‘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!’