Was it destiny that brought Mr. Cox to the dwarves of Todger’s Siding? Or was it just happenstance, the enemy of the saints? Whatever it was, the magician needed help, and the MacRae boys were the only ones who could provide it. Buried in a pile of rubble, as ordinary as the lads themselves, was the most fantastic little man imaginable, an angel with the power to make time run backwards. And Mr. Cox couldn’t dig him out all by himself, especially not since he’d been locked up in a rather plush cell at the palace. But was the wily old man going to tell them about the dangers of time travel? Not until they were well and truly hooked. And would they have listened to him, anyway…?
The Dreamer in the Pile is fantasy writing with a beard, shaved arms and a bagful of explosives. Read it now, before it never existed!
Baxter, Short and Smart, professional miners and spelunkers, arranged an audience with His Royal Majesty King Morris I, to extend the area of their underground leasehold. They were well received at the Summer Palace, and did not enter by the servants’ door, as their mother had done years before, but came in through the side gate, along with two minstrels and an uptight noblewoman carrying a two-headed calf. They were admitted into the waiting room, and given an aperitif. This was a new experience for all of them.
Smart was an honest lad, who had never before seen a crystal drinks service, or tasted dry sherry, and he was certainly not a thief by nature. But that morning, a dangerous idea came to him, which triggered off the whole jumbled tale that is to follow. He decided to steal the sherry decanter, and hide it on his person.
If Smart had been a more questioning kind of lad, he might have had his doubts about this strange new idea – which came upon him out of nowhere and was quite against his character – and wondered if perhaps it might not really be his own. And indeed, it did feel very much as though the plan had somehow been placed into his mind, from outside. But Smart, who was simple and straightforward, thought he’d had the idea himself, and felt it was a very good one, too. But he elected not to tell Short, because he had a feeling that his older brother would not agree.
Baxter, Short and Smart were dwarves, but the decanter was not too large for them, as it was a ‘half-size’ decanter, made to scale. Even so, a decanter is a difficult thing to hide on your person, especially if it is full. Smart tried to fix this by drinking most of the contents very quickly, spluttering and coughing from the taste of it, and ending up with a great deal of sherry and spittle in his beard and down his shirt.
Short had words with him as he tried to grab the decanter away.
‘What’d you do that for, you great dymock?’
‘Lay off, I’m doing a plan,’ said Smart, and the peevish tone made Short feel embarrassed for his crossness. His little brother wasn’t even close to being an old boy; his close-cropped hair had only just finished its blackening, traces of the birth-white were still apparent at the sides, and the pitch he’d put there to cover them up only drew them further attention. You could hardly even call the lad a peedie yet.
Despite being older, Short himself was a little smaller than his brother; no more than four feet tall he stood, take an inch or two. Being the male head of the family now, he had recently tried growing his hair to a length where the pater-curls were just noticeable, until his mother had told him what a fool he looked, and reminded him that he was many years away from having a child of his own. Today, his hair was cropped back to the old boy length, and looked like rough sandpaper. Only his beard retained enough length to suggest his seniority.
‘What kind of plan is spitting the drink all over yourself? Give it here,’ he said, more tenderly.
‘No, come on, give us it back Shorts. I’m doing it for a plan. Our saints I am,’ said the younger brother.
This was no joke, for Smart to swear on the clan saints, and Short saw that his brother meant it, and much against his better judgment, he gave back the decanter, after taking a quick drink to calm himself. (As it turned out, the dwarf didn’t mind the taste of sherry, although he probably wouldn’t be saying so to his mates at Biggie Jack’s on Friday.)
Smart waited until his older brother finally stopped looking at him, and then, tried to hide the decanter down his town-pants. It was only possible to do this by keeping them open at the front, and covering himself with his jacket. Some more of the sherry was spilled, and he would have to walk slightly bent over, but it looked as though it might be possible to take the decanter with him into the Audience Hall, where the King was currently at breakfast. Short failed to notice what his brother was doing, as he was busy cleaning the tar from beneath his fingernails, so as to make a good impression. And, only one of the minstrels had seen it. Things were going well.
The time came for the audiences, after the King had finally finished his meal. A Steward with curly red hair and freckles came into the room, and conferred with the minstrels. Short thought he looked limp, like a fish in the sun.
‘The minstrels will be the first to see the King this morning,’ said the man.
‘You can’t do that, I was here first,’ said the noblewoman, and Short bridled at the barefaced lie.
‘The King will see who he pleases,’ he replied.
‘He’ll see whoever bribes you, you mean,’ said she. But the man ignored her and led the two minstrels into the Audience Hall. From behind the door, the dwarves heard some very bad singing, and then some low talking, followed by the King’s voice making an angry pronouncement. Then the two young chaps were led out again, scowling and bewildered, and taken by some bailiffs down to the prison cells.
‘What did they do wrong?’ said Short, to the room in general.
‘Who cares?’ said the noblewoman, standing up. The Steward came out, and declared that she would be next to see the King.
Short stood too, and walked over to the man. ‘We was first, actually. Been here since half-eight.’
‘The King will see who he pleases,’ said the Steward again, and up close, Short noticed that the fellow’s breath smelled of salt. He drew back. Only real dymocks brushed with salt. Everyone else used coal. He himself did not brush at all.
The Steward led the noble-woman into the Hall, and her situation sounded similar to that of the minstrels, except instead of singing, there was some bleating from the two-headed calf, which was almost as musical. Then there followed some low talking, then the King’s angry pronouncement, and then the noblewoman was led out scowling, and given to the bailiffs.
‘Unhand me, you worthless carl,’ she demanded of them. (But no-one knew what a ‘carl’ was, so no-one did anything.)
‘You know what?’ said Short decidedly. ‘Let’s not worry about this. The King probably won’t have time to see us today, anyway.’ The dwarves stood up to leave.
‘If you are going to arrest me,’ said the woman loudly, ‘you must arrest the dwarves also. That one there is attempting to steal your half-size drinks service. He has the decanter inside his pants.’
Short’s voice faltered as he turned to look at his older brother. ‘Bax? You all right there, boy? Have you done something with the bottle?’
‘Not the oaf,’ said the woman rudely. ‘The other one, who is pretending he can’t hear us.’
‘Smart?’ said Short. ‘Where’s that decanter thing you had?’
‘Nothing,’ said Smart. He was making quite a show of staring at something very interesting on the ceiling above. (He might even have whistled nonchalantly, but he couldn’t make that noise just yet.)
‘Is this true?’ demanded the elder bailiff, who was a fat man with a very bad moustache. ‘Stand up, so I can have a look.’
Smart tried to stand, but he was caught with both hands down his pants, and could only manage a sort of low squat.
‘See?’ he said. ‘Nothing.’
‘Take your hands out of your pants!’ the man barked.
‘He won’t have meant any harm,’ said Short reasonably. ‘Shorts, if you’ve got it down there, just take it out and there’ll be no bother.’
‘Cumberly!’ called the King. ‘Get on with it! I want to be out of here by ten.’
The Royal Voice was loud and stentorian, and it alarmed the calf, which began bleating disharmoniously as it splashed a long streak of steaming golden urine onto the floor near the Steward’s foot. The man recoiled and yelped aloud, as though he were a dog and someone had trodden on his tail. The noblewoman said it served him right, and called him a buffoon under her breath.
‘Sorry, sire,’ called the Steward, now standing on one leg. ‘There’s a problem with some dwarves in the waiting room.’
‘Real ones?’ inquired the King.
Smart has now removed his hands from his waistband and the rounded top of the decanter was clearly visible, sticking out the top of his pants. He waddled forward apologetically to the bailiff. ‘It’s stuck,’ he said.
‘As I told you,’ said the noblewoman smugly.
‘Give it back, Smarts,’ said Short, still trying to sound reasonable. ‘Just pull it out, quick.’
Smart yanked at the top of the decanter and it finally came free, but he dropped it and it smashed on the floor. The fat bailiff spat out an insult.
‘Bloody half-sizers. Alcoholics, the lot of you.’
Short’s temper rose, and he was about to have the man, King’s permission be damned; but the Royal Voice, impatient and fully regal now, called out again:
‘Cumberly! Bring them in here so I can see them! It’s been weeks since we had some dwarves!’