Children generally stayed at Ma Grunter’s orphanage until she threw them out onto the street. She received no gold for looking after grown men and women, and had allowed Basher John to stay only because he was useful to her. While they were still worth gold, Ma Grunter made sure no children escaped by keeping all doors securely locked and bolted. Only Basher John had keys, and the last boy who’d tried to steal them had spent months recovering from his injuries.
Daisy and Martha both knew the time was coming when they’d be thrown out, but they were less worried for themselves than for what would become of the little ones once they were gone. Bert and Roderick knew they’d have to leave around the same time, if not sooner. They weren’t able to check and see whether Wanted posters with Bert’s face on them were still stuck to the walls of Jeroboam, but it seemed unlikely they’d been taken down. The four lived in daily dread that Ma Grunter and Basher John would realise they had a valuable fugitive worth one hundred gold ducats under their roof.
In the meantime, Bert, Daisy, Martha, and Roderick met every night, while the other children were asleep, to share their stories and pool their knowledge about what was going on in Cornucopia. They held these meetings in the only place Basher John never went: the large cabbage cupboard in the kitchen.
Roderick, who’d been raised to make jokes about the Marshlanders, laughed at Martha’s accent during the first of these meetings, but Daisy told him off so fiercely that he didn’t do it again.
Huddled around a single candle as though it were a fire, amid mounds of tough, smelly cabbages, Daisy told the boys about her kidnap, Bert shared his fear that his father had died in some kind of accident, and Roderick explained about the way the Dark Footers faked attacks on towns to keep people believing in the Ickabog. He also told the others about how the mail was intercepted, how the two lords were stealing wagon-loads of gold from the country, and that hundreds of people had been killed, or, if they were useful to Spittleworth in some way, imprisoned.
However, each of the boys was hiding something, and I’ll tell you what it was.
Roderick suspected that Major Beamish had been accidentally shot on the marsh all those years ago, but he hadn’t told Bert that, because he was scared his friend would blame him for not telling him sooner.
Meanwhile, Bert, who was certain Mr Dovetail had carved the giant feet the Dark Footers were using, didn’t tell Daisy so. You see, he was certain Mr Dovetail must have been killed after making them, and he didn’t want to give Daisy false hope that he was still alive. As Roderick didn’t know who’d carved the many sets of feet used by the Dark Footers, Daisy had no idea about her father’s part in the attacks.
‘But what about the soldiers?’ Daisy asked Roderick, on the sixth night they met in the cabbage cupboard. ‘The Ickabog Defence Brigade and the Royal Guard? Are they in on it?’
‘I think they must be, a bit,’ said Roderick, ‘but only the very top people know everything – the two lords and my – and whoever’s replaced my father,’ he said, and fell silent for a while.
‘The soldiers must know there is no Ickabog,’ said Bert, ‘after all the time they’ve spent up in the Marshlands.’
‘There is an Ickabog, though,’ said Martha. Roddy didn’t laugh, though he might have done if he’d just met her. Daisy ignored Martha, as she usually did, but Bert said kindly: ‘I believed in it myself, until I realised what was really going on.’
The foursome went off to bed later that night, agreeing to meet again the following evening. Each was burning with the ambition to save the country, but they kept coming back to the fact that without weapons, they could hardly fight Spittleworth and his many soldiers.
However, when the girls arrived in the cabbage cupboard on the seventh night, Bert knew from their expressions that something bad had happened.
‘Trouble,’ whispered Daisy, as soon as Martha had closed the cupboard door. ‘We heard Ma Grunter and Basher John talking, just before we went to bed. There’s an orphanage inspector on the way. He’ll be here tomorrow afternoon.’
The boys looked at each other, extremely worried. The last thing they wanted was for an outsider to recognise them as two fugitives.
‘We have to leave,’ said Bert to Roderick. ‘Now. Tonight. Together, we can manage to get the keys from Basher John.’
‘I’m game,’ said Roderick, clenching his fists.
‘Well, Martha and I are coming with you,’ said Daisy. ‘We’ve thought of a plan.’
‘What plan?’ asked Bert.
‘I say the four of us head north, to the soldiers’ camp in the Marshlands,’ said Daisy. ‘Martha knows the way, she can guide us. When we get there, we tell the soldiers everything Roderick’s told us – about the Ickabog being fake—’
‘It’s real, though,’ said Martha, but the other three ignored her.
‘—and about the killings and all the gold Spittleworth and Flapoon are stealing from the country. We can’t take on Spittleworth alone. There must be some good soldiers, who’d stop obeying him, and help us take the country back!’
‘It’s a good plan,’ said Bert slowly, ‘but I don’t think you girls should come. It might be dangerous. Roderick and I will do it.’
‘No, Bert,’ said Daisy, her eyes almost feverish. ‘With four of us, we double the number of soldiers we can talk to. Please don’t argue. Unless something changes, soon, most of the children in this orphanage will be in that cemetery before the winter’s over.’
It took a little more argument for Bert to agree that the two girls should come, because he privately worried that Daisy and Martha were too frail to make the journey, but at last he agreed.
‘All right. You’d better grab your blankets off your beds, because it’s going to be a long, cold walk. Roddy and I will deal with Basher John.’
So Bert and Roderick sneaked into Basher John’s room. The fight was short and brutal. It was lucky Ma Grunter had drunk two whole bottles of wine with her dinner, because otherwise all the banging and shouting would definitely have woken her. Leaving Basher John bloody and bruised, Roderick stole his boots. Then, they locked him in his own room and the two boys sprinted to join the girls, who were waiting beside the front door. It took five long minutes to unfasten all the padlocks and loosen all the chains.
A blast of icy air met them as they opened the door. With one last glance back at the orphanage, threadbare blankets around their shoulders, Daisy, Bert, Martha, and Roderick slipped out onto the street and set off for the Marshlands through the first few flakes of snow.
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