Mirkin Topp and the Hair of the Dog

A NaNoWriMo Novel by Phil Gardner

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I live in Brighton, work for the NHS, and write endless stuff online.

Chapter Five

Minutes later, as they made their way across the main courtyard of Roi Castle, heading in the direction of the royal stables, Bray turned to Mirkin with a thoughtful expression on his face.

“I wonder,” said the dwarf, “why the king mentioned a bus when he intended us to travel by horse and cart all along.”

“He said it was key to the rhythm of the piece.” replied Mirkin. “It wouldn’t have worked otherwise.”

“Oh right.” said Bray, not fully understanding.

“But on the bright side,” added Mirkin, “we get the pick of the king’s horses for our quest, and the use of a state-of-the-art royal wagon. It beats public transport any day.”

The two friends continued across the courtyard. King Pip the Fantabulous had instructed them to report to his chief stable lad, Simon the Groom, a fine horseman with a love of Golden Retrievers. Simon’s ancestry could be traced back to the legendary Valkyries, themselves known for their superior riding skills and passion for German oompah music, and Simon had duly inherited this equine affinity, if not the fondness for leather trousers. He felt at one with anything on four legs, and loved the smell of dung in the morning.

‘Two-Time Stables’, the royal stud farm, was the king’s pride and joy. A keen rider himself, Pip had built up a collection of the finest equine bloodstock anywhere in Phillysia, with more than fifty thoroughbred horses, and a mule called Kevin, the result of a dodgy bit of mail order from a disreputable horse supplier the king had vowed never to use again. Kevin aside, the royal stables were choc-full of outstanding Arabians, Palominos and Mustangs, and Simon the Groom knew each of them like the back of his hand. Interestingly, the back of Simon’s hand featured a malignant melanoma which he’d failed to notice, but the fact remained that he knew the horses quite well.

As Mirkin Topp and Bray the Dwarf sauntered through the door of ‘Two-Time Stables’, a small Appaloosa reared up on its hind legs and bolted out into the courtyard beyond. Mirkin watched him go, then calmly shut the stable door. It seemed the right thing to do after such an event, and he felt sure the king wouldn’t miss one horse.

Spotting their arrival, Simon the Groom hurried over to greet them.

“Ah, gentlemen, I’ve been expecting you!” he cried cheerily. “Berkin Bopp and his sidekick Fray, am I right?”

“In a word,” Mirkin replied, “no.”

“And frankly,” added Bray, “I see myself as more than a mere sidekick. I’m an equal partner in this venture. I stand four-square and resolute alongside my taller associate, ready to face together whatever challenges life throws at us, each supporting the other in a permanent and life-long partnership.”

“You’re just saying that ‘cause you don’t have a house any more.” said Mirkin.

“Well I’m going to need somewhere to stay while my new cottage is being built, it’s true,” said Bray. “But the basic principle remains the same.”

Simon the Groom picked up a piece of parchment bearing the official seal of King Pip the Fantabulous. “Well it says here you can have any horse you please to assist you on your quest. But just between you and me, I wouldn’t go for Kevin.”

“Well,” said Mirkin, the royal privilege investing him with a newly found air of self-importance, “that’s all very well for you to say, my good man, but I think it’s for us to decide. If we want Kevin, we’ll damn well have Kevin.” Mirkin placed his hands on his hips. “Now… which one’s Kevin?”

Simon indicated the nearest stall, where a moth-eaten old mule stood munching on a carrot.

“Ok,” said Mirkin, counting the mule’s legs and realising the total didn’t quite make it to four, “what else have you got?”

“Step this way, gentlemen,” said Simon.

The king’s groom led them to the far end of the stables where a row of spacious air-conditioned stalls lined the wall, each gleaming with gold-edged fixtures and fittings, and perfumed with the fresh scent of spring meadows. The signed portraits of a smiling Pip the Fantabulous wearing a cowboy hat and giving the thumbs up sign with one hand whilst holding a large carrot in the other, which hung on the wall of each stall, combined with the piped recordings of easy-listening classics (personally performed by Pip on the mouth organ) which floated through the air around them, suggested that this were home to the king’s favourite horses.

“This is home to the king’s favourite horses,” said Simon, confirming that fact.

Mirkin and Bray walked slowly along the line, examining each horse in turn. Mirkin considered himself to be something of an expert paddock judge down at the local racetrack, though his habit of begging on street corners and foraging for scraps in the local bins the day after every race meeting, led others to doubt this assertion. Nevertheless, he strolled past each horse with an air of confidence, nodding occasionally and letting out the occasional “Hmmm…” as he carefully noted the features of each animal. Reaching the end of the row, he turned to face Simon.

“Right…” said Mirkin, “… they all seem to have four legs. What else do we need to know?”

Simon the Groom sighed. “Let me help you out,” he said. “There are a number of factors to consider when selecting a horse.”

“Oh, I know, I know,” agreed Mirkin, “there’s the jockey, the trainer, the state of the going… the list goes on and on. But if you ask me, the whole thing’s fixed anyway. It’s all a conspiracy. You study the form, put your money down, and cheer on the red hot favourite who couldn’t be beaten in a month of Sundays, only to see the bloomin’ rag hack up like a sixty-a-day smoker. I don’t know why I bother. You might as well set fire to your money.” He turned to Bray. “No offence.”

“None taken,” muttered Bray, lying through his teeth.

“So anything catch your eye, my little mate?” asked Mirkin, ignoring the equine expert standing three feet away.

“Well I could only really see their feet,” replied Bray, “and the underside of their tummies. The one on the end’s got a nice belly button.”

“Is that important in a racehorse?” asked Mirkin of their host.

“No,” replied Simon, irritably, “and you’re not supposed to be choosing the winner of the 3:30 at Happy Valley. You’re supposed to be choosing a good carthorse.”

Mirkin visibly stiffened. “Did you say Hippo Valley?”

“No,” replied Simon.

“Oh, ok,” said Mirkin, pulling himself back from the brink of one of his turns.

Simon the Groom motioned for the pair of royal questers to follow him. “Allow me to give you some advice, gentlemen,” he said, making his way along the line of stalls before coming to a halt by a brass plaque bearing the name ‘Kilroy’.

“This is Kilroy,” said Simon, proving he could read. “He’s an Arabian horse of the highest order. His breeding is first class-”

“We don’t wish to know what he does in bed, thank you,” interrupted Mirkin.

“-and he possesses unusually great strength for a horse of his size,” Simon continued.

“He’s a bit of an odd colour,” commented Bray.

“That’s fake tan,” explained Simon. “He’s one of our most successful studs.”

“Well that explains the medallion,” nodded Mirkin.

“Indeed,” confirmed Simon. “Kilroy is fit, fast, confident and adventurous. I can personally recommend him.”

“I don’t know…” pondered Mirkin, concerned that Simon’s relationship with the horses may be a little too close for his liking, “… have you got any Shire horses?”

“Well I have,” replied the groom, “but trust me, the shyer horses don’t make such good studs. They tend to get flustered and spoil their chat-up lines.”

“No, Shire horses,” Mirkin clarified. “Beefy beasts with big feet.”

“Oh right,” said Simon. “No. We’re right out of them this week.”

“Shame,” said Mirkin, somewhat downhearted, “you can use their collars for gurning, you know.”

As Mirkin continued to enjoy a game of Simon Says with the king’s groom, Bray wandered over to the opposite row of stalls, where a very different animal had caught his eye. Well ok, not that different. It was still a horse. But in Bray’s eyes it possessed an altogether different quality which set it apart from the sleek, well toned Arabian powerhouses nearby. For a start it was white. Not that Bray was racist, you understand. He had nothing against Arabs, and some of his best friends were dark horses. He counted amongst his closest chums a certain Black-Eyed Pete, the Black-Bearded Dwarf of Blackburn, who was a part time goth. But Bray also had a soft spot for unicorns. Had anyone been there to witness the fiery destruction of his home, they would have seen the burning of a small, yet well cared for, collection of cuddly unicorns, each lovingly named by Bray, who would play with them late at night in the privacy of his spare bedroom.

Needless to say, no one knew of this fetish. I mean hobby. Whilst not ashamed of his passion, Bray sensibly chose to keep its existence to himself for fear of public ridicule. Much as he missed Snowflake, Ice Maiden, Fluffy and the rest, he drew solace from the fact that along with the destruction of his entire collection of unicorn memorabilia, Mirkin’s chances of ever unearthing his secret had also gone up in smoke that day. And let’s face it, Mirkin would have ribbed his dwarven chum mercilessly. Like the poisonous fumes which spread from Snowflake’s man-made stuffing as it burned, the embarrassment would have been overwhelming.

For now Bray put thoughts of his loss to one side and called to his elven companion. “Hey Mirkin! How about this one?”

Mirkin looked up and made his way over to where Bray stood. “Nyte,” he said, reading the name tag.

“It looks like a unicorn!” said Bray excitedly. “Only without the horn.”

“Hmmm… I dunno,” the tubby elf said dubiously, “The colour’s nice, but it’d show the dirt.”

“That’s no problem,” said Bray cheerfully. “I can wash it every day, and feed it, and take it for walks. Really, I promise I’ll take care of it. So can we have it, please, can we, can we?”

Mirkin was unsettled. He hadn’t seen this side of the little dwarf before, and he wasn’t sure he felt comfortable with it.

“I’ll have to ask your mother,” he said, for reasons even he didn’t understand.

Simon the Groom approached and took on the role of tour guide.

“This is Nyte,” he said. “She’s a mare.”

“Nyte the Mare?” confirmed Mirkin.

“Got it in one,” said Simon. “She’s quite slight, but she’s as strong as an ox.”

“White Nyte the Quite Slight Mare?” chipped in Mirkin.

“If you say so,” replied Simon. “She may not be as fast as some of the others, but she’s the right size to pull a cart and has always been one of the brightest horses in the yard.”

“White Nyte the Right Height Bright Quite Slight Mare?” Mirkin suggested, pushing his luck.

“Can you stop now, or I may have to kill you,” asked Simon politely.

“Fair enough,” said Mirkin. He was nothing if not reasonable.

“We’ll take her!” blurted out Bray all of a sudden.

Mirkin looked resigned to his smaller friend’s decision. “Well, if it’ll keep the little fella happy,” he said, “I suppose she’ll do.”

“Hurrah!” cried Bray, jumping up and down, at times leaping as much as three inches off the stable floor.

“Very wise choice, sir,” said Simon, shaking Bray’s hand as the dwarf bounced on the spot. “I’ll have the horse prepared, and you can pick her up around the front in half an hour.”

“Thanks,” said Mirkin, “you’ve made a small dwarf very happy.”

Pausing for a moment to consider the possibility of harnessing Bray’s vertical energy by pogo-ing across the Bear-Faced Mountains, Mirkin shook his head and led his small excitable friend out of the Two-Time Stables to begin preparations for the adventure which lay ahead of them.