“Where we going, gwas?”
“To see a witch, Ang.”
The Coblyn shifted comfortably in her seat. She had dispensed with the seatbelt and sat cross-legged, flat cap clenched in her hands, staring with interest at the passing scenery. “You sick? Why you in need o’ witchery?”
“We’re going to do some business. Now the boot’s empty I can start stocking up again.”
For the past couple of days we had been driving round Shropshire with a car full of coal – courtesy of my recent dealings with the coblynau: mine-dwelling, goblin-like creatures no more than three feet tall. I’d considered the over-abundance of coal to be an out-dated, unsaleable nuisance. But it turns out the country dwellers of Shropshire love their open fires and iron agas, and a man selling sacks of cheap coal on a street corner is apparently a welcome sight. So now I had money in my pocket, and a full(ish) tank of petrol.
The one downside was that every bakery we passed, Ang insisted I go in and fetch her another pie or pasty. She had a voracious appetite for such a skinny creature and could put them away like nobody’s business.
She unwrapped one of those pasties now and took a huge bite, crumbs dusting her waistcoat. I watched with a smirk as her eyes crossed.
“Wha’ flavour’s this?” she said, disdainfully holding the pasty at arm’s length.
“Tikka Masala,” I replied. “Thought you might like to try something different.”
“Nasty trick, gwas.”
She rolled down her window and unceremoniously chucked the pasty out of it.
“Don’t waste food, Ang. That costs money, you know.”
She glared at me pointedly. “You wasted that, you did. Perfectly good pasty, ‘cept for your sense o’ humour. Why we goin’ to see this wrach, anyway?”
“Th’ witch, pentwp. What’s some hag got t’do wi’ finding my kin?”
I stifled a groan. Not a day had passed without Ang bringing up the terms of our deal. She’d exchanged six precious bluecaps for my assistance in tracking down a group of missing coblynau. They’d left their home one day and bravely (or perhaps naively) ventured forth into the modern world, never to be seen or heard of again. And therein lay my problem: I had never even heard of coblynau before I met Ang, and I had no idea where one might begin searching for some.
“Information, Ang,” I said. “Witches know many mysterious things. Could be we get our first proper lead on your missing friends.”
“Aye? What would a witch be knowin’ about it?”
“Well, perhaps he can track them with a spell, or something. Or maybe he’s heard rumours as to their whereabouts. It’s not like you’ve been able to tell me anything useful.”
“They never told no one where they was goin’,” said Ang sullenly. “Had to keep it secret, otherwise Gaffer would’ve had ’em stoned.”
My gaze slid sideways. “No one knew you were leaving?”
“None.” She stuffed the cap back on her head and crossed her arms. “Don’t like the sound of spells, gwas. Nasty. S’it safe?”
“We’ve dealt before. He’s a good guy. Name’s Mark.”
“Twpsyn. Shouldn’t be trustin’ no witch.”
“They heal people, you know.”
“Aye. Curse ’em, too.”
I sighed. Curses, admittedly, are one of my best-sellers. I changed the subject: “You seem to be settling in to life on the road, at any rate.”
She shrugged, maintaining her observation of the passing woodland. I’m not a fan of motorways; I’ll always take the scenic route.
“Do you miss the mines?”
She seemed to mull this over before replying.
“Not much t’miss any more, gwas. My mines are long gone. Maybe one day I’ll find a new one, but they’ll never be the same as they used to.” She fell silent, a faraway look in her eyes. “Miss the pit ponies, I do,” she said, softly. “And the little boys and gels who minded the doors. Little ones could fall asleep in the dark, get squashed when the carts come rumblin’ through.”
“Aye. We’d go by and wakes ’em up, if we saw.” She shifted again, turning her gaze back to the window. “’Course, it been many a’year now since the little’uns worked in the depths. All this new machinnery started appearing, drills ‘n’ hammers ‘n’ all sorts. No more jobs for putters, the carts all push ’emselves.”
Trees flashed past, the beginnings of green painting their branches against a backdrop of blue March sky.
“I miss the old work. The old noises,” Ang murmured beside me, leaning her head against the window.
* * *
The sun was setting by the time we came upon the witch’s house, streaks of pink and red framing the sky behind its grand silhouette. Despite knowing what I know, I still think a witch’s abode should be a ramshackle hut in the woods. This was no hut, but a large Georgian farm house, and although off the beaten path it was hard to miss, striking an imposing profile as we rolled into the driveway.
“You coming, Ang?”
She shook her head and shrank back in her seat.
“Look, he’s a good witch, you understand? No need to be all superstitious about it.”
“Smells like death, gwas.”
“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic.” Still she refused to move. “Suit yourself.”
Gravel crunched underfoot as I made my way up the path. The chickens were very active, clucking and shrieking and running round their pen in circles. On the stately front door hung an iron horseshoe, not strange in and of itself. Except that this horseshoe hung upside-down, two of its nails having, by the looks of it, popped right out of the door.
I stepped back, thoughtfully. The chickens continued to shriek.
I made my way round to the back of the house, knowing this would lead me to the kitchen, the nucleus of any witch’s household. I passed the goat paddock, empty of goats; a fence had been trampled, and its splinters led me to the back door. Here, too, there was an upside-down horseshoe. In fact, the whole door was upside-down, having been ripped off its hinges and tossed in a bush.
I went back to pick up my crowbar.
I nodded grimly.
“Told you. Why aren’t we leavin’? Let witchy fend for hisself.”
The thought had crossed my mind.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” I lied.
Dusk felt heavy on my shoulders as I crept round to the back of the house. I peered cautiously through the doorway, into the kitchen beyond.
The mess was expected, normal. The blood was not.
It was spattered across most surfaces, up the walls. Some of the cupboards were dented and broken. I swallowed hard, and tried to banish the image of Mark’s limp body being smashed repeatedly against them.
I crouched low, shielded by the counter in the centre of the room. A streak of red marked the floor where something had been dragged. A grotesque snuffling sound reached my ears. Like a pig snout deep in a trough.
Creeping forward, I peered round the corner and had to bite back a scream. A large, humanoid shape was crouched over a bloody mess, and, like a pig, was snout deep in the guts of the thing. It was a long, numb moment before I registered the hooves and fur of the smaller shape, and realised the grisly feast was a goat carcass.
Something tugged at my coat. Panic passed into relief as Ang’s beady eyes met mine. She pointed to a dark lump propped against the wall just beyond the feeding frenzy. Mark, unconscious, but apparently intact, although a dark, oozing stain marred his forehead.
The snuffling halted, snout suddenly lifted into the air, sniffing. I darted backwards. I’d seen the outline of the creature: a troll. That explained the upturned horseshoe. They’re pretty good protection against most things, but iron doesn’t repel trolls like it does other creatures.
A shadow loomed over me, and before I could react I’d been lifted off my feet. My crowbar slipped from my hands and clanked onto the floor.
The beast blinked slowly, wide nostrils flaring. It didn’t seem to know what to do with this unexpected human in its grip.
“There wass on’y ment to be one,” it said in a slow, dumb drawl. It gave me an experimental shake. “You wiv them Baines ‘n’ Grayle folk?”
Not a question I’d expected, but I took the chance. “Yes,” I hazarded.
The troll snorted with irritation and blood flew from its nostrils. “I tole you people I’d get the job dun. Witch’ll be all et up by mornin’.”
My mind raced. “That’s why I’m here. New orders. The witch is wanted alive. Thank you for your services, I’ll take it from here.”
A thunderous scowl spread across the troll’s ugly features. I fought the urge to recoil.
“I wass promised witch meat,” it bellowed and angrily jabbed me in the chest. The force of it winded me.
“You can… have all the… goats you… want,” I huffed. The troll released me, allowing me to stagger backwards and regain my breath.
“Had enuff’ve goats,” snarled the troll. “Wants me second course, I do. I dun my job. I wants to eat now.”
“Of course, of course,” I said soothingly. “You will receive full compensation for your illustrious assistance here.”
The troll screwed up its face (not that it made much difference) with the effort of comprehension.
“Don’t want no compun-say-shun. Want meat.” It swung one large hand and grabbed Mark’s prone body by one arm, dragging him over the spent goat carcass. I winced as I heard the sickening pop of limb and socket separating.
“I think we can come to a mutually agreeable arrangement,” I said quickly. The troll looked at me blankly. “I mean, we can make a deal that leaves us both happy.”
“What like?” said the troll. Mark’s head bounced off the floor.
“I’ll take the witch alive. And I’ll pay you right here and now with… with… ” I cast around, throat running dry. I spotted Ang cowering in one of the broken cupboards. I dived forward and grabbed her roughly by the scruff of her shirt, pulling her kicking and shrieking from her hiding place.
“Have you ever tasted coblyn?” I brandished Ang’s tiny, squirming frame for the troll’s inspection.
“Bastard!” she screamed. “Bradwr! Pigyn bach!”
I stuffed her flat cap in her mouth and fought to contain her surprisingly forceful struggles. She may be skinny, but it’s all muscle.
“Hands down the best meat you will ever taste,” I continued. “All tender juicy muscle and bones crunchy like crackling. The marrow seeps out with every bite, succulent and sweet.”
A glob of saliva rolled down the troll’s fat chin. It reached out greedily for Ang; I stepped back and managed to wag a finger.
“You can’t eat it like this, of course. You have to stew Coblyn meat, otherwise it tastes all bitter.”
“I dun’t like cookin’,” the troll grumbled.
“Leave it to me. I’ll be happy to serve you up a fine meal,” I said, magnanimously.
The troll dropped Mark. I winced at the thunk of his head hitting the floor.
“Alright,” the troll drawled. “No funny stuff.” It sat heavily on the floor, eyes fixed on me.
There were several massive saucepans on the stove: the modern cauldron for the modern witch. I made a show of trussing Ang with plastic cable-ties – she wrestled the whole way, despite my attempts to share some kind of meaningful look – and dumped her in the largest pan and fixed the lid on. I fussed about the stove, tidying away lids and pots and other bits and pieces for no reason other than to create activity. I’ve always been quite adept at the old cup game con – round and round go the cups, which one is the ball under?
I set the kettle to boil and began rummaging in the dented cupboards and drawers. There had to be something useful here, it was a witch’s kitchen, after all.
Any hope I had of finding a ready made poison or sleeping tonic went out the window when I found the pile of smashed bottles and their sticky contents on the floor. I discovered plenty of intact herbs and ingredients with Latin names I couldn’t pronounce. I wondered how large a dose of something you’d need to have any effect on a troll. I contemplatively turned over the jar labelled Atropa Belladonna – deadly nightshade to us plebs – in my hands.
“What you looking for?” growled the troll.
“Just some rosemary,” I said, carefully replacing the jar.
“Don’t want no ‘erbs in it.”
I opened another drawer at random and found it full of odd utensils. Pipettes, thermometers, a Bunsen burner, and a particular LED torch that caught my eye. I nonchalantly stowed it away in my trench coat. It wasn’t much, but I’ll take any back-up plan I can get.
The kettle clicked off the boil. I concerned myself with the making of coblyn soup. Water into pan. Potatoes scavenged from a sack by the door, peeled, chopped, dumped in as well. I was reminded of an old folk tale I’d heard of a beggar who could make soup from a stone. The beggar in the story was a good cook, however. I, on the other hand, am not.
“Why them taters ‘n’ cabbage going in?” asked the troll.
“Adds body to the meal. Really brings out the flavours of the meat,” I replied. The troll seemed satisfied with the answer, but disapproving. It picked up a bloody goat bone and crunched noisily on it behind me.
I tried to recall anything about the little time I had ever spent with my mother in the kitchen. I live out of cans and off takeaway menus these days, but I grew up with her cooking. I vaguely remembered something about Marmite being good in a meaty stew. I found a jar and dumped half of it in. My soup became brown sludge.
Carrots, I thought desperately. Carrots would brighten it up.
The troll was getting impatient.
“How long this gonna take? Want to be long gone before nasty sunrise.”
“Not long now,” I replied, still trying to delay the inevitable. I wished it was as simple as stalling until dawn. Trolls and sunlight: they don’t mix.
As I gave the soup a final stir, I allowed the sprigs of deadly nightshade to fall from my sleeve into the concoction. While cooking is not one of my strong points, at least sleight of hand is. I hoped this would work.
Heaving the pot with both hands, I set it down by the troll.
“Tuck in,” I said.
It was at that point that the other large pot still by the stove burst open and out flew Ang. I cursed her skinny wrists.
The troll stared dumbly from Ang, to the soup, back to Ang. There was almost an audible ‘click’ as it pieced things together. With an ear-splitting roar it kicked over the pot of soup and closed one beefy fist round my throat.
“You think I’m stupid?” it snarled, shaking me to and fro. My feet kicked helplessly off the floor, and my lungs burned for breath.
I dropped to the floor all of a sudden. Through watery vision I could see the troll swatting something around its ankles, accompanied by Ang’s croaky cussing. I fumbled in my coat for Plan B, the torch. I leapt up, dodged a wild blow, flicked the switch, and pointed the beam up into the troll’s thick face.
The troll bellowed with pain. It drew up its hands to shield its eyes from the thin violet light of the torch, features twisting grotesquely as the rough skin began to harden and crack.
“Get it away!” it bawled. “Away! Away!”
Another wild swing connected with my torso and swept me off my feet. The torch clattered to the floor several feet away. The troll advanced, teeth bared around cracked lips, eyes flashing like thunderclouds.
“Ang! The torch–!” I cried, and rolled just as the troll’s fist came down.
It howled as Ang pointed the torch at its back. It gave me time to scramble out of reach, gasping for breath on the other side of the room. There had to be something here, something I could use…
Suddenly, there it was, the perfect thing. Thank the gods for the paraphernalia of witches!
The troll had turned, was stamping towards Ang as she tried to shrink away inside another cupboard. I began picking up glass bottles and hurling them at its back.
“Over here, pig features!”
The troll laboriously turned its bulky frame toward me again. It shook off the glass like dust.
“Ang, the torch! I need it!” I’d lost sight of her; she’d burrowed deeper into the cupboards somewhere. I wiped the sweat from my brow and flung myself away from the troll again. I hoped Ang could hear me.
Now it was the troll’s turn to throw things. It wrenched the heavy Belfast sink out of the wall and hurled it in my direction. Roll. Await crushing sensation. Breathe. Inwardly express gratitude for the troll’s lack of accuracy.
I tried to dart forward, but fell on my back. The tail-end of my coat was caught under the sink. If you have ever tried to get out of any item of clothing in a hurry, you will know that such an endeavour is near impossible. I flailed frantically as the troll approached, tangling my arms in the sleeves.
And then the torch dropped into my lap.
The troll was upon me, one colossal fist rising in slow motion. I brought up my arms as if in a fighting stance, magnifying glass held in one hand and torch in the other. I flicked the switch, and felt as though I had just pulled the trigger of a gun.
There was no sound at first, just the slow spread of surprise, and then horror across the troll’s features. And then a crackling sound as the skin dried and split and gradually turned stony. It staggered backwards, arms outstretched, face turned entirely to stone. I used the violet beam to force it away, out the door and into the night. The troll ran, fled, into the dark.
I sagged, torch and magnifier falling from my hands.
I found Ang shivering under the table. She refused to come near me.
“Dirty trick, gwas,” was all she would say, giving me the dirtiest of looks. “Dirty trick.”
“You should have trusted me. I had it all under control,” I tried to explain. But I couldn’t really blame her – I wouldn’t have taken well to being offered up as soup either.
“Control, my arse,” I heard her mutter behind me.
Mark was the next problem to tackle. There was blood around his head, but it had congealed and I couldn’t see bone. The dislocated shoulder took some effort to pop back into place, but at least he could be thankful that he wasn’t conscious for that part. It would hurt like hell when he woke up, though.
* * *
When he did wake up, it was two hours later, and I’d managed to haul him onto the couch, inexpertly bandage his head, and make a cup of tea.
“Where’s mine?” was the first thing he said to me.
“Go make your own,” I replied, with a humourless smile. Everything still ached, and I couldn’t help but feel that it was all his fault, somehow. “How do you feel? Remember who you are? The date and all that?”
“Yeah, yeah.” He waved my questions away. “What happened, Hansard?”
“There was a troll. Ate all your goats, I’m afraid. But lucky for you I happened by to save your sorry self. So you tell me what happened. Bit unlike you to be taken off-guard, isn’t it?”
He rubbed his head, grimacing in pain. “I know. But, trolls, man? They keep to themselves, you know? Been years since there’s been any kind of troll attack. They can’t stand human habitation, right? You tell me how I was meant to expect that.” He groaned, eyebrows knitting together. “Seriously man, could I get a cup of tea?”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
When I returned he was in conversation with Ang, who sat opposite nursing her own brew.
“This one tells me you threatened to make her into soup,” said Mark, raising an eyebrow.
“It was necessary. Honest.”
“She said you used a torch. Was it the black light?”
Ang piped up from behind her mug. “Why’d it burn the troll? Ain’t sunlight.”
“Do you know what UV light is?” said Mark. She shook her head. “It’s invisible to the naked eye, but is present in sunlight. It’s the ultra violet radiation that reacts with troll skin, gives it a stony texture. The UV torch is called a black light. It’s quite weak; I use it for fluorescence tests.”
Ang nodded slowly. “And who’re Baines ‘nd Grayle?”
“What?” said Mark, expression clouding.
“That’s right,” I exclaimed. I’d completely forgotten. “Baines and Grayle. The troll said it was working for them, or something like that. Do you know what that means?”
“Never heard of them,” said Mark. He held my gaze steadily, until I conceded and looked away.
“I guess it will remain a mystery then,” I said brightly into my tea.
“I suppose it shall.”
“Now how do you feel about discussing the matter of remuneration? For our time, trouble, and bruises?”
“Don’t think just because I’ve been hit on the head that I’m going to let you walk off with a steal.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
* * *
We didn’t walk off with a steal, but it was almost as good as. We opted to stay the night, ate out of cans, and even made an effort to help tidy the wrecked kitchen. Tidying a witch’s kitchen is difficult, however: you don’t want to touch most of the stuff in case it does something nasty to you.
We retrieved the iron horseshoe from the remains of the door in the bush and hung it on a makeshift plank door, taking care to leave it the right way up. Good protection from most spirits and beasties, is a horseshoe. Iron in general, for that matter. Just make sure your horseshoe stays the right way up, otherwise all the good vibes will spill right out of it.
In the morning Mark gave me supervised free-reign of his cellar store, which was jam-packed with long-life spells and potions. I came away feeling like a rich man, albeit a badly bruised one.
“I thought we was here to ask about missing coblynau, not fill our pockets,” said Ang, eyeing me critically.
“Of course, Ang. But if there’s one rule I live by, it’s to never pass up a business opportunity.”
“There’s a truth if ever I heard one,” said Mark. “What’s this about missing coblynau?”
He listened with interest to Ang’s account, how there had been whispered rumours of a group that wanted to leave the synthetic existence her tribe had created for themselves; they didn’t want to be shut off from the rest of the world. One day the mine-dwellers had woken to find themselves five short, the rumours turned reality. Ang said the group had taken their bluecaps with them – so she knew they had gone willingly, they weren’t forced out or kidnapped. The mines were in uproar over it for weeks, until the Gaffer brought his pickaxe down on the whole issue and deemed the missing coblynau outcasts.
“Which ain’t the problem; they knew what they was askin’ for by leavin’,” said Ang. “But we never heard from ’em after that. ‘Tis awful strange. Coblynau always write home, even if they ain’t welcome thesselves.”
“I know of your kind,” said Mark, thoughtfully, “but I’ve not seen a coblyn for decades. I understand you to be more reclusive than your knocker brethren. Any chance your friends have taken up with them?”
“Knockers? Never!” said Ang.
And that was about all the witch had to say on the matter. No word on the grapevine, as it were. In truth I hadn’t expected any; it was a thin veneer under which I hoped to keep Ang happy while replenishing my stock.
Knockers might not be a bad shout, though. If we ran into some, they could have insider info we humans wouldn’t be privy to. I said as much to Ang, and she grudgingly agreed to set out on the road with me again.
She broke the silence between us once we were a few miles from the house.
“You really trust that witch, gwas?”
She went quiet again, clearly mulling something over. The pasty I’d bought her lay discarded to one side, untouched.
“What is it, Ang?”
She chewed her bottom lip. “Don’t y’think he’s lyin’ about Baines ‘nd Grayle? Not knowing what ’tis, I mean?”
“Oh, definitely,” I said, cheerfully. “That’s all just part of the business, Ang. It’s the number one rule on the Black Market: don’t ask, don’t tell.”
She seemed to reflect on this, and then said, half to herself, “But what kind o’ people can order about a troll? They take orders fr’m nobody. Fearful, is what ’tis.”
I wouldn’t admit it out loud, but I agreed. Mark’s reluctance to divulge what he knew had bothered me. He’s a decent guy, and someone too sensible to get wrapped up in messy business. But this ‘Baines and Grayle’ thing stank of messy business.
I forced a smile and pressed my foot down on the accelerator.
“Cheer up, Ang. Lunchtime soon. Fancy soup?”