Up in the Marshlands, where the snow still lay thick upon the ground, the Ickabog was no longer pushing the boulder in front of the cave mouth when it went out with its baskets. Instead, Daisy, Bert, Martha, and Roderick were helping it collect the little marsh mushrooms it liked to eat, and during these outings they also prised more frozen food from the abandoned wagon, which they took back to the cave for themselves.
All four humans were growing stronger and healthier by the day. The Ickabog, too, was growing fatter and fatter, but this was because its Bornding time was drawing ever closer. As the Bornding was when the Ickabog said it intended on eating the four humans, Bert, Martha, and Roderick weren’t very happy about the Ickabog’s growing belly. Bert, in particular, was certain the Ickabog meant to kill them. He now believed he’d been wrong about his father having an accident. The Ickabog was real so, clearly, the Ickabog had killed Major Beamish.
Often, on their mushrooming trips, the Ickabog and Daisy would draw a little ahead of the others, having their own private conversation.
‘What d’you think they’re talking about?’ Martha whispered to the two boys, as they searched the bog for the small white mushrooms the Ickabog particularly liked.
‘I think she’s trying to make friends with it,’ said Bert.
‘What, so it’ll eat us instead of her?’ said Roderick.
‘That’s a horrible thing to say,’ said Martha sharply. ‘Daisy looked after everyone at the orphanage. Sometimes she took punishments for other people, too.’
Roderick was taken aback. He’d been taught by his father to expect the worst of everybody he met and that the one way to get on in life was to be the biggest, the strongest, and the meanest in every group. It was hard to lose the habits he’d been taught, but with his father dead, and his mother and brothers doubtless in prison, Roderick didn’t want these three new friends to dislike him.
‘Sorry,’ he muttered, and Martha smiled at him.
Now, as it happened, Bert was quite right. Daisy was making friends with the Ickabog, but her plan wasn’t only to save herself, or even her three friends. It was to save the whole of Cornucopia.
As she and the monster walked through the bog on this particular morning, drawing ahead of the others, she noticed that a few snowdrops had managed to force their way up through a patch of melting ice. Spring was coming, which meant soldiers would soon be returning to the edge of the marsh. With a funny seasick feeling in her stomach, because she knew how important it was that she got this right, Daisy said:
‘Ickabog, you know the song you sing every night?’
The Ickabog, who was lifting a log to see whether there were any mushrooms hiding beneath it, said:
‘If I didn’t know it, I couldn’t sing it, could I?’
It gave a wheezy little chuckle.
‘Well, you know how you sing that you want your children to be kind, and wise, and brave?’
‘Yes,’ agreed the Ickabog, and it picked up a small silvery-grey mushroom and showed it to Daisy. ‘That’s a good one. You don’t get many silver ones on the marsh.’
‘Lovely,’ said Daisy, as the Ickabog popped the mushroom into its basket. ‘And then, in the last chorus of your song, you say you hope that your babies will kill people,’ said Daisy.
‘Yes,’ said the Ickabog again, reaching up to pull a small bit of yellowish fungus off a dead tree, and showing it to Daisy. ‘This is poisonous. Never eat this kind.’
‘I won’t,’ said Daisy, and drawing a deep breath she said, ‘but d’you really think a kind, wise, brave Ickabog would eat people?’
The Ickabog stopped in the act of bending to pick up another silvery mushroom and peered down at Daisy.
‘I don’t want to eat you,’ it said, ‘but I have to, or my children will die.’
‘You said they need hope,’ said Daisy. ‘What if, when the Bornding time comes, they saw their mother – or their father – I’m sorry, I don’t quite know—’
‘I will be their Icker,’ said the Ickabog. ‘And they’ll be my Ickaboggles.’
‘Well, then, wouldn’t it be wonderful if your – your Ickaboggles saw their Icker surrounded by people who love it, and want it to be happy, and to live with them as friends? Wouldn’t that fill them with more hope than anything else could do?’
The Ickabog sat down on a fallen tree trunk, and for a long time it said nothing at all. Bert, Martha, and Roderick stood watching from a distance. They could tell something very important was happening between Daisy and the Ickabog, and although they were extremely curious, they didn’t dare approach.
At last the Ickabog said:
‘Perhaps… perhaps it would be better if I didn’t eat you, Daisy.’
This was the first time the Ickabog had called her by her name. Daisy reached out and placed her hand in the Ickabog’s paw, and for a moment the two smiled at each other. Then the Ickabog said:
‘When my Bornding comes, you and your friends must surround me, and my Ickaboggles will be Bornded knowing you’re their friends, too. And after that, you must stay with my Ickaboggles here on the marsh, forever.’
‘Well… the problem with that is,’ said Daisy cautiously, still holding the Ickabog’s paw, ‘that the food on the wagon will run out soon. I don’t think there are enough mushrooms here to support the four of us and your Ickaboggles, too.’
Daisy found it strange to be talking like this about a time when the Ickabog wouldn’t be alive, but the Ickabog didn’t seem to mind.
‘Then what can we do?’ it asked her, its big eyes anxious.
‘Ickabog,’ said Daisy cautiously, ‘people are dying all over Cornucopia. They’re starving to death, and even being murdered, all because some evil men made everyone believe you wanted to kill people.’
‘I did want to kill people, until I met you four,’ said the Ickabog.
‘But now you’ve changed,’ said Daisy. She got to her feet and faced the Ickabog, holding both of its paws. ‘Now you understand that people – most people, anyway – aren’t cruel or wicked. They’re mostly sad, and tired, Ickabog. And if they knew you – how kind you are, how gentle, how all you eat is mushrooms, they’d understand how stupid it is to fear you. I’m sure they’d want you and your Ickaboggles to leave the marsh, and go back to the meadows where your ancestors lived, where there are bigger, better mushrooms, and for your descendants to live with us as our friends.’
‘You want me to leave the marsh?’ said the Ickabog. ‘To go among men, with their guns and their spears?’
‘Ickabog, please listen,’ begged Daisy. ‘If your Ickaboggles are Bornded surrounded by hundreds of people, all wanting to love and protect them, wouldn’t that feed them more hope than any Ickaboggle ever had, in history? Whereas, if the four of us stay here on the marsh and starve to death, what hope will remain for your Ickaboggles?’
The monster stared at Daisy, and Bert, Martha, and Roderick watched, wondering what on earth was happening. At last, a huge tear welled in the Ickabog’s eye, like a glass apple.
‘I’m afraid to go among the men. I’m afraid they’ll kill me and my Ickaboggles.’
‘They won’t,’ said Daisy, letting go of the Ickabog’s paw and placing her hands instead on either side of the Ickabog’s huge, hairy face, so her fingers were buried in its long marshweedy hair. ‘I swear to you, Ickabog, we’ll protect you. Your Bornding will be the most important in history. We’re going to bring Ickabogs back… and Cornucopia, too.’
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