Death’s Apprentice – Part 48

He didn’t blame Hades for falling to sleep. Joe had to admit this cottage was pretty snug and homely. He yawned loudly before he shovelled the last spoonful of stew into his mouth. He dropped the bowl onto the floor and stood up to stretch.

Yep, this place was rather nice; too many knick-knacks for Joe’s liking but still, it was more homely than he’d ever considered his own home to be. Yes, this was more like it.

He looked around for Hel. Where had she got to? He looked at Hades. Hades didn’t look worried as he lay there snoring his head off so why should he be worried? Maybe Hades had got the right idea. Maybe that’s what Joe needed, a nap. The bed did look really inviting, and it wouldn’t hurt to rest for a few minutes, would it?

He flopped onto the bed which seemed to cocoon him as he fell, like some giant cuddly arms. Oh, it felt so comfy, so warm…

 

Jow woke with a start. He gasped for air. That was one Hell of a dream. He’d been dreaming that he was being held prisoner by a woman with a knife.

His heart jumped into his throat as a woman’s head swooped into view, her features covered by her thick red hair.

‘And what do you think you’re doing on my bed?’ she demanded, whilst thrusting a silver knife to his throat.

‘I…I was just…’

‘I know what you were doing,’ she boomed, letting the sharp blade rest on his skin, ‘you were sleeping. ON MY BED!’

‘I’m sorry, I just…’

‘I just…I just…stop snivelling like a child. Actually, now I come to think of it, I’m quite partial to children. I like to cook them and eat them in a stew for my dinner.’

Joe’s stomach rolled. Acidic bile rose up into his throat. He hadn’t had he? The stew…? Eugh!!! He hadn’t eaten human flesh? Had he?

‘I think I’m going to be sick,’ he squeaked.

Suddenly the witch threw her head back and began to laugh. She dropped the knife onto the bed stand and climbed off Joe. She rolled over and lay beside him, clutching her stomach as she laughed.

‘That was too funny,’ said another voice. This one he recognised.

‘Hel?’

Hel came into view, her eyes streaming with tears of laughter.

‘What? You…?’ He sat up, his pride stinging with indignity. ‘You…what’s going on?’

‘We’re only having you on! Sorry.’

But, Joe could tell Hel wasn’t sorry. No, not at all. She was laughing now but he’d get her back. Yep, at some point, he was going to get her back for that.

‘Couldn’t resist, sorry. It was too easy,’ said the other woman who was still lying next to Joe. She turned her head to face him, her hand outstretched. ‘The name’s Agnes, pleased to meet you.’

Death’s Apprentice – Part 47

Joe paused.

What he got to lose? His life was pretty fucked up already. I mean, everyone hated him in the upper world. And here?

Well, no one hated him here. Yet. But what kind of loser ends up in the Underworld when they’re still alive? And, even though he was still alive, that could easily change and he could end up dead.

But then, he was in the right place for it.

And, his life had kind of been a waste up until this point.

The only thing he’d got going for him was Lola and sometimes he thought she’d be better off without him. He often thought of all the nice families she could’ve ended up with, with big gardens, nice comfy dog beds and a shitdad that didn’t hit her.

What kind of miserable person was he? He kept Lola because of his own selfishness. And he knew it. He was alone in the world and Lola made him feel that little bit less alone but was it worth her being mistreated?

Joe’s heart sank.

He really was a piece of shit, wasn’t he?

Joe pushed thoughts of Lola from his mind. He couldn’t help her down here so he had to forget her for a bit then, when he got back he’d….

No, he couldn’t think of that, not yet.

He climbed the steps and entered the cabin, with his heart feeling like it was in his feet.

Colour and smells seemed to assault him from every direction. His stomach groaned loudly again as he smelt the stew. Beef, he thought, with…carrots…and dumplings. God, he thought it smelled so good that he’d probably commit murder just to have some. His mouth began to water.

He looked over to the black cauldron bubbling in the hearth. Beside it, in the coals, sat a large black iron kettle. On the mantelpiece sat loads of knick-knacks – cat statues, a small crystal ball, a figurine of a naked woman, and some jars filled with what looked like black gloop and a strange clock with lots of dials and fingers and moons. A crooked broomstick leaned up the side of the brick fireplace.

The walls of the cabin were made from a silver-coloured wood that had been covered in colourful drapes and tapestries. And over at the far side of the single-roomed house sat the comfiest bed Joe had ever seen. It was covered with a thick layer of blankets and furs. He yawned. It sure did look inviting.

‘Here you re then,’ said Hel holding out a wooden bowl of steaming stew.

The saliva was beginning to pool at the corners of his mouth.

He took the bowl and began to shovel it into his mouth before he even sat down on the wooden chair placed next to the hearth.

Hades yawned and stretched out his front paws before he circled around in front of the fire several times. He crashed to the floor in a big dog-doughnut and before Joe had taken two mouthfuls of the stew, he was snoring loudly.

Death’s Apprentice – Part 46

Joe’s stomach groaned as he neared the cabin and smelled… His nose twitched as he sniffed the air. Stew. It was stew! His absolute favourite. Winner, winner, thought Joe, stew for dinner. Get in!

The log cabin looked well cared for and, if Joe was really honest, exactly what a cabin in the woods belonging to a witch should look like. It had a rocking chair on the porch with a patchwork quilt of browns and oranges and reds, carefully folded upon the seat. There were pots of plants on either side of the cabin door. Probably herbs, thought Joe, as this house belonged to a witch.

The garden was just as well kept. There was a well-tended pumpkin patch with pumpkins of various sizes and colours. There were rows of carrots, what looked like rhubarb, and potatoes. There was a small section of the garden fenced off with what looked like willow twigs that had been woven together. Behind the fence, were strange-looking plants with gnarled branches and bizarre flowers and plants that just looked like lots of twisted thorns.

‘Are you coming in or what?’ asked Hel, standing in the open doorway of the house.

‘I’m coming,’ he replied, slipping his hands into his pockets as he had an attack of conscience. It didn’t feel right just walking into someone else’s house. Having said that, he kind of hoped she wasn’t in there either. ‘Is…is she in there?’ He stepped onto the first step and stopped.

‘Who?’

‘The witch.’

‘No. At least…I don’t think she is.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ snapped Joe. Being hangry and anxious was not good for his mood.

‘Well, I can’t see her but she’s a witch isn’t she? So she could be a slug, or a frog, or anything, couldn’t she? So, I think you need to hurry up and eat already because if she catches you…’ Hel drew a small finger across her pale throat. ‘She might end up putting you in the stew…if you’re lucky…’

There was a pregnant pause interrupted by the sound of a frog croaking then Joe’s stomach groaning.

‘What?’ asked Joe.

Hel shrugged, turned, and went back into the cabin.

Death’s Apprentice – Part 45

‘How much longer?’

‘Not far,’ said Hel as she skipped through the trees like a ballerina on speed.

Not far? Not far? It felt like they’d been walking through this shitty forest for days! Joe didn’t know how long he could go on for. His stomach felt like it was eating itself and his legs didn’t feel as if they belonged to him anymore. And his mood? His mood was maybe not a good thing to discuss.

‘Here we are, look!’ Hel screeched to a halt, raised her small hand and pointed at something that Joe couldn’t see yet.

He moved closer to the little girl and looked out of the trees into a small clearing. There was what looked like a small log cabin surrounded by a small kitchen garden full to the brim with herbs and vegetables. Grey smoke twisted out of the chimney and drifted into the eternally twilit sky.

‘Stay here!’ she ordered, before she raced off towards the cabin, her hounds swiftly following.

Except for Hades.

Hades seemed to have developed a connection with Joe. The huge dog stood next to him, his muscles taut, his eyes alert and…

God, what was that smell?

Joe looked at Hades. Hades looked at his bottom then looked at Joe, his head slowly getting lower and lower.

‘Hades, have you…?’

Hades’ head dropped even further.

It was at that moment that Joe decided he like Hades a lot. He watched as Hel skipped off towards the cabin and he wondered whether she’d allow the dog to go with him back to up there, “real life”, or whatever it was. Because if this was the Underworld (and it definitely was as far as he could tell) and this was “real”, then what was up there? What did he call it? The upper world? But, Joe mused, it was more like a big downer, especially living with his mom and shitdad.

Maybe, IF he ever got back to up there, he’d have to consider alternative living arrangements now he was working.

He shrugged as if in conversation with himself. What did any of that matter? He’d deal with that if he ever got out of here alive.

Alive? Wasn’t that ironic as he was in the Underworld?

There was a long howl that seemed to echo around the forest. Hades’ ears pricked up. He threw his head back and gave his response – a long sorrowful howl that sent a shiver down Joe’s back. When he’d finished his cry, he nudged Joe’s leg and began to stroll off towards the cabin.

Death’s Apprentice – Part 44

‘A witch, hey?’ Joe was talking more to himself than to Hel.

‘Why? Is that a problem?’ Hel’s eyes were narrowed into suspicious slits.

‘No, of course not,’ he replied, ‘it’s just…well, I’ve never met a witch before, so…’ He shrugged.

‘You haven’t?’

‘No.’

‘Oh, well, there’s a first time for everything. Come on.’ Hel turned to leave.

‘It’s just…it’s a bit…you know…’

‘What?’ She asked twisting her head to look at him.

‘Well, fairy tale-y.’

‘What’s fairy tale-y?’

‘They’re stories adults tell to shut kids up. And they always have wicked witches lurking in forests.’

‘Well, not every witch is wicked, but every forest does have a witch.’

Joe very much doubted that.

‘Is this witch evil?’ he asked, suddenly worried about being turned into a frog or being burned alive in a cauldron. The way his luck was going at the moment, he knew anything was possible.’

‘I dunno…’ and with that, Hel skipped off into the trees.

Death’s Apprentice – Part 41

‘What are you doing?’

The sound of the sweet little voice made Joe’s heart jump in his chest. He flung his hand up to his pounding heart and ended up dropping the branch in the mud.

‘What the?! Don’t make me jump like that!’ he screeched spinning around to see Hel standing there as sweet as anything. Where had she appeared from? She was like an annoying little sister he couldn’t get rid of.

‘I’m trying to help this man. He’s trapped -‘

‘Hello!’ said the man in the bog, ‘I’m still here…and I’m sinking!’

‘You don’t want to do that,’ she said, arms folded behind her back as she swayed from side to side.

‘What do you mean? The guy’s going to die -‘

‘No, he’s not.’

‘Hel,’ said Joe, flinging his hand in the air in exasperation, ‘he’s sinking in the mud.’

‘So?’

‘So, I can’t just leave him to die, can I?’

‘Why not? He’ll be back again tomorrow.’

‘Of course, I can’t…what do you mean he’ll be back again tomorrow?’

‘Oh that’s Lord Valdis and you’ve no need to worry, he’s already dead.’

‘What?!’ spluttered Joe. ‘What do you mean he’s dead?’

‘Do you want to tell him?’ Hel asked the man. ‘Or shall I?’

The man mumbled something but Joe couldn’t quite make out what he said.

‘I guess I’ll tell him then,’ shrugged Hel. ‘Where are we, Joe?’

Joe looked confused and didn’t answer.

‘What you need to remember is that not everyone is like you. People are usually dead here.’ She shrugged. ‘This is the Forest of Suffering. Lord Valdis is suffering. That’s what’s supposed to happen.’

‘Ohhh…’ said Joe, pretending that he understood perfectly, when, in fact, he didn’t.’

‘Lord Valdis hoarded all the food in his castle when his people starved. He ate and drank and became fat when his people died of malnutrition. He deserves to be stuck in the mud like the pig he was.’

Well, when she put it like that, Joe thought she had a very convincing argument.

‘So, what is this place then? Is it like purgatory then?’

‘Oh no,’ said Hel, ‘purgatory is for temporary punishment. The punishments here go on forever!’ She smiled as she said these last words.

‘Forever, forever?’

‘Is there any other kind?’

Joe thought about it for a second then gave up. His brain hurt too much.

‘Come on then, she said, spinning around, ‘that’s if you want to get where you’re going.’

‘And what about me?’ asked the fat man.

‘What about you?’ replied Hel.

Death’s Apprentice – Part 40

He turned his head from side-to-side. There was no sign of Hel, or her hounds. He dropped his head hard onto the rough ground. Well, at least it was quiet now.

There was no sound at all.

‘Help! Help me!’

What the hell was that? Joe lay still listening hard for the voice. Had he imagined it?

‘Help!’

No, he hadn’t imagined it. It was a man’s voice and it was coming somewhere to the right of him.

He pulled himself off the floor. He was absolutely filthy and smelled worse. Joe hated being dirty. He didn’t like dirt at all.

He held his hands out in front of him. They were caked in mud and a thick red graze covered both heels of his hands.

‘Help! Come quick!’

Joe looked at his hands, gave a deep sigh and rubbed his hands on his hoodie. Today was not a good day.

‘Over here!’

He turned towards where the voice was coming from and set off through the trees.

He’d only stumbled a few metres when a small clearing opened up before him encircled by more oak trees. There was a muddy bog in front of him, with a small, fat man stuck up to his waist in it. A large branch reached out towards him, it’s fingertips just out of the man’s reach. The man’s forehead was beaded with sweat as he was trying desperately to grab the branch but it was a couple of centimetres too far. The man was well and truly stuck.

The man looked up.

‘Help me, please,’ the man pleaded. ‘I can’t get out! I feel like I’ve been here an eternity and I don’t know how much longer I will be able to survive. I’m so thirsty, please help!’

Joe moved forward to assess the situation. ‘Hang on,’ he said, looking around for a branch long enough to reach the man.

‘Please hurry,’ said the man who seemed to have sunk a few more centimetres into the mud.

‘Okay,’ said Joe, locating a branch that he thought was long enough for the job, ‘just don’t thrash around or else you’ll sink even further.’

He grabbed the branch and began to feed it across the mud to the man.