Chapter 51

Inside the Cave

Some hours later, Daisy woke up, but at first she didn’t open her eyes. She couldn’t remember being this cosy since childhood, when she’d slept beneath a patchwork quilt stitched by her mother, and woken every winter morning to the sound of a fire crackling in her grate. She could hear the fire crackling now, and smell venison pies heating in the oven, so she knew she must be dreaming that she was back at home with both her parents.

But the sound of flames and the smell of pie were so real it then occurred to Daisy that instead of dreaming, she might be in heaven. Perhaps she’d frozen to death on the edge of the marsh? Without moving her body, she opened her eyes and saw a flickering fire, and the rough-hewn walls of what seemed to be a very large cavern, and she realised she and her three companions were lying in a large nest of what seemed to be unspun sheep’s wool.

There was a gigantic rock beside the fire, which was covered with long greenish-brown marsh weed. Daisy gazed at this rock until her eyes became accustomed to the semi-darkness. Only then did she realise that the rock, which was as tall as two horses, was looking back at her.

Even though the old stories said the Ickabog looked like a dragon, or a serpent, or a drifting ghoul, Daisy knew at once that this was the real thing. In panic, she closed her eyes again, reached out a hand through the soft mass of sheep’s wool, found one of the others’ backs, and poked it.

‘What?’ whispered Bert.

‘Have you seen it?’ whispered Daisy, eyes still tightly shut.

‘Yes,’ breathed Bert. ‘Don’t look at it.’

‘I’m not,’ said Daisy.

‘I told you there was an Ickabog,’ came Martha’s terrified whisper.

‘I think it’s cooking pies,’ whispered Roderick.

All four lay quite still, with their eyes closed, until the smell of venison pie became so deliciously overpowering that each of them felt it would be almost worth dying to jump up, snatch a pie and maybe wolf down a few mouthfuls before the Ickabog could kill them.

Then they heard the monster moving. Its long coarse hair rustled, and its heavy feet made loud muffled thumps. There was a clunk, as though the monster had laid down something heavy. Then a low, booming voice said:

‘Eat them.’

All four opened their eyes.

You might think the fact that the Ickabog could speak their language would be a huge shock, but they were already so stunned that the monster was real, that it knew how to make fires and that it was cooking venison pies, that they barely stopped to consider that point. The Ickabog had placed a rough-hewn wooden platter of pies beside them on the floor, and they realised that it must have taken them from the frozen stock of food on the abandoned wagon.

Slowly and cautiously, the four friends moved into sitting positions, staring up into the large, mournful eyes of the Ickabog, which peered at them through the tangle of long, coarse, greenish hair that covered it from head to foot. Roughly shaped like a person, it had a truly enormous belly, and huge shaggy paws, each of which had a single sharp claw.

‘What do you want with us?’ asked Bert, bravely.

In its deep, booming voice the Ickabog replied:

‘I’m going to eat you. But not yet.’

The Ickabog turned, picked up a pair of baskets, which were woven from strips of bark, and walked away to the mouth of the cave. Then, as though a sudden thought had struck it, the Ickabog turned back to them and said, ‘Roar.’

It didn’t actually roar. It simply said the word. The four teenagers stared at the Ickabog, which blinked, then turned round and walked out of the cave, a basket in each paw. Then a boulder as large as the cave mouth rumbled its way across the entrance, to keep the prisoners inside. They listened as the Ickabog’s footsteps crunched through the snow outside, and died away.

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