No harder journey had been made, in all of Cornucopia’s history, than the trek of those four young people to the Marshlands.
It was the bitterest winter the kingdom had seen for a hundred years, and by the time the dark outline of Jeroboam had vanished behind them, the snow was falling so thickly it dazzled their eyes with whiteness. Their thin, patched clothes and their torn blankets were no match for the freezing air, which bit at every part of them like tiny, sharp-toothed wolves.
If not for Martha, it would have been impossible to find their way, but she was familiar with the country north of Jeroboam and, in spite of the thick snow now covering every landmark, she recognised old trees she used to climb, odd-shaped rocks that had always been there, and ramshackle sheep sheds that had once belonged to neighbours. Even so, the further north they travelled, the more all of them wondered in their hearts whether the journey would kill them, though they never spoke the thought aloud. Each felt their body plead with them to stop, to lie down in the icy straw of some abandoned barn, and give up.
On the third night, Martha knew they were close, because she could smell the familiar ooze and brackish water of the marsh. All of them regained a little hope: they strained their eyes for any sign of torches and fires in the soldiers’ encampment, and imagined they heard men talking, and the jingling of horses’ harnesses, through the whistling wind. Every now and then they saw a glint in the distance, or heard a noise, but it was always just the moonlight reflecting on a frozen puddle, or a tree creaking in the blizzard.
At last they reached the edge of the wide expanse of rock, marsh, and rustling weed, and they realised there were no soldiers there at all.
The winter storms had caused a retreat. The commander, who was privately certain there was no Ickabog, had decided that he wasn’t going to let his men freeze to death just to please Lord Spittleworth. So he’d given the order to head south, and if it hadn’t been for the thick snow, which was still falling so fast it covered all tracks, the friends might have been able to see the soldiers’ five-day-old footprints, going in the opposite direction.
‘Look,’ said Roderick, pointing as he shivered. ‘They were here…’
A wagon had been abandoned in the snow because it had got stuck, and the soldiers wanted to escape the storm quickly. The foursome approached the wagon and saw food, food such as Bert, Daisy, and Roderick remembered only from their dreams, and which Martha had never seen in her life. Heaps of creamy Kurdsburg cheeses, piles of Chouxville pastries, sausages and venison pies of Baronstown, all sent to keep the camp commander and his soldiers happy, because there was no food to be had in the Marshlands.
Bert reached out numb fingers to try and take a pie, but a thick layer of ice now covered the food, and his fingers simply slid off.
He turned a hopeless face to Daisy, Martha, and Roderick, all of whose lips were now blue. Nobody said anything. They knew they were going to die of cold on the edge of the Ickabog’s marsh and none of them really cared any longer. Daisy was so cold that to sleep forever seemed a wonderful idea. She barely felt the added chill as she sank slowly into the snow. Bert sank down and put his arms around her, but he too was feeling sleepy and strange. Martha leant up against Roderick, who tried to draw her under his blanket. Huddled together beside the wagon, all four were soon unconscious, and the snow crept up their bodies as the moon began to rise.
And then a vast shadow rippled over them. Two enormous arms covered in long green hair, like marsh weed, descended upon the four friends. As easily as if they were babies, the Ickabog scooped them up and bore them away across the marsh.
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