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 Six

“Hmmm…” said Mirkin thoughtfully, “I have to say I expected more from a royal carriage.”

He strolled around the vehicle parked outside the main gates of Roi Castle. Nyte the white mare was harnessed in position at the front of the carriage, nose in a bag of oats, munching away contentedly. Bray stood alongside, engrossed in a small booklet.

“Thank you for buying Payntior Wagons’ Fab-Wagon Deluxe™,” said the dwarf, reading aloud from the owners’ manual. “With its no-nonsense design, sturdy construction, and attractive wood-effect finish, it’s no wonder the Fab-Wagon was voted ‘Best Budget Cart’ by the highly respected Cart Men of South Park. In common with the entire Payntior range, the Fab-Wagon Deluxe™ features mostly lead-free paint in areas accessible by your horse, reducing the likelihood of breakdown through poisoning to a manageable 20%. In addition, Payntior Wagons are subject to significantly lower levels of woodworm than our competitors’ models, due to our advanced manufacturing methods which result in the Fab-Wagon being constructed almost entirely from plastic. And all at no extra cost to you, the consumer. We hope you enjoy your Fab-Wagon Deluxe™. May it give you many years of trouble-free caravanning.*”

Bray looked down to the corresponding asterisk at the foot of the page.

‘*Not a guarantee’,” he finished.

“I wouldn’t mind,” said Mirkin, “but they could at least have given us a new one. This heap of junk has got more miles on the clock than… um…” His words trailed off as he failed to come up with anything of a sufficiently high mileage to back up his statement. He’d never heard of Million Mile Mel, the travelling salesman, who specialised in timepieces from far-flung lands, otherwise he’d probably have mentioned him immediately.

“Well,” said Bray, “it’s no wonder they blindfolded us and pulled up the drawbridge before we had time to check out our transport.”

“You’re not wrong,” agreed Mirkin. He looked up at the castle ramparts where the Roi Castle trumpeters were preparing for another rendition of ‘Dedication’. King Pip the Fantabulous stood nearby, waving, and holding a Chihuahua.

“I think we’d better go,” said Mirkin.

Closing the owners’ manual, Bray gave Nyte a gentle pat, removed the mare’s nosebag, and climbed up into the covered wagon behind. Mirkin took his position at the front of the vehicle and picked up the reins with confidence.

“Right,” he said, “how do you drive this thing?”

“No idea,” said Bray, “but check your mirrors before pulling out into traffic.”

Mirkin did as instructed. Finding himself to be beautifully presented with scarcely a hair out of place, he put down the mirror, flicked the reins, and with a cry of “giddy up”, the two adventurers set off on their quest, Nyte setting a conservative pace of perhaps two miles per hour.

“I’m not sure the accelerator pedal’s working,” commented Mirkin, as the Roi Castle trumpeters sprang into life with a musical tribute to spur the brave questers on their way. Upon hearing the fanfare, Nyte’s pace quickened significantly, and before long the wagon was rolling into the distance across the Aero Plains, leaving the balding king behind.

Not that King Pip the Fantabulous had time to watch. He was somewhat occupied at the time, coordinating the rescue of his favourite Chihuahua who, startled by the sound of the adjacent trumpeters, had leapt over the castle ramparts and into the moat below. As Mirkin and Bray headed off into the distance, the Chihuahua was busy thrashing around in the water with a startled expression on its face, choosing to forsake the doggy paddle in favour of a surprisingly convincing drowned rat impression. As the king’s guards successfully hauled the distressed canine back onto dry land, he let out a cry of anguish, not unlike the call of the wild elephant. The lone arrow which struck him moments later brought to an end a privileged, yet all too brief, existence.

“Oh well,” thought Pip, “plenty more where that came from,” and headed off in the direction of the royal kennels.

Back on the road, Mirkin and Bray were making good progress.

“Ah, this is the life, eh Bray!” said Mirkin cheerfully. “The open road, plenty of fresh air, and a whole world of possibilities ahead of us.” He paused. “I wouldn’t mind a drink though.”

“I thought you were on the wagon?” quipped Bray.

“Don’t even go there,” replied Mirkin, unimpressed with his stumpy friend’s line in puns.

“Well,” the dwarf continued, “we’ve got a range of supplies back here. I’ll have a rummage round and see what I can find.”

Bray disappeared into the back of the wagon. The sound of boxes being opened and tins being stacked greeted Mirkin’s pointy ears. He looked out wistfully across the plains and wished he knew some cowboy songs to pass the time, before remembering an old sea shanty he’d once heard entitled “You’re Not a Cow, You’re a Dog”, and wondering if that counted. Deciding it probably did, he opened his mouth to begin verse one, only to be interrupted by the return of Bray, who emerged once more from the rear of the wagon, and joined his friend in the front passenger seat.

“Well I’ve completed my inventory,” the dwarf said. “Do you want the good news or the bad news?”

“Hit me with the good news,” replied Mirkin. “It’s always nice to start on a high.”

“The good news is we have vast stocks of the finest tinned meat, tinned soup, tinned vegetables and tinned fruit.”

“And the bad news?”

“We don’t have a tin-opener.”

“Oh,” said Mirkin. “But is there any beer?”

“Beer is rationed to one bottle per person per day.”

“Over how many days?”

“Ten,” replied Bray.

* * *

Later that evening, as Mirkin lined up the ten empty beer bottles along Nyte’s back, he reflected on the wisdom of King Pip’s alcohol rationing system.

“It sheems to me,” said the elf, “that if you’re going to send someone to the back end of nowhere on the trail of a shaggy dog…”

“Hairy puppy,” corrected Bray.

“Fairy huppy,” acknowledged Mirkin, “Then you’ve got to give them a decent amount of beer. I mean, how does he expect us to keep going without a drink? We’d have ground to a halt hours ago without a drop of beer.” He paused, and looked around. “By the way, where are we?”

“About a mile from the castle,” Bray informed him. “We ground to a halt shortly after you finished your second beer.”

“Drink driving, mate. I had no choice. This wagon could be a death trap in the wrong hands. It was my duty as the king’s decoy-”

“Envoy,” corrected Bray.

“Envoy, tea boy, whatever, it was my duty to pull over immediately. Responsibility is my middle name.”

“I thought Buzz was your middle name?”

“Oh yeah,” said Mirkin. “Buzz… Responsibility… it’s so easy to get those two mixed up. Buzz was my grandfather’s name you know.”

“I know,” said Bray.

“The great Buzz Topp.”

“I know.”

“He never did like public transport though. It’s ironic.”

“I know,” sighed Bray, losing the will to live.

Mirkin finished positioning his empties, and stood back to admire his handiwork. Satisfied with the display, he began to sing in a rich, vibrantly toned, and surprisingly melodic voice rarely heard outside the kebab shops of Melee.

“Ten green bottles hanging on the horse…”

Bray looked on disapprovingly from his seated position on a nearby mound of earth at the side of the road, a position he had occupied for some time whilst his beer-bellied chum had been knocking back the drinks and waxing lyrical about the state of the king’s highways and the road hogs generally found there. Personally Bray liked road hogs. With their curly tails and little snuffling snouts, the soft-hearted dwarf considered them to be rather sweet, and had campaigned in his younger days for the introduction of roadside sties, or ‘Roadsties’ as he had suggested calling them, to provide safe shelter for the oinking beasties, and reduce the number splatted under the wheels of passing carriages on a daily basis.

Road hogs were cute indeed, but to Bray, not as cute as unicorns. He looked up at Nyte and smiled. Her presence made up for the towering inferno of white horse hell he had left back in Melee. He wondered momentarily if she’d let him stick an ice cream cornet on her forehead for a more convincing look, before deciding not to push his luck. Horn or no horn, he had his very own living, breathing unicorn substitute, and that was good enough. Bray was happy once more.

As was his pointy-eared chum, who was putting his all into a musical performance of some magnitude.

“… ten green bottles hanging on the horrrse…”
Bray made his way over to the wagon and picked up Nyte’s nosebag. He stroked her mane lovingly before heading towards the back of the wagon to find her food. The singing elf, meanwhile, was building to a crescendo of melodic power, conducting himself vigorously with both hands.

“… and if ONE green bottle should accidentally fallllll…”

The white mare shook herself, sending the ten beer bottles crashing to the ground.

“There’ll be no green bottles, and one intensely irritated horse,” said Nyte disdainfully.

Mirkin sniffed. “You’re a fine one to talk,” he said, losing his balance and toppling into a nearby bush.

Bray looked up in astonishment. His jaw dropped, as did the bag of oats in his hand.

“Mirkin!” he cried. “Nyte spoke!”

“Women,” muttered the elf, climbing out of the bush and struggling to stand upright. “You can’t shut them up at the best of times.”

“Mirkin!!” Bray was excited beyond belief, his little body bouncing up and down involuntarily as oaty goodness poured out onto the ground beside him. “NYTE CAN SPEAK!!!”

“Well give her the nosebag and she might shut up,” said Mirkin.

Bray ran around to the front of the wagon and stood facing the white horse.

“Nyte!” he said, bursting with unbridled joy. “You can speak!”

“Is that an observation or a concession?” replied the mare, her joy not quite as unbridled as Bray’s, owing in part to the leather harness around her midriff.

“This is fantastic!” beamed Bray. “A talking horse! My very own talking hornless unicorn! Why didn’t you tell us you could speak?”

Nyte looked down her nose at the little dwarf. “I had nothing to add to the conversation,” she said in a snooty tone of voice.

“Yeah, right,” Mirkin interrupted, “give her five minutes and we won’t be able to get a word in edgeways.”

“Well I think this is wonderful!” said Bray, an irrepressible smile plastered across his chubby bearded face. “I’ve never had a chat with a horse!”

“No, but you’ve dated a few dogs,” Mirkin added helpfully.

Nyte shook her mane and looked at Bray. “I don’t know how you put up with the fat elf,” she said. “The creature has no manners, no class, a distinct lack of intelligence, and an insensitivity which would put a troll to shame.”

“Oi,” interrupted Mirkin, “I am not fat.”

“Yeah, I know,” said Bray to his four legged friend, “but you know what it’s like. We go way back, and beer’s thicker than water.”

“Did someone mention beer?” asked Mirkin.

“Well,” said Nyte, “we’ll put that issue to one side for now. We’ve wasted enough time as it is, and the sun will soon be setting. We must press on and find a suitable place to set up camp for the night.”

“Typical woman, taking over already…” muttered Mirkin.

Nyte turned and looked sternly at the elf. “If this quest was left to YOU, Mr Topp, we wouldn’t make it further than the first pub.”

“Sounds good to me,” muttered Mirkin.

“Well I for one am taking this mission seriously,” the white mare scolded, “and I suggest you do the same.”

“Oh perleease…” said Mirkin, “we’re doing just fine as we are, if you ask me. This is only day one, and we’ve made quite satisfactory progress, thank you very much.”

Bray turned and looked west across the Aero Plains. King Pip the Fantabulous could still be seen waving from the ramparts of Roi Castle in the distance.

“Well,” said the dwarf, “we could have made a bit more progress…”

“Bray,” said Nyte, “I suggest you take the reins and let your alcoholic friend sleep off his indulgence in the back of the wagon.”

Mirkin felt disgruntled, but was too drunk to argue. Grudgingly, he climbed into the Fab-Wagon, and decided to search through the supplies for a bridle which incorporated a tongue tie. Two minutes into his search, he forgot what he was looking for, and promptly fell asleep on a stack of tinned pilchards.

Hopping on board, Bray covered his elfish chum with a blanket, tweaked one of his pointy ears fondly, then with a certain sense of excitement, took his position at the front of the wagon. Being of limited stature, he couldn’t quite see over the back of the white mare in front, and thus his ability to actually see where they might be going seemed likely to be restricted somewhat. But with the knowledge that his mighty steed possessed the power of speech, he felt confident that she would at least alert him to any upcoming cliff edges, allowing him to take evasive action should it be necessary. Unconcerned, Bray picked up the reins.

“Giddy up!” chirped the dwarf cheerfully, forgetting to check his mirrors.

“I’d rather you didn’t say that,” replied Nyte curtly, and with a swish of the tail, the white mare trotted off down the road.