“Whad’you think, gwas? Tidy pile here, eh? Worth many pies, many pies.”
I surveyed the offering with a renewed sense of gloom. I was staring at a heap – a small mountain, really – of coal. Jet black, shiny, dirty coal. The wind picked up and swept dust off the mound and into my throat.
The lead coblyn, whose name was Ang, peered up at me with expectant eyes. I had been mistaken in presuming it to be a ‘he’ – how can you tell under all that dirt, anyhow? – and I had received a sharp scolding for it. Coblyn women apparently mine right alongside the men, and Ang was in charge of the small troupe that surrounded us now.
“Is it magic coal?” I asked, with a sense of hope.
“What’s magic about coal? Ain’t fire enough?” said Ang.
“Ah.” I slumped back into gloom. “Don’t you make things? I thought knockers were good at making things out of iron-”
“Not knockers,” said Ang, sternly.
I raised my hands in placation and waited for the voices to pipe down. Ang nudged me. “We tried changing our trade, gwas. Knockers got it easy-”
Ang sighed, and pulled me away from the group. “Difficult subject, ’tis. Fact is, Cornish knockers be good wi’ iron. They be good wi’ you humans, too. But us coblynau got the best knack for mining, and we miss it sore. When all the mines closed, when your people left, we left too. Some coblynau still down there, o’course. Trying t’keep to the dark. Not a good life, though. Mines be empty. Lonely. Not the same.”
“You mean you preferred living around people?” I said in surprise.
The coblyn regarded me solemnly. “Careful, pentwp. People we be.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Humans, I mean. I thought you’d be glad for us to leave the mines all to yourselves.”
“Not the same,” murmured Ang. “Less noise. Fewer jokes tole. No pasties. Comrades wi’ your lot, we were. Looked out for an’other.”
“So you did the knocking on walls thing?”
“Aye. Warned of collapses and other nasties. The big lads left us pies and oggies galore.”
“You miss it?”
“Why you think we in this ole’ mess?” She waved a skinny hand at the landscape looming before us. A vast array of chimneys belched glutinous black clouds of smoke. “What need has coblynau of furnaces and factories?” she said with scorn. “They make nothing, just burn and burn and burn through all the coal we mine. We dig out th’clay, we fire it in lumps and then dump it back in the ground.”
The grizzled features looked embarrassed, and more than a little sad. “Makes it feel more like home. Miss the old days, we do.”
A stern voice interrupted us. “Dyn. Gaffer wants to see you.” The gruff newcomer prodded me in the leg, lips pressed in a thin, disapproving line.
Ang shook her head. “Brace y’self. This be the worst part o’your day.”
* * *
It was definitely the worst part of my day.
I’m no stranger to life-threatening situations. I will even admit that I often end up in them through fault entirely of my own making. It’s not exactly a habit of mine, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. In any case, I prefer to only risk my life for something worthwhile – a profit, at the very least.
But descending down a mineshaft in a rattling, rusty, rickety cage in order to meet an unpleasant stranger to discuss a deal I have no interest in, is not my idea of a worthwhile risk. But I was doing it anyway.
“Why your eyes closed, gwas?”
“I’d rather not look down, if it’s all the same to you.” The lift seemed to sway from side to side.
“What you expecting to see? Twpsyn.”
We hit the bottom with a nerve-rattling clunk. I opened my eyes, and for a brief moment was horrified that it had no discernible effect. I tried to blink away the blackness, wait for my eyes to adjust, but to no avail.
I’m not afraid of the dark; how could I be, when I rely so heavily on it? Me and the dark are old friends, pals, buddies. But in all this time I’d never considered how my good friend is actually made up of patches of shadow. One doesn’t move through real darkness, merely from one shadow to the next.
This was darkness. Real. Almost tangible. It sticks to your eyes like a goop: you get the feeling you could reach up and wipe the darkness off your face and come away with hands covered in tar.
“Ang?” I said.
A small, blue-ish light flared to my left. Ang’s lantern. “Here, gwas.” There was a smirk in her voice. I bet she’d purposefully left the lantern unlit.
Small hands tugged at my coat and I was led down a narrow corridor, forced to stoop as the ceiling lowered. I groaned as the tunnel closed in further and I resorted to crawling on all-fours.
“Not good with tight spaces, gwas?”
“Keep going already,” I muttered. I kept my eyes fixed on the pale blue light ahead. As we travelled further my stomach twisted itself into knots. “Ugh, no, stop a minute.”
“Keep moving,” said the other coblyn, prodding my feet.
I gathered my wits and raised my head again, and noticed a very interesting sight to my left.
“Forward,” said the coblyn again, irritably.
“What’s that room through there? I see blue light.”
Perhaps to spite her rude friend, Ang obligingly led me through to the glowing chamber. It wasn’t a large space, but it didn’t need to be, the things it stored were so small. In row and rows of shelves fitted to a semi-circular wall, glass jars full of dancing blue fire spilled their glow onto our faces.
“What are they?” I asked in hushed tones, inexplicably awed.
“Them’s the bluecaps,” said Ang, matching my whisper. “They work wi’ us. Know where to find the richest seams and safest passages.”
“Of sorts. We treats ’em well and they do same fer’us. Back we go now.” As Ang turned I paid greater attention to the lantern she held. The source of the pale light it emitted was a flickering blue flame. It curled and twisted as if alive. Cogs turned in my head.
Further down the narrow tunnel we were eventually ejected into a cavernous space. I couldn’t make out the full size of the dripping chamber but the feeling of open space around me was phenomenal. I stood up and stretched as if I had been confined for my entire life.
I was propelled forward with more insistent tugs. I began to gain a sense of the room, or hall, as it more accurately appeared. Lanterns of blue and yellow lined the walls, illuminating the black sheen of coal and duller shine of stone. The light also caught the beady eyes of many curious faces peering in from the edges of the room. At the far end on a raised dais sat a coblyn set apart from the others.
Must be the Gaffer. He (I hoped) was dressed differently. Where the others wore flat-caps or hoods, this one wore a plastic yellow hard-hat with a torch mounted on the front. The bulb wasn’t lit.
No batteries, I thought.
In addition it wore a neon orange vest with reflective strips and held a pickaxe in one hand in the way a king might hold a sceptre.
My rude escort bowed in front of him. Ang stayed by my side, studying me under the flickering light.
“Aye, Gaffer. This’un’s the one yer wanted.”
The Gaffer squinted up at me with suspicious eyes. His voice was a croaky drawl.
“Rumours be running, you a merchant of pies, they say.”
“I’m a merchant of many things, pies among them,” I replied. “Hansard’s my name. I was hoping we could do business?”
“I saying if business be done. No saying by other coblynau.” He glared pointedly at Ang, who dropped her gaze to the floor. “But pies we like, and pasties better. We trade you coal for pies, fair rate.”
“Coal’s no good.”
The pickaxe thumped into the ground.
“Coal for pies,” said the Gaffer. “Deal done.”
“Coal for pies!” went up the cry around us.
I had to fight to be heard above the excitement.
“Deal not done,” I stated vehemently. The silence returned, this time with hostility. “I haven’t any use for coal.”
“No good for coal? What world you living in?” said the Gaffer.
“The modern one. Look, people don’t use coal in their homes anymore. I won’t be able to shift the stuff-”
“Care we don’t, whether you can shift or not!”
“Well you should care. Because I’m your ticket to a lasting supply of pies. Maybe even pasties. Even, if I can get a hold of some, maybe even oggies.”
Amazing, the value these creatures placed on pastry. I made a mental note to find out exactly what an oggie was. I could tell I had the attention of the whole hall, and others were trying to squeeze in to hear.
“Listening,” said the Gaffer, after a moment’s pause.
“What you need is a middle-man,” I said. “Someone who can handle your transactions outside of this little world of yours. That’s me, you see. I’m a big man out there. I travel all over the country to do business, I’m known at all of the big marketplaces – and trust me, they are big markets. I can help you trade what you have in exchange for pies, or whatever food you want. But to do that, we need something that will sell. Something with pizazz.”
The room erupted with animated whispers. Ang was watching me carefully.
“We have no ‘pizazz’,” said the Gaffer as the noise died down. “What would you have instead?”
I adopted an expression of deep thought, a practised furrow of the brow and pressing of the lips. After a while I said, “It’s difficult. There’s not really much you have to offer. But I suppose, maybe those, whad’you call them? Those bluecaps of yours, they might be worth something.”
A different kind of hush fell over the crowd.
“Not bluecaps, mister middle-man,” said the Gaffer, slowly.
“Not bluecaps,” echoed the coblynau in solemn whispers.
Not the reaction I had expected. I was baffled.
“It’s worth it, for the pies and the pasties. And traditional oggies, just like mother used to make, right?” I tried.
The Gaffer shook his grizzled head. “Good-bye, mister merchant. Wishing you safe travels.”
Disappointed, I was led back through the mine by Ang. I couldn’t fathom it.
“What’s the deal, Ang? Why’s everyone so loathe to part with those bluecaps?” I said to the darkness ahead. Her lantern swung in and out of view, casting our grotesquely elongated shadows on the walls.
“Leave it be, gwas.”
“Do you agree with the Gaffer, Ang?”
“Leave it be.”
“So that’s a no, then.”
She spun round, temporarily blinding me with her bluecap’s light.
“Gaffer knows what’s best. We don’t belong in the world no more. ‘Tis foolish to trade wi’ the likes of you.”
“Why? I don’t mean you any harm.”
“Aye, maybe. But others do. Pies were a nice dream, gwas, but Gaffer knows best. Best we be forgotten, before others get lost in your world.”
“You don’t sound like you mean that.” My knees and wrists were killing me. I folded myself into a sitting position, cross-legged on the damp rock. Then what she’d said really sunk in. “Hang on, what do mean, ‘before others get lost’? Some of your people nipped over the fence, did they?”
We stared at each other across the cramped passage. The coblyn’s naturally wrinkled face creased further; I could tell she was fighting some inner battle. I waited.
“You really never heard of coblynau out there, gwas?” she said finally.
“Only ever met knockers before. You guys are completely new to me. Maybe I can get an award for discovery.”
“But ye be someone who would have met the likes of us, if we’d been out there, right?”
“Well, you could say I’m a big man in my field. But I don’t habitually deal in coal or dirt, so the chances of my doing business with your lot is rather slim.”
“Aye. But say there were coblynau out in the world. Makin’ their way among men, as such. Ye would’ve heard tell of ’em… right?”
I leaned forward intently. “Have some of your lot gone missing, Ang?”
Again she clammed up, staring me down as she decided what to say.
“Maybe some of your friends got curious?” I pressed. “Maybe they were sick of mining for no reason, sick of fuelling fires for the sake of burning? Maybe they went out into the world to look for some better purpose… and never came back. Something like that?”
She held my gaze a second longer, then turned and continued down the tunnel.
Over the damp sound of her footsteps I heard her mutter: “Coblynau always send word home.”
I followed reluctantly. There was an in here, if I could figure out how to pry it open. Just needed to find the right leverage.
We passed the glowing bluecap chamber and I held down the urge to duck inside and fill my pockets. If I was caught and had to run, I would get nowhere in this underground labyrinth. This deep darkness was friend of the coblynau, enemy to me.
“You need help across the bridge, gwas?” said Ang when we reached the top.
I breathed in the smoggy air gratefully. “No thanks. I’ll see myself out.”
She hesitated, seemed to be mulling something over. There was a reluctance in her stance, as if she might be about to call me back.
I decided to try my luck once more. “You’re not happy the Gaffer isn’t looking for your people, right?”
“Gaffer knows best. Says they made their choice. Says they were foolish fer wantin’ to leave, anyway.”
“You don’t think so, though. I think you understand why they left. You’re not really happy here either, are you?”
“S’not proper work,” she muttered. “Not home.”
Then she caught my eye and bristled, like I’d seen something I shouldn’t. “Safe travels, gwas.” She gave me a businesslike nod, hoisted her lantern and set off across the cracked fields. I heard her calling in the distance, “C’mon, boys! Back t’work wi’ ya. This gorge ain’t gonna close itself!”
I’d found their work humorous when I first arrived, but it failed to amuse me now. What sad little creatures. Desperately missing the world but determined to shut themselves off from it. Scared of change, maybe. Destined to fade to no more than a memory, just like countless curiosities before them.
I watched the big blast furnaces belching black smoke into the black sky and wondered if the little green tourist-trap called Ironbridge had looked like this once. All that industry. A bit of technological black magic. I wondered why it was something to be proud of.
“Aye. Big’un,” said a voice. “’Ere’s one coblyn wants to deal wi’ ye.” I looked around, startled, and then remembered to look down. A figure, black from head to toe with muck, stared up at me with bright, intelligent eyes.
“And who are you, and what can you trade?” I said, mildly. “Not coal, I hope. Just so we’re clear on that.”
Pointed teeth flashed as the creature grinned. “Better’n coal. Bluecaps. Many as y’want. Cutty’ll see you right. Bring pies, midnight. That mineshaft there. We meet at the bottom. Done deal, eh?”
“And who am I dealing with?”
“Ole’ Cutty Soames. Midnight, eh?” And with that he turned and scuttled off; a surprising amount of speed for someone with such short legs.
“Midnight,” I mused. Things were suddenly looking up. “Now there’s a challenge.”
* * *
The Great Pork Pie Heist was not an affair I’d like to be remembered for.
It was only a small shop after all, and stealing pork pies is not exactly glamorous. Not that I was stealing, mind you. Merely eliciting a business transaction from an unaware trade partner.
That my wares were unsolicited is neither here nor there: the owners should be grateful for the protective ward I slapped on their premises (sure, the spell is a bit out-of-date, but it’s still miles better than their shoddy security system, trust me). I mean, who doesn’t put an alarm on their doors, in this day and age? It’s practically begging to be broken into. A crowbar did most of the work for me, and I was delighted to find that the cameras covered only the till, not the storeroom. I was out of there with two boxes of fresh pork pies in under fifteen minutes.
Getting back over the bridge was more difficult. Unfocusing takes it out of you, and trying it three times in one day starts to get risky. If you don’t do it right, you might get stuck somewhere half-way between worlds. And I needed to make sure I had enough juice to get back after I made the trade. I took a moment to psyche myself up.
This is worth the effort, I told myself. This is the only chance you’ll ever get to call bluecaps merchandise. Never mind that this Cutty fellow might be a bit dubious. This is your only chance!
I let the world drain away, and stepped across the bridge.
The industrial landscape of the coblynau was even harder to navigate by dark. There were distant metallic hammering sounds and the low roar of the furnaces.
I caught my breath – fought the urge to cough against the air – and crouched close to the ground. I felt my way along with one hand, balancing the boxes on the other. I found the correct mineshaft by tripping over it. I cursed and thanked my lucky stars I hadn’t fallen in. I peered into the solid black below the cage.
“Mister Soames?” I tried to call in a whisper.
“Down ‘ere!” came his croaky reply from the pit.
“Come up here, mister Soames. I’d rather deal in the open.”
“No deal. Don’t wanna be seen, me. Nasty, nasty punishment for giving away bluecaps. Many stones thrown. But yummy, yummy pies if done in the dark.”
“Send the bluecaps up in the cage then, and I’ll send the pies down.”
Crackling laughter floated up to me.
“Trust you I don’t. Pies first.”
“No can do, friend. I let you have your end first then there’s nothing to stop you scurrying away through the mine. You know I won’t be able to follow.”
“Come down then. Fair trade, both at once. Done deal.”
I considered my options, and found them sparse.
“All right,” I said finally. “Let’s get this over with, shall we?”
I stepped into the cage reluctantly, hugging the boxes of pies to my chest as the juddering descent began. Darkness consumed everything until I was left only with the sensation of the cage’s movement, pitching with every jerk and shudder.
Then I entered a nightmare. A sudden jolt removed the floor from under me; I was sent sprawling on my back with a pained yelp. An enormous clattering of iron resounded as the cage thumped against one wall of the shaft. My stomach somersaulted.
Oh no, I thought. Please, no.
The floor tilted, and I slid down into a corner of the cage. Far above, metal creaked.
And then the cage plummeted. Air rushed past my face, taking my screams upwards and blending with the tortured screech of steal against stone. Another jolt and the descent halted, leaving the cage swinging in darkness.
I felt like I had lost the ability to breathe. I gasped hollow, painful lungfuls of nothing, waited for the thundering in my ears to pass. I thought I heard voices above me, more rattling of metal.
“Soames?” called a gravelly voice from high above. “If ye cut these ropes Gaffer’ll have your hide!”
That bastard, I thought. Cut the ropes, did he?
There was no response from below. I bet he’d scarpered, the little lying wretch.
The cage jolted again and I let out a squeak of terror. How far was it to the bottom? If the rest of the rope snapped, was I a gonner?
And then my stomach lurched again, this time in an upwards direction. I threw out my hands and clung to the walls of the cage. It was being hoisted up, towards the thin square of lesser darkness directly above me.
More voices were gathering above. It dawned on me that my fortuitous rescue might turn out to be another plummeting cage. Time to think quick.
The darkness thinned, became shadows. Familiar, safe shadows. The cage let out a final screech as it reached the top, and a crowd of small figures rushed forward to open the cage and drag me out.
“’Tis the pie man!” someone exclaimed.
“Eh? Did he cut the ropes?”
“Nah, that’s Cutty’s work, sure enough.”
“What ye doing back here, twpsyn?”
“Ang?” I said blearily.
I couldn’t make her out – but I could see the Gaffer. His reflective vest made him stand out like a beacon. I was pulled down to my knees so we were face to face. He harumphed at me.
“Bad dealings, have we? Ole’ Cutty Soames take you for a ride? Bad one, that Cutty. What to do wi’ you now? Many stones to throw, we have.”
I was impressed by how quickly I gathered my thoughts, considering most of them had just been knocked out of my head.
“Who’s this Cutty Soames?” I implored. “I had second thoughts on our deal, Gaffer. Coal’s good. I can work with coal. I came back to discuss it with you.” I glanced at the ruined cage. “I guess I got the wrong mineshaft.”
“He did bring pies, Gaffer.” That was Ang’s voice. She was indistinct among the coblynau around us. “Seems a good’un, I’d say. Not his fault ole’ Cutty cut the ropes on him.”
“Why would he do such a thing?” I asked, all innocence.
Ang stepped forward and her sharp eyes found mine. “Not a coblyn to be makin’ deals with, is Cutty Soames. Likes cruel mischief.”
The Gaffer leaned in, breathing sour air into my face. His gimlet eyes gleamed. “Coal for pies?”
I groaned, but nodded. “Coal for pies,” I agreed.
“Coal for pies!” someone in the crowd shouted. The rest took up the call. Coblynau were already ferrying battered pastry out of the wrecked lift. “Coal for pies! Coal for pies!”
“Coal for pies,” said the Gaffer with satisfaction. “Deal done.”
* * *
I awoke in the dark. A familiar dark. The dark of my car, with the blankets all drawn up over the windows. Pale, grey light filtered through some of the more moth-eaten ones.
I inspected myself: intact, if still somewhat dirty from crawling around in a hole in the ground. I should’ve known better than to trust that Cutty character, but I’d been desperate. It’s been too long since I had anything to show for my troubles. This time, my troubles had provided me with some new bruises, but thankfully nothing worse. I was grateful the coblynau had decided to send me home, no more questions. I hope they enjoy their pies.
They aren’t creatures to neglect their end of a bargain, though (with that one rope-cutting exception), so I discovered that the trunk of my car had been filled with coal. I looked it over in the dull morning light.
“Better than nothing, I suppose,” I said, scratching my head. I wondered if I could market it as a sort of ethnic item. ‘Authentic Coblynau Coal’ or something like that.
“Pleased wi’ y’haul, gwas?” said a voice by my knees.
“Ang? What are you doing out here? Come to make sure I leave this time?”
She smiled toothily. “Of a sort. Thinking I’d be leaving wi’ ye, in fact.”
“Are you asking for a lift? I don’t take hitch-hikers, sorry.”
“Not a lift, ye daft twpsyn. Deal, eh? I purchase travel, I be paying.”
I laughed. “I’ve got enough coal, thank you. Why do you want to leave, anyway? I thought you wanted to be all shut away at home, like the rest.”
A fleeting expression of sorrow passed across her face. “Ye were right, gwas. That ain’t home. ‘Tis a poor reflection of times past. We mean nothing, holed up like that. Time to make new meaning.”
She dumped her bulky satchel and lifted a large tin box that had been sitting by her side. I noticed she had her lantern with her as well. When she opened the box, I know my face lit up like Christmas.
“You have yourself a ride, Ang,” I murmured.
“One more thing I’m buyin’, gwas,” she said, pulling the box away from me.
“And that is?”
“You help me find my missing kin,” she said. “They be lost out here, somewhere.”
I weighed the value of the bluecaps in my head.
“Deal done,” I said.
“And how’s I to know ye won’t make bad on our deal, like ole’ Cutty Soames?”
“I’m nothing like that traitorous reprobate.”
“Aye? So ye did make a deal wi’ him, then?”
Again, one of those silent stare-downs settled between us.
“Seems to me your people needed pies,” I said at last. “Does it matter much how they got there?”
She shrugged, a bony motion. “Maybe not. But let it be known that if I thinks ye going to cross me, I be gone and takin’ my bluecaps wi’ me.”
I allowed her to clamber into the passenger seat, nestling the battered tin box safely between blankets in the footwell. I reached over and opened it again, just another moment to admire the dancing blue flames within. Six bluecaps in small glass jars. I breathed deeply and smelled money.
“You said these things lead you to the rich parts of the mine, right?”
“Sounds like ‘treasure seeking spirit’, to me.”
“Only if ye likes your treasure shiny and black,” said Ang, staring at me curiously.
“Same thing,” I replied cheerfully.
“Gwas, d’you know what them bluecaps really are?”
“Some kind of fairy? A magic conjuration? Tell me.”
“’Tis our ancestors, gwas. Spirits of them dead before us.”
I looked back at the box, and then to Ang. She held my gaze steadily.
“You’re serious?” I said, finally. “You keep your dead relatives in jars?”
She nodded, solemnly. “These be mine own family. My mother is my lantern light, forever guiding the way in darkness.”
My mouth dropped open. For a moment I couldn’t muster any words.
“That’s… I don’t know what that is. It’s either very sweet or somewhat disturbing.” I found I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the lantern. “And you’re willing to sell them, just so you can have a ride?”
“More than a ride, gwas,” she said, eyes flashing. “We find mine kin. They left to find new meaning, life anew. But some harm has come to them, I knows it. So we trade bluecaps for coblynau, kin for kin. Deal, mister merchant of pies and lies?”
She extended a grimy hand, one damning eyebrow raised.
“Deal,” I said, and shook it.