen them before.
In fact, he’d seen them in the face of the carpenter he visited regularly in the dungeon, but as Mr Dovetail was now quite insane, with long white hair and beard, and this girl looked intelligent and calm, Spittleworth didn’t make the connection between them.
‘Ugly Jane’s always been impertinent,’ said Ma Grunter, inwardly vowing to punish Daisy as soon as Lord Spittleworth had gone. ‘One of these days I’ll turn her out, my lord, and she can see how she likes begging on the streets, instead of sheltering under my roof and eating my food.’
‘How I’d miss cabbage soup,’ said Daisy, in a cold, hard voice. ‘Did you know that’s what we eat here, my lord? Cabbage soup, three times a day?’
‘Very nourishing, I’m sure,’ said Lord Spittleworth.
‘Though, sometimes, as a special treat,’ said Daisy, ‘we get Orphanage Cakes. Do you know what those are, my lord?’
‘No,’ said Spittleworth, against his will. There was something about this girl… What was it?
‘They’re made of spoiled ingredients,’ said Daisy, her dark eyes boring into his. ‘Bad eggs, mouldy flour, scraps of things that have been in the cupboard too long… People haven’t got any other food to spare for us, so they mix up the things they don’t want and leave them on the front steps. Sometimes the Orphanage Cakes make the children sick, but they eat them anyway, because they’re so hungry.’
Spittleworth wasn’t really listening to Daisy’s words, but to her accent. Though she’d now spent so long in Jeroboam, her voice still carried traces of Chouxville.
‘Where do you come from, girl?’ he asked.
The other children had fallen silent now, all of them watching the lord talking to Daisy. Though Ma Grunter hated her, Daisy was a great favourite among the younger children, because she protected them from Ma Grunter and Basher John, and never stole their dry crusts, unlike some of the other big children. She’d also been known to sneak them bread and cheese from Ma Grunter’s private stores, although that was a risky business, and sometimes led to Daisy being beaten by Basher John.
‘I come from Cornucopia, my lord,’ said Daisy. ‘You might have heard of it. It’s a country that used to exist, where nobody was ever poor or hungry.’
‘That’s enough,’ snarled Lord Spittleworth and, turning to Ma Grunter, he said, ‘I agree with you, madam. This child seems ungrateful for your kindness. Perhaps she ought to be left to fend for herself, out in the world.’
With that, Lord Spittleworth swept out of the orphanage, slamming the door behind him. As soon as he had gone, Ma Grunter swung her cane at Daisy, but long practice enabled Daisy to duck out of harm’s way. The old woman shuffled away, swishing her cane before her, making all the little ones scatter, then slammed the door of her comfortable parlour behind her. The children heard the popping of a cork.
Later, after they’d climbed into their neighbouring beds that night, Martha suddenly said to Daisy:
‘You know, Daisy, it isn’t true, what you said to the Chief Advisor.’
‘Which bit, Martha?’ whispered Daisy.
‘It isn’t true that everyone was well fed and happy in the old days. My family never had enough in the Marshlands.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Daisy quietly. ‘I forgot.’
‘Of course,’ sighed the sleepy Martha, ‘the Ickabog kept stealing our sheep.’
Daisy wriggled deeper under her thin blanket, trying to keep warm. In all their time together, she’d never managed to convince Martha that the Ickabog wasn’t real. Tonight, though, Daisy wished that she too believed in a monster in the marsh, rather than in the human wickedness she’d seen staring out of Lord Spittleworth’s eyes.