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 Four

Roi Castle, the grand and palatial home of King Pip the Fantabulous, lay to the west of Melee across the Aero Plains, a journey of some two hours from the smouldering ashes which Bray had once called home. Like the wine which flowed freely within its walls, the castle was heavily fortified, and sat atop a small hill, surrounded by a deep moat, where it commanded magnificent views of any passing poor people.

King Pip conducted the affairs of Phillysia from an ornate throne room within the castle’s central tower, ruling his kingdom efficiently and conscientiously, whilst still finding time to compose sonnets and play easy-listening music on the mouth organ. Rising late each morning, he would take breakfast on the shaded balcony overlooking his stables, before bathing in the warm natural springs which had bubbled up unexpectedly through the granite stones of the castle rockery since the day the royal plumber had severed the water main whilst attempting to fit a garden sprinkler system. Each afternoon the king would attend to his royal business from the comfort of a reclining sofa, his feet on a leather-clad pouffe, whilst two footmen fanned him with large ostrich feathers. Which could be a bit chilly in the winter, but looked good for the foreign tourists. It was a privileged existence, yes, but not one without occasional hardship. Pip still remembered with unsettling anguish the day his teatime champagne had arrived ever so slightly under-chilled.

Waiting nervously for word from his envoys, King Pip had spent this particular day pacing back and forth across the main courtyard just inside the southern gates of Roi Castle, mouth organ lying sadly dormant in the back pocket of his silk boxer shorts, the ground around him strewn with crumpled sheets of paper – evidence of more than a dozen self-rejected efforts at sonnet composition. He could not eat, he could not drink nor think, and even the lure of easy-listening music had failed to tempt him on this day. Fourteen lines of poetry seemed fourteen lines too many. King Pip the Fantabulous was a worried man.

He should, perhaps, have been significantly more worried to know that his fate now lay in the hands of one Mirkin Topp and a homeless dwarf they called Bray, but ironically it was the arrival of precisely this news which finally succeeded in settling the king’s nerves that day. As a breathless messenger ran through the castle gates at speed and collapsed with exhaustion on the ground before the king, blurting out news of the pair’s impending arrival between copious gulps of air, Pip let out a whoop of joy which could be heard for miles around, before referring the messenger to the royal doctor with suspected asthma. He’d only run twenty yards from reception.

The king quickly made his way inside to prepare to receive his much anticipated guests. He was a proud man, and preferred his subjects not to see him in his rainbow striped boxer shorts and Scooby Doo t-shirt.

Looking east from the ramparts of Roi Castle, a speck could be now be seen on the horizon. Anyone with access to a telescope would have known the speck to be made up of two royal guards in torn tunics, a hung over elf, and a groggy dwarf with nowhere to lay his hat. Not that he had a hat. Well, not any more. His straw boaters had been among the first of his possessions to catch fire that morning, burning with remarkable speed and a certain spectacular beauty which would have induced gasps of astonishment had anyone been there to witness it. Anyone other than the two sparkly suited guards that is, who were, at the time, somewhat occupied trying to smother the flames with a flammable cushion cover.

The four had made their way across the Aero Plains on horseback, Mirkin riding pillion behind one guard, whilst the other took care of Bray by tucking him into the saddle bag, his head poking out, beard flowing in the wind. It had been a mostly uneventful journey, saved from total mundanity by the moment they realised that Bray had popped out of the saddle bag during a particularly jaunty gallop, and bounced down a nearby hill into a cabbage field. Oh how they’d laughed. Well, three of them had laughed. Fortunately though, the bouncing had revived Bray, who, whilst still somewhat miffed at the wanton destruction of all his worldly goods, was by now coming to terms with being homeless and destitute, and beginning to make the most of the fresh air.

Their pace slowing to a canter, the four approached the gates of the castle. Coming to a halt, the first guard put his hands to his mouth and made the call of the wild elephant to signal the gatekeeper to their presence. A lone arrow was fired from the ramparts above by a young sentry on his first day in the job, unaware of the signalling system employed at Roi Castle, and keen to bag himself an elephant for the dining room wall. Fortunately the arrow missed by a good three feet, instead hitting a grumpy, mean and surprisingly ferocious giant hamster who had leapt from behind a nearby rock with the aim of ambushing the party in search of sunflower seeds. The threat was quickly negated by an arrow to the furry nether regions, and the day was inadvertently saved. As was the sentry’s job.

Back at the gatehouse, the drawbridge was lowered, and as the Roi Castle trumpeters hailed the group’s arrival with a fanfare entitled simply ‘Dedication’, Mirkin and Bray were escorted across the moat, through the gates, and into the magisterial courtyard beyond.

“What are all these bits of paper on the ground?” asked Mirkin, but no one responded.

The pair were led directly to the central tower where they climbed the shiny marble staircase and found themselves ushered into the throne room of King Pip the Fantabulous. The king sat regally on the bejewelled throne before them. Mirkin thought he could make out a small embroidered Scooby Doo logo poking through from beneath Pip’s royal robes, but he chose not to mention it. Instead he bowed nervously and stood in silence on the red carpet alongside Bray, whose thoughts were occupied with the memory of Bob, his pet goldfish. He winced at the fate which must have befallen his aquatic chum, and vowed never to eat boiled fish again, before noticing the king and duly bowing.

“Mirkin Topp,” said the king, “I have called you here for a very special reason. I have an important job for you, and I need you to carry out my instructions to the letter.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “Bray!”

“Hee-haw,” said Mirkin.

“That wasn’t an instruction,” said the king, “I was addressing your colleague.”

“Oh right,” said Mirkin, “sorry, carry on.”

“Bray,” continued Pip, “you too have an important role to play in this venture. You have both been personally selected from a list of all my subjects.”

“Have we already won a major prize?” interrupted Mirkin.

“No,” said the king, “but if you succeed in the quest I am about to bestow upon you, you will receive riches beyond your wildest dreams.”

“Really?” replied Mirkin, “Well I have some pretty wild dreams, so I wouldn’t be so sure.”

“Don’t question me, Topp,” the king boomed, mildly irritated, “I am Pip the Fantabulous, my powers know no bounds, and my orders will be carried out unquestioningly.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” muttered Mirkin, “Who died and made you king?”

“My father.”

“Oh right. My commiserations on your loss.”

“Well, you know, life goes on,” said Pip magnanimously.

“Not if your house is a smouldering pile of rubble!” burst out Bray, getting slightly emotional all of a sudden.

“How dare you!” said Mirkin indignantly. “Just because I don’t tidy up, doesn’t mean my home is a pile of rubble.” He paused for a moment. “Oh, you mean your home. Ok, fair point.”

“Bray,” said the king, “the warm ashy state of your belongings will matter not once you have completed the task I have for you. Your life will be transformed. I will build you a new home. I hear there’s a lovely wooded glade in Melee – I’ve seen it on the town map. With royal planning permission, and a state-of-the-art Super-Storm 2000 roof, you can start a peaceful new life there amongst the birds and flowers.”

“And fish,” added Mirkin.

“Oh, is there a stream there too?” asked the king.

“Only below the eyes on a warm day,” replied Mirkin.

“But anyhow Bray,” Pip continued, “the point is that your singed lifestyle will be but a distant memory if you survive this quest.”

“And besides,” chipped in Mirkin, “think of the fire sale you can have when we get back.”

Mirkin paused for contemplation, before turning back to the king. “Hang on. What do you mean “if we survive this quest”?”

“Well, you know,” said the king, “a quest wouldn’t be a quest without some element of danger. It’s par for the course.”

Bray looked morose. “I don’t have anything to live for anyway,” he stammered.

“Honestly Bray,” scolded Mirkin, “you’re such a wet blanket. A couple of hours ago you were only too happy to contemplate my demise. Show a bit of fighting spirit, will you?”

Bray reached up and punched Mirkin in the family jewels.

“That’s more like it,” said the king, “life’s too short to be apathetic. Well, it is for you two. Now come and sit before my throne, we need to talk.”

His eyes watering, Mirkin staggered forward and collapsed at the foot of the royal throne, an air of disinterest sweeping over him. Feeling a little more positive now, Bray followed his elven companion and settled down on a satin cushion at the king’s feet.

“Nice slippers,” commented Bray, examining the feet in front of him.

“Thanks,” said Pip, “I have one foot bigger than the other, so it can be a nightmare finding a pair which fit. But on the plus side I can steal shoes from outside Dolcis.”

King Pip the Fantabulous settled himself in his throne, before leaning forward conspiratorially and continuing in a hushed tone.

“Ok chaps, let’s begin,” he said, reaching into his back pocket and producing an all-too familiar sight. “Pick a card.”

Mirkin sighed and reluctantly chose a playing card from the fanned selection being offered to him. The king placed a melodramatic hand to his forehead, screwed up his face, and continued. “The three of clubs?”

“Nope,” said Mirkin, looking at his card.

“Oh,” said the king. “Well never mind. It’s not an exact science. Would you like to see my cut and restored rope trick?”

“Does it involve a noose?” enquired Mirkin.

“No,” said Pip.

“In that case I’ll pass,” said the elf.

“And you?” asked the king, looking at Bray hopefully.

“Can you do the burnt and restored house trick?” the dwarf asked.

“You know damn well that one doesn’t exist,” replied Pip, indignantly.

“Well keep trying, you’ve mastered the first half of the trick,” said Mirkin.

“Ok, ok,” the king muttered, putting away his deck of cards, “let’s get on to business. Gentlemen, I have a problem.”

“You’re not the only one,” said Bray, remembering the box of fireworks he’d left in his loft.

“What I am about to tell you,” continued the king, “I tell you in the utmost confidence, and on the condition that you breathe not a word of it to another living soul.”

“Cool!” said Bray, his curiosity piqued sufficiently to blow away his moroseness with a wafting breeze of excitement. He was so easily pleased.

“Gentlemen,” the king said gravely, “I am going bald.”

“I wondered why you were wearing that top hat,” Mirkin commented.

“Oh, that’s incidental,” said the king, “I need somewhere to keep my rabbit.”

Pip removed the large top hat and looked inside. It was empty. “Oh bugger,” he said, “the damn thing’s done a runner.”

“Can rabbits run? I thought they could only hop?” pointed out Bray.

“I believe there’s musical evidence to suggest that they can in fact run, run, run when faced with a heavily armed farm worker,” explained Mirkin helpfully.

“Well,” said Bray sympathetically to the king, “at least you’ve mastered the vanishing bunny trick.”

“True,” said Pip, “but returning to the point, I am losing my hair.”

“I thought it was a rabbit?” remarked Bray, puzzled.

“Not hare,” said the king, “hair.”

“Oh right,” said Bray.

“But on the plus side, your highness,” added Mirkin, showing a bit of respect for the first time that day, “you look damn good in that bandana. Not everyone can carry off a stars and stripes design.”

“Why thank you, Mirkin,” Pip replied gratefully, “one does one’s best. But let me explain the situation.” The king took a deep breath before continuing. “Gentlemen, I have reached a crossroads in my life. The relentless tide of hair loss cannot be stemmed, yet neither can it be allowed to leak out.”

“I’m sorry?” said Bray.

“The news, I mean,” clarified the king.

“Oh right,” nodded the dwarf.

Pip continued: “To my subjects I am a virile and much loved figure.”

Mirkin looked dubious. The king went on:

“If the rumours about my hair are allowed to spread unchecked throughout Phillysia, it will undermine my authority irrevocably. Women will doubt my potency, men will no longer feel inferior to my masculinity, and small children will be dazzled by my bald spot. Gentlemen, this cannot be allowed to happen. It could spark civil war.”

Mirkin looked even more dubious. The king refused to be put off:

“Entire nations have been brought to their knees by less. Without a full head of hair, my position as undisputed ruler of this great land could be in jeopardy. Man will turn against woman, elf against dwarf, orc against hobbit and, heaven forbid, maybe even troll against fat Elvis impersonator. The consequences, my friends, could be dire. It may very well spell the end of Phillysia as we know it.”

Realising that King Pip was undoubtedly barking, but choosing to humour his monarch for the time being, Mirkin spoke sympathetically. “So how can we help, Mr Fantabulous, sir?”

The King looked from left to right before leaning in closer and speaking in little more than a whisper. “In the deep south of Phillysia, beyond the Bear-Faced Mountains, in a remote and almost inaccessible corner of my kingdom known as Chadd Valley, lies The Implacable Maw, a dark and forbidding cavern the size of countless cathedrals. It is a place of untold evil, of eternal damnation, of all that is base and ungodly. Gentlemen, this festering blot on the landscape of Phillysia is home to…”

Mirkin and Bray braced themselves.

“… The Hooded Donkey,” finished the king.

“The what?” said Mirkin.

“The Hooded Donkey,” confirmed Pip. “He’s a good donkey gone bad.”

“Oh,” said Bray, underwhelmed.

“Don’t underestimate The Hooded Donkey, my friends,” said the king. “He is no mere silly ass. I have it on good authority that he is an evil genius of the highest order, with an array of demonic underlings at his constant beck and call, and a fearsome army of darkness to do his bidding. And what’s more, he plays a mean game of Kerplunk.”

“I’m more of a Buckaroo man myself,” said Mirkin.

“Mr Topp,” King Pip said grimly, “if you cross The Hooded Donkey, you may find yourself playing an all too real game of Buckaroo. And your very life could be at stake.”

“You’re not really selling me on this quest yet y’know,” replied Mirkin.

“Maybe I’m missing something here,” butted in Bray, clearly missing something here, “but what’s this got to do with your hair loss?”

“Let me fill you in,” said the king, filling Bray in. “The Hooded Donkey owns a puppy by the name of Luv.”

“Puppy Luv?” asked Mirkin.

“Indeed,” said the king. “Luv is the only remaining example of his breed known to exist in all of Phillysia. Yes gentlemen, that’s right: Puppy Luv is an Ozmond.”

Mirkin and Bray looked decidedly blank as the name flew over their heads at speed. Undeterred, Pip continued:

“Ozmonds are blessed with an excessively long coat, made of the softest and downiest fur that Mother Nature has to offer, yet imbued with an incredible tone and strength which make it unique amongst naturally occurring fibres. In the world of cosmetology, this hair is the stuff of legend. For generations men have tried – and failed – to obtain a living, breathing Ozmond from which to harvest sufficient hair to make the ultimate in toupees. Gentlemen, open your minds and imagine for a moment what I could do with such a beast!”

“Take it for walks?” suggested Mirkin.

“I have the finest wig-makers in the kingdom at my disposal,” Pip continued. “With these legendary fibres to work with, they could fashion for me the finest hairpiece Phillysia has ever seen, and the future of the kingdom would be safe once more! All I require to make this dream come true is an individual willing to travel to The Implacable Maw on a noble quest to bring Luv to Roi Castle.”

“So you want us to fetch you a shaggy dog?” asked Mirkin.

“It’s not a shaggy dog, it’s a hairy puppy,” replied Pip.

“Whatever,” said Mirkin.

“I’m confused,” piped up Bray. “Why do you want us for this mission? We’re not brave adventurers, we’re humble folk with a stay-at-home mentality.”

“You don’t have a home, Bray,” Mirkin reminded him.

“Oh yeah,” said Bray absent-mindedly.

“The answer is simple, my friends,” stated the king. “I believe in fate. Meaningful coincidences carry more weight with me than adventuring qualifications. For this quest I wanted two individuals innately suited to the task, a pair of subjects whose very names spoke of the mission for which they had been born. I therefore instructed my guards to scour Phillysia for the most aptly named of my subjects. To tackle The Hooded Donkey, they selected a dwarf called Bray.”

“Oh, I see,” said Bray, easily impressed with the flimsy logic of it all.

“And to bring me the hairpiece of Luv, an elf named Mirkin,” the king announced proudly.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Mirkin.

“No matter,” replied Pip. “The only point to understand here is that I have chosen you as the pair I wish to venture south to Chadd Valley on my behalf, to enter The Implacable Maw, face The Hooded Donkey within, and return triumphant with Puppy Luv for me.”

“So you’d rather send an overweight elf and a homeless dwarf, than an army of brave knights?” questioned Bray.

“Absolutely,” the king replied confidently. “Will you accept the quest?”

Mirkin exchanged a glance with his short friend before turning to the king.

“Can we think about it?” he said.

King Pip the Fantabulous drew himself up to a vertical position and looked down benevolently on his loyal subjects.

“No, your bus leaves at three.”