‘Mother,’ said Bert.
Mrs Beamish had been sitting at the kitchen table, mending a hole in one of Bert’s sweaters and pausing occasionally to wipe her eyes. The Ickabog’s attack on their Chouxville neighbour had brought back awful memories of the death of Major Beamish, and she’d just been thinking about that night when she’d kissed his poor, cold hand in the Blue Parlour at the palace, while the rest of him was hidden by the Cornucopian flag.
‘Mother, look,’ said Bert, in a strange voice, and he set down in front of her the tiny, clawed wooden foot he’d found beneath his bed.
Mrs Beamish picked it up and examined it through the spectacles she wore when sewing by candlelight.
‘Why, it’s part of that little toy you used to have,’ said Bert’s mother. ‘Your toy Icka…’
But Mrs Beamish didn’t finish the word. Still staring at the carved foot, she remembered the monstrous footprints she and Bert had seen earlier that day, in the soft ground around the house of the vanished old lady. Although much, much bigger, the shape of that foot was identical to this, as were the angle of the toes, the scales and the long claws.
For several minutes, the only sound was the sputtering of the candle, as Mrs Beamish turned the little wooden foot in her trembling fingers.
It was as though a door had flown open inside her mind, a door she’d been keeping blocked and barricaded for a very long time. Ever since her husband had died, Mrs Beamish had refused to admit a single doubt or suspicion about the Ickabog. Loyal to the king, trusting in Spittleworth, she’d believed the people who claimed the Ickabog wasn’t real were traitors.
But now the uncomfortable memories she’d tried to shut out came flooding in upon her. She remembered telling the scullery maid all about Mr Dovetail’s treasonous speech about the Ickabog, and turning to see Cankerby the footman listening in the shadows. She remembered how soon afterwards the Dovetails had disappeared. She remembered the little girl who’d been skipping, wearing one of Daisy Dovetail’s old dresses, and the bandalore she’d claimed her brother had been given on the same day. She thought of her cousin Harold starving, and the strange absence of mail from the north that she and all her neighbours had noticed over the past few months. She thought, too, of the sudden disappearance of Lady Eslanda, which many had puzzled over. These, and a hundred other odd happenings, added themselves together in Mrs Beamish’s mind as she gazed at the little wooden foot, and together they formed a monstrous outline that frightened her far more than the Ickabog. What, she asked herself, had really happened to her husband up on that marsh? Why hadn’t she been allowed to look beneath the Cornucopian flag covering his body? Horrible thoughts now tumbled on top of each other as Mrs Beamish turned to look at her son, and saw her suspicions reflected in his face.
‘The king can’t know,’ she whispered. ‘He can’t. He’s a good man.’
Even if everything else she’d believed might be wrong, Mrs Beamish couldn’t bear to give up her belief in the goodness of King Fred the Fearless. He’d always been so kind to her and Bert.
Mrs Beamish stood up, the little wooden foot clutched tightly in her hand, and laid down Bert’s half-darned sweater.
I’m going to see the king,’ she said, with a more determined look on her face than Bert had ever seen there.
‘Now?’ he asked, looking out into the darkness.
‘Tonight,’ said Mrs Beamish, ‘while there’s a chance neither of those lords are with him. He’ll see me. He’s always liked me.’
‘I want to come too,’ said Bert, because a strange feeling of foreboding had come over him.
‘No,’ said Mrs Beamish. She approached her son, put her hand on his shoulder, and looked up into his face. ‘Listen to me, Bert. If I’m not back from the palace in one hour, you’re to leave Chouxville. Head north to Jeroboam, find Cousin Harold and tell him everything.’
‘But—’ said Bert, suddenly afraid.
‘Promise me you’ll go if I’m not back in an hour,’ said Mrs Beamish fiercely.
‘I… I will,’ said Bert, but the boy who’d earlier imagined dying a heroic death, and not caring how much it upset his mother, was suddenly terrified. ‘Mother—’
She hugged him briefly. ‘You’re a clever boy. Never forget, you’re a soldier’s son, as well as a pastry chef’s.’
Mrs Beamish walked quickly to the door and slipped on her shoes. After one last smile at Bert, she slipped out into the night.