Sometimes – I don’t know how – people who live many miles apart seem to realise the time has come to act. Perhaps ideas can spread like pollen on the breeze. In any case, down in the palace dungeon, the prisoners who’d hidden knives and chisels, heavy saucepans and rolling pins beneath their mattresses and stones in their cell walls, were ready at last. At dawn on the day the Ickabog approached Kurdsburg, Captain Goodfellow and Mr Dovetail, whose cells were opposite each other, were awake, pale, tense, and sitting on the edges of their beds, because today was the day they’d vowed to escape, or die.
Several floors above the prisoners, Lord Spittleworth, too, woke early. Completely unaware that a prison break-out was brewing beneath his feet, or that a real live Ickabog was at that very moment advancing on Chouxville, surrounded by an ever-growing crowd of Cornucopians, Spittleworth washed, dressed in his Chief Advisor’s robes, then headed out to a locked wing of the stables, which had been under guard for a week.
‘Stand aside,’ Spittleworth told the soldiers on guard, and he unbolted the doors.
A team of exhausted seamstresses and tailors were waiting beside the model of a monster inside the stable. It was the size of a bull, with leathery skin, and was covered in spikes. Its carved feet bore fearsome claws, its mouth was full of fangs and its angry eyes glowed amber in its face.
The seamstresses and tailors watched fearfully as Spittleworth walked slowly around their creation. Close up, you could see the stitching, tell that the eyes were made of glass, that the spikes were really nails pushed through the leather, and that the claws and fangs were nothing but painted wood. If you prodded the beast, a trickle of sawdust ran from the seams. Nevertheless, by the dim light of the stables, it was a convincing piece of work and the seamstresses and tailors were thankful to see Spittleworth smile.
‘It will do, by candlelight, at least,’ he said. ‘I’ll simply have to make the dear king stand well back as he looks at it. We can say the spikes and fangs are still poisonous.’
The workers exchanged relieved looks. They’d been working all day and all night for a week. Now at last they’d be able to go home to their families.
‘Soldiers,’ said Spittleworth, turning to the guards waiting in the courtyard, ‘take these people away. If you scream,’ he added lazily, as the youngest seamstress opened her mouth to do so, ‘you’ll be shot.’
While the team that had made the stuffed Ickabog was dragged away by the soldiers, Spittleworth went upstairs, whistling, to the king’s apartments, where he found Fred wearing silk pyjamas and a hairnet over his moustaches, and Flapoon tucking a napkin beneath his many chins.
‘Good morning, Your Majesty!’ said Spittleworth with a bow. ‘I trust you slept well? I have a surprise for Your Majesty today. We have succeeded in having one of the Ickabogs stuffed. I know Your Majesty was eager to see it.’
‘Wonderful, Spittleworth!’ said the king. ‘And after that, we might send it around the kingdom, what? To show the people what we’re up against?’
‘I would advise against that, sire,’ said Spittleworth, who feared that if anybody saw the stuffed Ickabog by daylight, they’d be sure to spot it as a fake. ‘We wouldn’t want the common folk to panic. Your Majesty is so brave that you can cope with the sight—’
But before Spittleworth could finish, the doors to the king’s private apartments flew open and in ran a wild-eyed, sweaty Basher John, who’d been delayed on the road by not one, but two sets of highwaymen. After getting lost in some woods and falling off his horse while jumping a ditch, then being unable to catch it again, Basher John hadn’t managed to reach the palace much ahead of the Ickabog. Panicking, he’d forced entry to the palace through a scullery window, and two guards had pursued him through the palace, both of them prepared to run him through with their swords.
Fred let out a scream and hid behind Flapoon. Spittleworth pulled out his dagger and jumped to his feet.
‘There’s – an – Ickabog,’ panted Basher John, falling to his knees. ‘A real – live –Ickabog. It’s coming here – with thousands of people – the Ickabog – is real.’
Naturally, Spittleworth didn’t believe this story for a second.
‘Take him to the dungeons!’ he snarled at the guards, who dragged the struggling Basher John from the room and closed the doors again. ‘I do apologise, sire,’ said Spittleworth, who was still holding his dagger. ‘The man will be horsewhipped, and so will the guards who let him break into the pal—’
But before Spittleworth could finish his sentence, two more men came bursting into the king’s private apartments. These were Spittleworth’s Chouxville spies who’d had word from the north about the Ickabog’s approach, but as the king had never laid eyes on them before, he let out another terrified squeal.
‘My – lord,’ panted the first spy, bowing to Spittleworth, ‘there’s – an – Ickabog, coming – this – way!’
‘And it’s got – a crowd – with it,’ panted the second. ‘It’s real!’
‘Well, of course the Ickabog’s real!’ said Spittleworth, who could hardly say anything else with the king present. ‘Notify the Ickabog Defence Brigade – I shall join them shortly in the courtyard, and we’ll kill the beast!’
Spittleworth ushered the spies to the door and thrust them back into the passageway, trying to drown out their whispers of, ‘My lord, it’s real, and the people like it!’, and, ‘I saw it, my lord, with my own two eyes!’
‘We shall kill this monster as we’ve killed all the others!’ said Spittleworth loudly, for the king’s benefit, and then under his breath he added, ‘Go away!’
Spittleworth closed the door firmly on the spies and returned to the table, disturbed, but trying not to show it. Flapoon was still tucking into some Baronstown ham. He had a vague idea that Spittleworth must be behind all these people rushing in and talking about live Ickabogs, so he wasn’t frightened in the slightest. Fred, on the other hand, was quivering from head to foot.
‘Imagine the monster showing itself in daylight, Spittleworth!’ he whimpered. ‘I thought it only ever came out at night!’
‘Yes, it’s getting far too bold, isn’t it, Your Majesty?’ said Spittleworth. He had no idea what this so-called real Ickabog could be. The only thing he could imagine was that some common folk had rigged up some kind of fake monster, possibly to steal food, or force gold out of their neighbours – but it would still have to be stopped, of course. There was only one true Ickabog, and that was the one Spittleworth had invented. ‘Come, Flapoon – we must prevent this beast from entering Chouxville!’
‘You’re so brave, Spittleworth,’ said King Fred in a broken voice.
‘Tish, pish, Your Majesty,’ said Spittleworth. ‘I would lay down my life for Cornucopia. You should know that by now!’
Spittleworth’s hand was on the door handle when yet more running footsteps, this time accompanied by shouting and clanging, shattered the peace. Startled, Spittleworth opened the door to see what was going on.
A group of ragged prisoners was running towards him. At the head of them was the white-haired Mr Dovetail, who held an axe, and burly Captain Goodfellow, who carried a gun clearly wrestled from the hands of a palace guard. Right behind them came Mrs Beamish, her hair flying behind her as she brandished an enormous saucepan, and hot on her heels came Millicent, Lady Eslanda’s maid, who held a rolling pin.
Just in time, Spittleworth slammed and bolted the door. Within seconds, Mr Dovetail’s axe had smashed through the wood.
‘Flapoon, come!’ shouted Spittleworth, and the two lords ran across the room to another door, which led to a staircase down to the courtyard.
Fred, who had no idea what was going on, who’d never even realised that there were fifty people trapped in the dungeon of his palace, was slow to react. Seeing the faces of the furious prisoners appear at the hole Mr Dovetail had hacked in the door, he jumped up to follow the two lords, but they, interested only in their own skins, had bolted it from the other side. King Fred was left standing in his pyjamas with his back to the wall, watching the escaped prisoners hack their way into his room.
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