Death’s Apprentice – Part 54

‘No silly, I’m not going to hurt you. You just need a restorative tincture or maybe something a little stronger, hang on.’ Agnes swooped over to a small cupboard in the corner of the room and began to root around in it.

Joe took a sip of his tea to calm his nerves. Things were getting way out of hand.

‘Yes, got it!’ shouted Agnes, spinning on her heels, a small bottle full of a green substance raised in the air.

‘What’s that?’

‘It’s Dead Man Walking.’

Joe gulped loudly.

‘Don’t worry,’ said the witch darting over to where Joe sat.

But he was worried.

Very worried.

Especially when he caught sight of the silver skull stopper jammed into the neck of the bottle.

‘Do I really have to take that? I’m sure I’ll be fine,’ said Joe, recoiling.

There was a loud pop as Agne’s pulled the stopped out with her teeth. She spat the stopper onto the floor. It bounced several times then rolled off under a cupboard never to be seen again.

‘It’s okay Joe,’ she said, gripping his shoulder with her free hand whilst simultaneously tipping the contents of the bottle into Joe’s tea. It hissed as it touched the hot tea and then disappeared. ‘Why be “just fine”? We’re going to be facing some really REALLY bad shit, Joe, why not be prepared?’

‘I haven’t actually agreed…’ but his voice drifted off as Agnes began to talk over him.

‘Really, really, REALLY bad shit actually. And that’s before we even enter the Valley of the Dead. I need my heart back Joe and I have a good feeling that you’re the man to do it.’ She absentmindedly patted him on the shoulder as she looked off into the distance. ‘There’ll be all manner of nasties before we reach the Woodcutter -‘

‘The Woodcutter? Who’s that?’

Agnes sighed. ‘The man who stole my heart obviously. Do keep up Joe.’

‘How did he…you know…’

‘How do you think?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘He cut it out with his blade,’ said Hel.

Hades began to cry.

‘Nevermind,’ said Agnes, ‘Joe’ll get it back for me, won’t you Joe?’

‘Well, I am kind of busy. You know with my own quest. Remember?’

‘What?’ asked Agnes.

‘Retrieving Death’s scythe.’

‘Oh that? Yes, yes. Easy peasy. As soon as I get my heart back, I’ll help you find the scythe. Deal?’

Joe sighed and looked at his tea. It was becoming gungy around the edges like when milk goes off. His stomach roiled in disgust.

‘Do I have to drink this?’

‘Deal?’

He sighed loudly. He hadn’t really got a choice, had he? ‘Deal.’

‘Now drink up.’

‘Do I have to?’

‘It’ll make you feel so much better.’

He looked at it, took a deep breath, and prepared himself.

‘Come on, down the hatch.’

He opened his mouth and took a big gulp. It tasted like mud and sweaty armpits and…eugh…he couldn’t. He couldn’t do it. It was only when he tried to take the cup away from his lips that he realised it was being held firmly in place by Agnes.

‘There’s a boy,’ she said, ‘drink up.’

Book Review – The Familiars by Stacey Halls

The Familiars by Stacey Halls (Zaffre Books, 2019)

I’ll put my hands up and be really honest and say I only picked up this book because the gorgeous cover caught my eye as I was wandering around a supermarket (yes, I’m one of those people – mea culpa :)). I read the blurb, it sounded good so I bought it.

I wasn’t disappointed.

The Familiars is the debut novel by author Stacey Halls.

Set in 1612, The Familiars is set against the backdrop of the very real events of the Pendle witch trials, and centres around Fleetwood Shuttleworth, the mistress of Gawthorpe Hall.

The young Fleetwood Shuttleworth is pregnant again after suffering several miscarriages. She’s anxious and desperate to provide her husband Richard with an heir. She discovers a hidden letter from a doctor with the awful prediction that she will not survive another birth.

In a desperate bid to keep herself and her baby alive she employs a local woman, Alice Gray, to be her midwife. However, as the witch hunts begin to gain traction it isn’t long before Alice is implicated in the use of witchcraft. How far will Fleetwood go to protect herself, her baby and her midwife?

The Familiars is an impressive debut novel by Stacey Halls. I felt it was a little shaky and slow in the beginning but not enough to stop me reading it. When the pace picked up there was enough intrigue and suspense to keep the story moving forward. However, I felt the conclusion of the story was a little bit underwhelming but this is probably because the story had to be set within the confines of what was acceptable for a Gentlewoman in 1612, so not necessarily the author’s fault.

Unlike the Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox (see my review here) the heroine of The Familiars manages to be pro-active despite the restrictions of the time. This was a big plus for me. Personally, I find nothing duller than a heroine that does nothing!

Whilst The Familiars isn’t perfect, and despite the shaky start, I would recommend The Familiars. I think for her debut novel, Stacey Halls did a fantastic job.

4 out of 5 stars.

Great for those who like Historical Fiction that is set against real, researchable events. Not so good for those interested in the witch hunts and assizes as the drama takes place away from the actual trials. In other words, it might not be “witchy” enough for you.

 

 

 

Dragon Rider – Part 36

Dragon Rider

Chapter Fifteen Continued

Souls and Shadows

 

Drake looked at the spirit and a smirk played across his lips, ’If this works, Pyro’s right, you are a genius!’

‘So how do we do this?’ asked Willow, a wide smile on her face.

‘Yeah, I mean, if it’s a raging tornado how are we supposed to stay, you know, alive?’ asked Pyro, his face now looking panic-stricken as he began to consider what they were about to do.

‘That’s the tricky bit-’

‘We can dive under there,’ said Willow pointing to a cleft in the earth underneath the roots of a large de-robed oak tree.

‘Well, it’s better than nothing,’ shrugged Drake,

Quickly they clambered into the small hole at the foot of the tree, along with the rotting leaves, the scuttling centipedes, gigantic woodlice and the petrifying bones of the dead.

‘Are you sure about this?’ asked Willow, kicking half a skull away with her pump.

‘Not really, but what else have we got?  Just do it.’

‘Sorry,’ whispered Willow to the green spirit who was banging its fists on the inside of the glass shouting ‘Let me out!’  Holding it firmly in her hands she gave the jar a good shake.

The spirit screamed and flew into a rage, whirring around the jar and expanding in size.  The jar shook violently in Willow’s hands as the spirit turned from green to yellow, to red, to deep blue and then it settled on the colour of the stormiest sky.  Willow managed to hold it firm until she heard the glass crack then she threw it to the ground shouting at Drake and Pyro to hold on tight.

The sound of smashing glass was completely drowned out by the Rarog’s roar, it was like a giant engine beginning to power up as it transformed into a black churning wind, a terrifying monster of Vengeance.

Drake’s eyes were forced shut as dust and bone were whipped up around him.  Somewhere above him, there was a crack as a branch was wrenched away from its trunk.  Willow grabbed onto his arm just as the storm hit them fully, lashing at them like a thousand whips.  He could hear nothing but the rage of the beast as dust and debris were hurled at the prison-like structure that had so far protected them, but he could not predict how long they could withstand the power of the storm.

The Rarog expanded rapidly, gathering trees, branches and bones as it devoured the Land of the Dead.  Drake felt it bite at the roots of the oak and he could hear the cracks as it tore huge pieces of wood from around them.  It seemed like an eternity as they sat, huddled together, under the finger-like roots of the great oak as the storm raged around them.  The Rarog continued its roaring rampage of vengeance until, gradually, it moved off into the distance accompanied by a chorus of agonised screams as it gorged itself on the Souls of the Damned.

They waited anxiously in their prison until they could hear the storm no more, except for the murmurs of it remaining in the air, like memories.  Only then did they feel safe to emerge from their refuge.

‘Geez, that was windier than me!’ exclaimed Pyro dragging himself off the floor, ‘and that’s saying something.  Yez alright?’ he said, turning to Willow.

Willow nodded.  ’I think so,’ she said, removing a twig from her pink hair.

‘Drake?’ asked Pyro.

‘Yeah, nothing ripped off anyway.’

‘So I guess we should bust a move before it comes back, eh?  Don’t fancy being here when it returns,’ said Pyro grimacing.  ‘Too much wind can kill you, you know.  I used to know a guy, who knew a guy, who died from eating too many sprouts. Tragic it was, the way he went.’

Drake could see the black funnel of the tornado cutting a path through the Forest of Suffering, towards the Sorrow Mountains, its lower half surrounded by an almost translucent maelstrom of dust, debris, trees and bones.  The Iron fortress was clearly visible now, a few miles away at the end of the Valley of Death, behind a rolling expanse of grassland, The Burning Fields, peppered with bubbling and spitting pools of mud that smelt like rotten eggs.

The journey through the Burning Fields was swift and all too soon they were confronted by the great wooden doors of the Iron Fortress.  Drake knew that nothing could prepare them for what lay ahead, for now, they were to meet Death itself.

The great doors slowly creaked open.

They had made it to the Fortress.  Quickly they slipped through the crack in the doorway and into the unknown realm beyond.

 

Death’s Apprentice – Part 53

He looked at Agnes and Hel who were both studying him with a mixture of amusement and concern. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. What the fuck had just happened? Why was he so grumpy? And, more importantly, why the fuck had he just fainted upon seeing a badly healing scar?

What the hell was going on?

And why the fuck was he swearing so much?

‘You ok?’ asked Hel.

No, he really wasn’t and now his face was turning red with shame.

‘I’m sorry for snapping, I don’t know what’s wrong with me,’ he said, rubbing the back of his head. He’d got a nice lump developing there.

‘It’s all good,’ said Agnes, producing a large mug of tea from thin air, ‘I find a cup of tea helps in any stressful situation.’

Joe took the mug from her. It was decorated with dancing unicorns.

‘It’s this place,’ said Hel.

‘Not my cottage?’ asked Agnes.

‘No. The forest.’

‘Ahhhh, I see. Yes,’ said Agnes, rubbing her chin with her hand, ‘it is the Forest of Suffering after all.’ She looked at Joe with those large eyes full of concern and all his grumpiness began to melt away. Again. She had a habit of doing that.

‘It probably doesn’t help that you’re alive.’

‘No, it probably doesn’t,’ said Hel, looking at him in sympathy, her hand firmly on her hips.

‘Maybe we should do something about that?’

‘WHAT?’ shrieked Joe, recoiling back into his chair. ‘I’m okay alive, thanks. I don’t want to die!’

‘No silly, I’m not going to hurt you. You just need a restorative tincture or maybe something a little stronger, hang on.’ Agnes swooped over to a small cupboard in the corner of the room and began to root around in it.

Joe took a sip of his tea to calm his nerves. Things were getting way out of hand.

‘Yes, got it!’ shouted Agnes, spinning on her heels, a small bottle full of a green substance raised in the air.

‘What’s that?’

‘It’s Dead Man Walking.’

Joe gulped loudly.

‘Don’t worry,’ said the witch darting over to where Joe sat.

But he was worried.

Very worried.

Dragon Rider – Part 35

Dragon Rider

Chapter Fifteen Continued

Souls and Shadows

Drake had walked and walked.  All the darkness looked the same to him; deep, forbidding, hopeless.  Every tree looked like the last; twisted, warped and damaged, just like his soul.  Like the souls of the Damned that were converging upon him, a pack of wolves stalking a weak and injured animal.

He slumped to the ground, his heart like a lump of lead in his chest.  He could no longer feel his legs, they were numb and dead like the rest of him.

‘So, this is how it ends?’ he asked the darkness.

And the darkness replied; ‘Come to us.’

Drake could feel his heart gradually slowing down.  ‘No,’ he replied weakly.

‘You’ll never escape,’ sang the bitter-sweet darkness, like honey laced with a huge portion of cyanide.  ‘You belong with us.’

‘No.’ His voice was barely more than a whisper.

‘Drake!  Drake!’

Drake’s head snapped up as he heard his father’s voice.  He stared into the darkness, his eyes frantically searching for his father.  ‘Dad?’

‘Come on Drake, come and join us.’

‘I…’  His heart felt like it had been hacked in two.  What it would be like to see his father, to hold him!  Tears gushed from his eyes as he ached with longing.  How things could have been different!  A huge wave of melancholia crashed over him, consumed him, took his breath away like he was drowning in a deep black sea of sadness.

He wanted to go to that dark place, to the place where his father was; so he closed his eyes, surrendered himself, and let the darkness take him.

But in that dark he could feel a warmth pressing against his chest, pulsating like the heart pumping blood around his body.  With his eyes still closed, his trembling hands grappled at his chest and found a small angel, the Blood of Isis amulet that Alchymia had given him.  He smiled; what a waste it had been to accept such a precious gift!

‘Drake?’

Alchymia?  What a strange person to think of just before he was going to die.

‘Drake, open your eyes.’

‘I can’t,’ he whispered.  His eyes were just too heavy, broke like the rest of him.  He felt something cold grasp his hand but it was familiar and oddly comforting as it touched his skin.  Like an angel, he thought, taking him to the other side properly, not like the illegal immigrant he was now.  He smiled and tears welled in his eyes as the angel began to warm him from the inside out.  His pain was nearly over.

But it didn’t feel like death.  He could feel life filling his veins, dissolving the desolation, melting the ice.

‘Open your eyes.’

He was confused; he knew that voice well but she wasn’t an angel taking him to meet Death.  Slowly he opened his eyes; in front of him stood an old lady dressed in black, her sunken black eyes filled with pity and love.

‘You need to fight it, Drake.  The Damned are eating at you from the inside, taking your demons, your worst nightmares and using them against you.  It will be the same for Willow and Pyro if you don’t fight it!’

But he couldn’t, how could he fight it?  His heart was too heavy, like a stone drowning in a rushing river.  He let his eyes slowly shut again.

‘Drake, I will not let you die here.  Open your eyes!’

This time a spark jolted his heart into beating.  He did as he was told and stared into those dark eyes that had already saved him once when she helped him to save Falkor, and they were now saving him again.

‘Alchymia? How?’

‘I have been watching you ever since you entered The Valley.’

Drake looked at her, his eyes full of wonder and gratitude as he started to understand.  ‘The crow?’

‘Yes.  I can only visit my sister in this form,’ she said, looking away, a slight tinge of bitterness etched into her voice, ‘or as the crow.’

Drake shook his head feebly.  ‘I-’

‘I know,’ she said placing her hand on his chest, pressing the warmth of the amulet into his skin.  ‘I did not tell you because I could not.  I should not even be here now, upsetting the balance of things, but I could not send you into the bowels of Death’s lair without some sort of real protection.  If Brimo knew I was here…’ she broke off and stroked his face with the touch of a mother nursing her newborn.  ‘We have not got much time Drake, so I need you to listen.  This Amulet is filled with the Blood of Isis, it will bring those lost back to you.  Hold it out, let it shine and they will come.’

‘But-’

‘Shush, for now, just listen,’ she said holding up her wrinkled, liver-spotted hand to silence him, ‘Once you have found your two companions tell Willow to use the stowaway in her bag to set you free.’  Alchymia saw his confusion, ‘Do not worry, she will know what you mean, trust in me.  Now, once you get through the main gates of the Fortress, you must seek out Arthur Tinks, he is an old friend of mine who deals in Antiquities.  Find him and exchange the Amulet for some Golden Blue Pearl tickets.  Drake, what did I just say?’

‘Golden tickets-’

‘Good.  You must remember that, you will need them to bribe the guards to let you through the Great Gates.  It is very important that you exchange the Amulet, do you hear me?’ she asked, a tuft of silver hair escaping from under her black headscarf.

Drake nodded feebly.

‘I must go now,’ she said, pulling him up from the ground.  ’Remember everything I have told you and whatever you do, do not let Brimo see the Amulet.’  She placed her cold hands on either side of his face and kissed the top of his head.  She stepped back and then was gone, replaced by an iridescent crow which cawed once before it took off into the dead sky.

Drake took the Amulet from around his neck and held it high in the air, but he was unsure of whether he had actually seen Alchymia or whether he was just delirious.  The Amulet pulsed in his hand and began to radiate light like a distress flare, it’s red light a beacon in the darkness.  All around him the Souls of the Damned shrieked in pain like vampires exposed to daylight, and they scuttled back into the shadows and away from the Amulet’s brilliance.

‘What the hell do you think you were doing?’ screeched Willow, as she appeared out of the darkness.  She launched herself at Drake, shoving him forwards.

‘Ow!  What was that for?’ said Drake spinning around.

‘What was that for?  What was that for?  Do you have any idea what you taking off just did to me?  Do you?’  She stood there, hands on her hips, amber eyes blazing from under a sea of pink hair.

Drake shrugged.  ’I’m sorry, it’s this place, it’s just…’  He could see her scowl even through the strange red light.

‘I mean, as soon as you took off the Hand of Glory went out, couldn’t get it to light again and I’m supposed to find you in this!’ she said, flinging her hands in the air.  ’Pyro said I should leave you-’

‘Pyro was probably right.’

‘I wouldn’t say that,’ said Pyro, the red light of the Amulet picking out the fluctuations in his skin colour, ’but what I would say is that this place is giving me the willies.  It’s messing with my head.  We need to get outta here as fast as we can.  Together.’

Drake nodded, but remained silent.  He could see the sincerity in Pyro’s eyes, hear it in his voice.  But to work with a demon?  Goddammit, they assisted Fenrik in his evil and even murdered his father on the guy’s orders!

Willow put her hands on her hips and sighed loudly.  ‘So, any idea how we get out of here?’

Drake sighed and nodded at Willow’s rucksack.  ‘Use the stowaway in there-’

‘The stowaway?  Have you lost your mind?  What are you…Oh…’ said Willow, looking away and fidgeting on the spot.

‘Willow?’ said Pyro, eyeing her suspiciously.

‘Look, I’m sorry,’ she said, shrugging before she slipped the bag off her back.  She opened it and rummaged inside.  ‘I found him at Alchymia’s; he was whirring around, stressed out,’ she said, fetching out the small glass jar with the gold, screw-top lid.  Inside, a little green spirit sat cross-legged, its back up against one side of the jar, its diamond-shaped head in its hands.  ’Meet the Rarog.’

‘Willow, I don’t think I approve of keeping spirits in jars you know,’ said Pyro, moving in closer to have a better look, ‘It’s not nice, I mean, look at the poor guy-’

‘He was distressed when I found him, I didn’t mean to keep him locked up for so long.  I just…forgot about him.  Sorry!’

Drake placed the Amulet back on his neck and strode over to Willow.  ’And this is going to help us, how exactly?’ he said, pointing at the grumpy looking spirit who was sticking his tongue out at them and making rude hand gestures.

‘Well-’ said Willow.

‘You’re a genius!’ said Pyro, his red eyes beaming.  ‘He’s a wind spirit and if we get him mad enough, he’ll turn into a raging tornado!’

Death’s Apprentice – Part 52

‘I have lost my heart,’ said Agnes.

‘Lost your heart? Like, it’s been broken or something? You want me to beat someone up? Because if you do,’ said Joe putting his palms up in the air, ‘I’m not your man. I’m no good in fights, never have been.’

‘No, I’ve lost my heart,’ she said, pulling down her top ever so slightly to reveal the top of a very nasty red scar that had been crudely sewn together with thick black thread.

Joe recoiled in horror. ‘What the…? How are you…?’ Joe stood up quickly. ‘How did….?’ But he couldn’t finish his sentence because blackness took hold of his vision and he crashed to the floor.

 

Joe could hear voices in the dark. He recognised them but couldn’t put names to them. He could open his eyes but he didn’t really want to. He was tired and he wanted to sleep. And his head hurt, at the back.

‘Stick that under his nose, that’ll wake him up,’ said one of the voices.

If they were talking about him, he didn’t want to know and he didn’t want to wake up. He wanted to sleep. Why couldn’t they just fuck off and leave him alone?

‘What is it?’ asked the other voice.

‘A mixture I made myself. It contains a lot of traditional ingredients and a few little extra bits I’ve added myself. I was especially pleased with the addition of the Cane Toad guts, it seems to give it an extra je ne sais quoi…’

Several things happened at once. Joe felt something cold and wet thrust under his nose and the most disgusting smell of rotting eggs and…

He didn’t want to think about it anymore. His eyes shot open. Agnes and Hel were stooped over him, a brown bottle of some sort held under his nose. His arm jerked up of its own accord and hit the bottle which fell out of Agnes’ hand and flew across the room.

‘Shit!’ screamed Agnes. ‘It can’t hit the fire.’ She threw her arm out, pointed at the bottle and screamed, ‘Beluk!’ The bottle came to halt and hovered mid-air.

‘What the fuck Joe,’ said Agnes, ‘I was only trying to help and you try and blow my house up!’

‘I don’t need any help and I didn’t mean to.’ He didn’t know why but he felt a little defensive. He dug his elbows into the Persian-carpeted floor and pushed himself up.

‘You sure about that?’

‘You look ill,’ said Hel, pushing the knife in a little deeper.

‘I’m fine,’ he snapped, dragging himself off the floor and onto his knees, ‘it’s just low blood sugar or standing up too quick or something.

‘What like Orthostatic hypotension or something?’

‘Yeah, that.’ Joe hadn’t got a clue what she was on about and he didn’t care. He just wanted her to shut up. He stood up slowly and staggered over to the chair by the fire. He dropped into it like a stone.

He looked at Agnes and Hel who were both studying him with a mixture of amusement and concern. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. What the fuck had just happened? Why was he so grumpy? And, more importantly, why the fuck had he just fainted upon seeing a badly healing scar?

What the hell was going on?

And why the fuck was he swearing so much?