King Fred strode from the Throne Room feeling quite delighted with himself. Nobody would ever again say that he was selfish, vain, and cruel! For the sake of a smelly, simple old shepherd and his worthless old mongrel, he, King Fred the Fearless, was going to hunt the Ickabog! True, there was no such thing, but it was still dashed fine and noble of him to ride to the other end of the country, in person, to prove it!
Quite forgetting lunch, the king rushed upstairs to his bedroom, shouting for his valet to come and help him out of the dreary black suit and help him into his battledress, which he’d never had the chance to wear before. The tunic was scarlet, with buttons of gold, a purple sash, and lots of medals that Fred was allowed to wear because he was king, and when Fred looked in the mirror and saw how well battledress became him, he wondered why he didn’t wear it all the time. As his valet lowered the king’s plumed helmet onto his golden curls, Fred imagined himself painted wearing it, seated on his favourite milk-white charger and spearing a serpentlike monster with his lance. King Fred the Fearless indeed! Why, he half hoped there really was an Ickabog, now.
Meanwhile, the Chief Advisor was sending word throughout the City-Within-The-City that the king was setting off on a tour of the country, and that everyone should be ready to cheer him as he left. Herringbone made no mention of the Ickabog, because he wanted to prevent the king from looking foolish, if he could.
Unfortunately, the footman called Cankerby had overheard two advisors muttering together about the king’s strange scheme. Cankerby immediately told the between maid, who spread the word all over the kitchens, where a sausage seller from Baronstown was gossiping with the cook. In short, by the time the king’s party was ready to leave, word had spread all through the City-Within-The-City that the king was riding north to hunt the Ickabog, and news was also beginning to leak out into wider Chouxville.
‘Is it a joke?’ the capital’s inhabitants asked each other, as they thronged out onto the pavements, ready to cheer the king. ‘What does it mean?’
Some shrugged and laughed and said that the king was merely having fun. Others shook their heads and muttered that there must be more to it than that. No king would ride out, armed, to the north of the country without good reason. What, the worried folk asked each other, does the king know, that we do not?
Lady Eslanda joined the other ladies of the court on a balcony, to watch the soldiers assembling.
I shall now tell you a secret, which nobody else knew. Lady Eslanda would never have married the king, even if he’d asked her. You see, she was secretly in love with a man called Captain Goodfellow, who was now chatting and laughing with his good friend Major Beamish in the courtyard below. Lady Eslanda, who was very shy, had never been able to bring herself to talk to Captain Goodfellow, who had no idea that the most beautiful woman at court was in love with him. Both Goodfellow’s parents, who were dead, had been cheesemakers from Kurdsburg. Though Goodfellow was both clever and brave, these were the days when no cheesemaker’s son would expect to marry a highborn lady.
Meanwhile, all the servants’ children were being let out of school early to watch the battle party set off. Mrs Beamish the pastry chef naturally rushed to collect Bert, so that he’d have a good spot to watch his father passing by.
When the palace gates opened at last, and the cavalcade rode out, Bert and Mrs Beamish cheered at the top of their lungs. Nobody had seen battledress for a very long time. How exciting it was, and how fine! The sunlight played upon the golden buttons, silver swords, and the gleaming trumpets of the buglers, and up on the palace balcony, the handkerchiefs of the ladies of the court fluttered in farewell, like doves.
At the front of the procession rode King Fred, on his milk-white charger, holding scarlet reins and waving at the crowds. Right behind him, riding a thin yellow horse and wearing a bored expression, was Spittleworth, and next came Flapoon, furiously lunch-less and sitting on his elephantine chestnut.
Behind the king and the two lords trotted the Royal Guard, all of them on dapple-grey horses, except for Major Beamish, who rode his steel-grey stallion. It made Mrs Beamish’s heart flutter to see her husband looking so handsome.
‘Good luck, Daddy!’ shouted Bert, and Major Beamish (though he really shouldn’t have done) waved at his son.
The procession trotted down the hill, smiling at the cheering crowds of the City-Within-The-City, until it reached the gates in the wall onto wider Chouxville. There, hidden by the crowds, was the Dovetails’ cottage. Mr Dovetail and Daisy had come out into their garden, and they were just able to see the plumes in the helmets of the Royal Guard riding past.
Daisy didn’t feel much interest in the soldiers. She and Bert still weren’t talking to each other. In fact, he’d spent morning break with Roderick Roach, who often jeered at Daisy for wearing overalls instead of a dress, so the cheering and the sound of the horses didn’t raise her spirits at all.
‘There isn’t really an Ickabog, Daddy, is there?’ she asked.
‘No, Daisy,’ sighed Mr Dovetail, turning back to his workshop, ‘there’s no Ickabog, but if the king wants to believe in it, let him. He can’t do much harm up in the Marshlands.’
Which just goes to show that even sensible men may fail to see a terrible, looming danger.
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