It was a small clearing, barely large enough to give a view of the sky, and tucked away in the depths of WhiteTail Woods.
It was well away from the beaten track, and perhaps a little further away from home than three small fillies really had permission to roam. That said, the concept of “further away” was possibly a little more elastic with WhiteTail Woods than it was with its older cousin, the Everfree.
And of course the attraction of a strange pony who was reputed to keep a serpent in a box (according to Applejack, at least) was not to be denied.
Inside the clearing were a couple of large earthen mounds, lozenge-shaped like miniature burial mounds, but looking freshly built, and not covered in grass. At the foot of the mounds was an old tent. This wasn’t a tent for family camping holidays - it was large, scruffy, patched and very lived in. Finally, between the two mounds squatted a woodpile consisting of tree branches, mostly oak judging by the occasional leaves still attached. The woodpile was being added to by an ancient stallion, who was removing inconvenient twigs from freshly cut branches with deft swings of a small hatchet held between his teeth.
At length, he noticed the three watching fillies at the edge of the clearing. He spat the axe out (causing one of the fillies to wince slightly), then grinned at them.
“Three fillies from Ponyville, aye? Come to see the old charcoal burner, have you? Come on out where I can see you all.”
The three hesitantly picked their way into the clearing, as if approaching an ancient, powerful wizard (one of the popular choices in their discussions on the way there) rather than a wizened old pony. Eventually, one of them spoke.
“Good afternoon, sir. I am Sweetie Belle,” she said with a polite bow. “These are my friends Apple Bloom and Scootaloo.”
“Well, fine Canterlot manners from a fine little unicorn,” replied the old pony. “Too fine to waste on an old earth pony as myself. Those as call me by name call me Carbon Black, or Carbon for short.”
“What are these, Sir?” asked Apple Bloom, poking a hoof at one of the mounds.
“You’ll want to mind your hoof, lass. That’s one of my clamps, and it’s very hot inside.”
“Clamps? You’re storing stuff?”
“Nay, not that sort of clamp. That’s where I make my charcoal. Build up a fire with the branches, then cover it with earth. The wood burns slow, leaving the charcoal behind.”
He broke off, took his shovel in mouth and layered some soil over a small hole where smoke had started to come out.
“Of course, I have to keep the fire covered all the time, or it burns too quickly, leaving nothing but ashes, so I live out here with the clamps. Now, you three come into my tent and we’ll talk.”
Carbon Black pulled one of the tent flaps back, allowing access to the gloomy inside. Apple Bloom and Scootaloo trotted in with varying degrees of hesitancy. Sweetie Belle, on the other hand stopped at the flap, giving it a rather nervous look.
“Ain’t nothing there that won’t brush off, lassie.”
Sweetie Belle gave the tent flap another anxious look, and then slipped in, trying to avoid touching the canvas without looking like she was doing it.
The tent was gloomy inside. The canvas was thick and dark, so most of the light came from the open flap. As their eyes adjusted to the light they could see on one side a low bed made up of a number of blankets and rugs, kept from spilling across the floor by a small log. On the other side was a small and rather rickety chair and table. In the middle was a fire ring with the cold remains of a cooking fire. Above, hung from the crossbeam, was a small oil lamp. Carbon told them to sit on the bed, and then sat down on the lone chair.
“Now, what can I do for you?” he asked.
There was a pause, then the questions came out in a rush.
“Where are you from?”
“What are you doing?”
“Do you really have a serpent in a box?”
Carbon chuckled again. “Well, who said I had a serpent in a box?”
“My sister, Applejack,” replied Apple Bloom.
“Ah. You’re an Apple, then. I remember seeing your brother and sister when they were your age. And your parents. I even remember your old Granny Smith, though I was nearer your age when I first met her, learning the trade from my dad. Well, your sister is quite right, I do have a serpent in a box. Want to see him?”
Two heads nodded with enthusiasm. One nodded with somewhat less enthusiasm.
“Well, you’re sitting on him.”
The three fillies squealed and jumped up from the bed. Apple Bloom jumped nearly to the tent flap, Sweetie Belle to the middle of the tent (avoiding the fireplace) and Scootaloo described an arc across the tent as fear rather literally lent her wings. Carbon dug under the blankets and pulled out an old cigar box, and placed it on the table.
The lid lifted, and a small head poked out. A forked tongue sampled the air for a moment, and then out slithered a small adder. The trio watched (Apple Bloom at a safer distance than the others) as it coiled its way round the table, looking quizzically at the ponies in the tent. It hissed quietly, then flowed back into the box.
“He usually sleeps most of the day,” explained Carbon, putting the box back. “He is a little more lively in the evenings when he goes off and hunts.”
Since the three fillies showed no sign of wanting to sit on the bed again, Carbon ushered them outside again. Once outside, he started inspecting the clamps for smoke, and patched a few more holes.
“Now, as to what I do, I burn wood to make charcoal. Then I sell the charcoal.”
“What’s it used for?” asked Sweetie Belle.
“Well, all sorts of things. It burns hotter than wood, so some ponies used to use it in smithies. Some ponies use it for cooking as well. Sometimes I wrap the smaller sticks in paper and sell them to artists. A few weeks ago I sold some to a young unicorn filly who grinds it up to make fireworks. Rather fine ones, actually. It used to be used for indigestion too, and if you have a fish tank at home you will probably find it in the filter. Although my charcoal is probably not clean enough for that.”
His voice tailed off into a sigh.
“Used to?” asked Apple Bloom. “Aren’t ponies buying it anymore?”
Carbon gave a wry chuckle. “I used to run five of six clamps at a time when I was younger. These days there are better alternatives to charcoal, and...” with a nod to Sweetie Belle, “...cleaner ways of making charcoal. Now, don’t give me those mournful looks. I have all I need out in the woods and forests, and I’ve lived a long life, burning long and slow. I need for nothing and regret nothing.”
He rummaged in the tent for a few moments, and came out with a small paper bag.
“Now, you take these charcoal sticks home with you and have fun drawing with them. And if someone asks where you got them, just mention my name. Advertising, you see,” he finished with a wink.
“Thank you, sir,” The trio chorused.
Carbon watched as they trotted out of the clearing. “Another generation,” he thought. “Will they burn fast or slow?”