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 43

‘Mmmm, let me think,’ said Hel, her right hand stroking her chin.

‘It’s okay,’ said Joe, ‘I can wait.’ He almost added, I’m used to being hungry, but didn’t because what was the point? No one cared.

And, he was used to it if he was really honest. It was part of the package when you lived in the Bones’ household.

Not that they were dirt poor, not like his mate Limey. Limey’s parents were both chronically ill and on benefits and when they got put on to Universal Credit there were a few times that their benefit money was stopped. No benefits meant no money. No money meant no food and no heating. It sucked.

No, Joe’s mom worked and although they weren’t rolling in money, they weren’t on Limey’s scale either. Problem was, Joe’s shitdad prefered beer and weed and the bookies to feeding his stepkid. But hey, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

Right?

Wrong.

It had just given Joe a load of rather unhealthy coping skills.

Hades rubbed his head against Joe’s leg making him jump. His heart twanged again as he thought of Lola.

‘Good boy,’ he said, running his hands through the dog’s rough fur. The dog began to purr loudly and started to lean on Joe nearly making him fall over.

‘Careful Hades,’ said Hel and the dog shifted its position. ‘Okay, I’ve got it. There’s a witch that lives in these woods -‘

‘A witch?’ Even Joe could hear the scepticism in his own voice. ‘Really? Come on now. Stop pulling my leg!’

Hel stared at him, her face contorted with confusion. ‘I’m not touching your leg.’

‘I know. It’s just a saying…’ Nope, he could see from the look on her face that she wasn’t getting it. ‘It doesn’t matter. So, this witch…how far is it? Is she dead?’

‘No, she’s very much alive,’ said Hel.

Death’s Apprentice – Part 42

Joe had no idea how long they’d been walking through the forest. Walking? What he actually meant was stumbling through because even though the trees seemed to strangely move apart when Hel skipped through them, their gnarly roots seemed to try and trip him up whenever possible. He’d fallen over that many times that he was now considering crawling.

There was no telling what time it was down here in the underworld. There was no sun to mark the passing of the day, and no moon to show the passing of the night. Instead, there was a murky, unforgiving twilight that hung over them, a light that was completely useless for walking through a forest.

Joe’s stomach gave a long hard groan.

Great.

He hadn’t even considered how he would feed himself down here. In this…shit hole.

Yes. The further he stumbled, the more he realised this place was a shit hole. Not like his house (not home, for was the place he went to bed really a home?). No, that was a shit hole, shit hole. This dark, forbidding place was a shit hole because it stunk like a toilet that hadn’t been flushed for a month and the funny light seemed to be sucking the very life from him. His legs were burning, his eyes were burning, his lungs were burning and he felt like shit.

Joe thought that he probably used the word shit far too much but that word seemed to sum up so much of his life.

His stomach groaned again. So loud that it echoed through the trees. Or that’s how it felt to Joe.

Hel stopped stone still in front of him. Her hounds did the same. It was almost like they were connected on some telepathic level.

‘What was that?’ she whispered, slowly turning to face Joe.

Joe’s stomach roared again.

‘It’s me. Sorry,’ he said, with a small shrug.

‘Ahhhh,’ she said, as comprehension dawned on her. ‘You’re hungry?’

‘Yes.’

‘One of the problems of being alive, I suppose?’

‘Well, I wouldn’t class eating as being a problem,’ said Joe.

‘It kind of is down here,’ she replied.

‘Dead people don’t eat,’ said Joe, realising this could be a major problem. Was he going to die of hunger down here? Was he going to shrivel up like a prune, his body left to the creepy crawlies that probably lurked in the undergrowth?