Chapter 52

Mushrooms

Never would Daisy and Martha forget the taste of those Baronstown pies, after the long years of cabbage soup at Ma Grunter’s. Indeed, Martha burst into tears after the first bite, and said she’d never known food could be like this. All of them forgot about the Ickabog while eating. Once they’d finished the pies, they felt braver, and they got up to explore the Ickabog’s cave by the light of the fire.

‘Look,’ said Daisy, who’d found drawings on the wall.

A hundred shaggy Ickabogs were being chased by stickmen with spears.

‘See this one!’ said Roderick, pointing at a drawing close to the mouth of the cave.

By the light of the Ickabog’s fire, the foursome examined a picture of a lone Ickabog, standing face-to-face with a stick figure wearing a plumed helmet and holding a sword.

‘That looks like the king,’ whispered Daisy, pointing at the figure. ‘You don’t think he really saw the Ickabog that night, do you?’

The others couldn’t answer, of course, but I can. I’ll tell you the whole truth now, and I hope you won’t be annoyed that I didn’t before.

Fred really did catch a glimpse of the Ickabog in the thick marsh mist, that fatal night when Major Beamish was shot. I can also tell you that the following morning, the old shepherd who’d thought his dog had been eaten by the Ickabog heard a whining and scratching at the door, and realised that faithful Patch had come home again, because, of course, Spittleworth had set the dog free from the brambles in which he was trapped.

Before you judge the old shepherd too harshly for not letting the king know that Patch hadn’t been eaten by the Ickabog after all, you should remember that he was weary after his long journey to Chouxville. In any case, the king wouldn’t have cared. Once Fred had seen the monster through the mist, nothing and nobody would have persuaded him it wasn’t real.

‘I wonder,’ said Martha, ‘why the Ickabog didn’t eat the king?’

‘Maybe he really did fight it off, like the stories say?’ asked Roderick doubtfully.

‘You know, it’s strange,’ said Daisy, turning to look at the Ickabog’s cave, ‘that there aren’t any bones in here, if the Ickabog eats people.’

‘It must eat the bones, too,’ said Bert. His voice was shaking.

Now Daisy remembered that, of course, they must have been wrong in thinking that Major Beamish had died in an accident on the marsh. Clearly, the Ickabog had killed him, after all. She’d just reached for Bert’s hand, to show him she knew how horrible it was for him to be in the lair of his father’s killer, when they heard heavy footsteps outside again, and knew the monster had returned. All four dashed back to the soft pile of sheep’s wool and sat down in it as though they’d never moved.

There was a loud rumble as the Ickabog rolled back the stone, letting in the wintry chill. It was still snowing hard outside, and the Ickabog had a lot of snow trapped in its hair. In one of its baskets it had a large number of mushrooms and some firewood. In the other, it had some frozen Chouxville pastries.

While the teenagers watched, the Ickabog built up the fire again, and placed the icy block of pastries on a flat stone beside it, where they slowly began to thaw. Then, while Daisy, Bert, Martha, and Roderick watched, the Ickabog began eating mushrooms. It had a curious way of doing so. It speared a few at a time on the single spike protruding from each paw, then picked them off delicately in its mouth, one by one, chewing them up with what looked like great enjoyment.

After a while, it seemed to become aware that the four humans were watching it.

‘Roar,’ it said again, and fell back to ignoring them, until it had eaten all the mushrooms, after which it carefully lifted the unfrozen Chouxville pastries off the warm rock, and offered them to the humans in its huge, hairy paws.

‘It’s trying to fatten us up!’ said Martha in a terrified whisper, but nevertheless she seized a Folderol Fancy and the next second, her eyes were closed in ecstasy.

After the Ickabog and the humans had eaten, the Ickabog put its two baskets away tidily in a corner, poked up the fire, and moved to the mouth of the cave, where the snow continued to fall and the sun was beginning to set. With a strange noise you’d recognise if you’ve ever heard a bagpipe inflate before somebody starts to play it, the Ickabog drew in breath and began to sing in a language none of the humans could understand. The song echoed forth over the marsh as darkness fell. The four teenagers listened, and soon felt drowsy, and one by one they sank back into the nest of sheep’s wool, and fell asleep.

 

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