And then, all at once, the judges gripped their stomachs and fell to their knees. *** The warm bubble of chatter that had filled the tent burst. Everyone who had not been watching the judges turned in horror to the scene and those who had watched it all unfold could do little more than gawp and gasp.
Otter, who was watching most closely of all, was the first to the writhing judges - the hot sweat of nervousness had quickly turned cold as he tried aimlessly to help. He ran pathetically from person to person, loosening collars and patting hands, but he was no doctor, he was just a baker. A baker, who in the eyes of the world, had poisoned the great and the good of Whiffling and Nabberjack.
Presently the on-hand medics came to the rescue. They were two old codgers who looked like they were more in need of medical assistance than their patients - gout, gammy knees, tooth decay, poor eyesight, and poorer hearing - but their minds were as sharp as ever. The younger of the two (around eighty-seven and two-fifteenths) shoved poor Otter out of the way and set about rolling the judges on their sides.
The other (ninety-nine and three-twenty-thirds) took a tentative sniff of the suspect entry. 'Marmite' he concluded after sneezing a few times into a yellowing doily, 'Nasty stuff if used on the unprepared. No wonder you lot went down like bottled frogs' he said, shaking his head sadly at the greening judges. There were a few feeble groans in return. 'But will they be all right?' said
Otter desperately. 'Yea, a few days rest and they'll be right as ditch water. Shouldn't worry too much.' Another set of feeble groans came up from the floor, but it was drowned out by the very audible sighs of relief from the crowd. Some of the more sensitive members had even taken to swooning, for it was fashionable to do so, and this
was a perfect opportunity to showcase their collapsing talents. 'But those poor sods should consider themselves lucky' said the octogenarian medic. He checked the pulse of his final charged and slowly tottered to his feet. 'If it was vegemite, it coulda been fatal, yer hear me?' The crowd muttered to itself and someone shouted from the back, 'Who's the baker?'
There was a silence. The shouter repeated himself, louder, 'Who. Is. The. Baker. That. Wot. Poisoned. Them. Judges?' There was not a silence a second time, Mrs Chubbly stepped forward and pointed at Otter who was holding the poisoned pastry, ''ere, it was 'im!' she cried, barely masking her glee. But it did not matter, Otter's name was neatly
printed on the crumby plate and his face was ashen. Otter looked up at the crowd. The crowd looked down at Otter. 'But...but...I,' Otter spluttered, confused. 'I never put marmite in the recipe. Everyone knows you...you can't go putting marmite in things without the eater passing a full medical check!' But nothing he said
could placate the crowd. Otter knew his beloved baking days were over. He would never make an iced bun again. Not a pasty, not a pork pie. Not even a sausage roll. Angry shouts had begun to spew forth, 'Liar!' 'Cheater!' 'Murderer!'
'I'm not a murderer,' cried Otter, 'No one's been killed!' The crowd turning in on itself stumped at this fairly logical chain of reasoning. Fearing their plan would backfire, Mrs Chubbly pulled on Tim's apron strings and begged him to think of something cunning. 'That's exactly what a murder would say though, innit?' said Tim cunningly.
The crowd agreed that that was an even fairer logical chain of reasoning and turned back on the trembling figure of Otter Wetbottom. 'But...' Robbert and Knobbert started chanting from the back of the crowd, 'Mur-der-er. Mur-der-er. Mur-der-er!' and it did not take long for others to join. Even some of the judges had
started clapping in time to the beat. 'Mur-der-er! (clap-clap-clap!) Mur-der-er! (clap-clap-clap!)' With each syllable, the crowd took a step forward and Otter took a step back. When the baker was just a boy, he had run thoughtlessly into a field full of ewes and lambs. It seemed to him now that the angry crowd were much like
the angry sheep of years before. It also occurred to him that he should take the same course of action. Otter dropped the plate and ran as fast as his legs could carry him. He dashed out of the tent, casting off his baker's hat and apron and dived into the Plonk. The stampeding crowd followed him out and cheered as they watched him drift down the river.
Otter Wetbottom was never seen in Whiffling nor Nabberjack ever again. After a while, the crowd grew bored of throwing insults at the sad little figure bobbing slowly downstream and filed back into the tent. 'Wot should we do now?' gummed a toothless old woman, ''cause I ain't goin' 'ome until sommats done about
that -' she waved a clawed hand at Otter's entry - 'that wotever that is.' A considerably younger woman who had at least two-thirds of her own teeth said, 'You mean, like, punishment-wise?' 'Yea, 'cause the baker 'as done a runner.' There were some nods of agreement around the tent.
What the old crow had said was right. It was enshrined in law that if the guilty party couldn't face the penalty, then someone or something closely associated would have to serve it for them. The law was utterly ridiculous and caused far more problems than it ever solved, but by some tortuous loophole it made lawyers richer, so it stayed enshrined. Otter had no family anymore and had never set about finding a wife, so the
dainty yet dangerous dish would have to do. The Nabberjack mayor struggled to his feet by pushing down hard on the head of the Whiffling mayor, who was also attempting to stand. 'Very well,' he said. 'As mayor of Nabberjack, I -' he bent double for and grabbed his middle. The mayor of Whiffling took his chance, 'As mayor of Whiffling, I propose that we serve justice
by burning it at the stake!' He raised his fist in the air, and then collapsed on the other mayor. Both fell heavily to the ground. 'Oof!' said one or the other, or both. The peoples of Nabberjack and Whiffling agreed heartily with the sentence and cheered and whooped with sadistic delight. After the crowd settled down, a squeaky voice piped up. 'But wot's it called?' It was young
Crumpet Jones, asking a question so sensible only a five and three-sevenths year old could possibly think of it. No one knew. Otter was an extremely modest person and had never once talked of his creations. He had never needed to - everyone else had always done it for him. 'Why it's a...' one of the assistants of the Whifflling
mayor handed Otter's plate to her boss. 'It's a...' he handed it to someone who could read. 'It's a scone.' The young literate man who could read was a Nabberjacker, so he automatically drew out the 'o' like the 'o' of bone or moan, which coincidentally is what every Whiffler in the tent did. Loudly.
'Don't you mean scone?' asked an unhelpful Whiffler in the back, shortening the 'o' as in gone. 'No I most certainly do not' said the young literate man, 'It is quite obviously a scone.'