The Boatman

Soon he would have to row back to the castle. It rose on the opposite bank, a stark, black silhouette against the titian sky. Even from his perch in the stern of his boat he could hear the ravens across the river, prophesying death in their harsh voices, although most people would not have understood them.

The river that bobbed and swelled under his barge felt alien to him. He supposed the Thames was alright in its way but it wasn’t his river. He didn’t know every eddy and shallow of its teasing tides. The Thames was younger, sleepier, less alive. It dreamed and sometimes he watched those dreams.

It flowed through the city and captured reflections – here a scrap of blue velvet – a rich young noble man with a half dressed woman in the wrong part of town; here a skinny child, head to toe in thick mud, ancient eyes in a young face; And here a young woman, cloaked and muffled against recognition, a brief flash of a pearl encrusted slipper.

Time to ready the barge. He pulled his hood closer to hide his death’s head grin. Even the dead had never reacted well to it so he supposed that it probably would disturb the living more. Screaming and swooning seemed excessive in the boatman’s opinion though. At least this work exchange program would be over soon. The truth was when the little scroll of parchment had been delivered to him he hadn’t read the details very thoroughly. It had seemed the opportunity he was waiting for; A change of scenery. He’d had no idea that he would end up half way around the world and 1500 years into the future to boot.

Well he couldn’t argue that the scenery wasn’t an improvement but the rest of the assignment was just downright bewildering. If he had had flesh on his cheekbones he would still be blushing with mortification at the memory of leaving several nobles and a bishop waiting on the tower side of the river despite repeated summons. When he’d finally realized that he was supposed to ferry his passengers both ways on this river and collected them, the bishop had refused to pay him.

The cloaked woman had reached the barge. He held out a wrapped and gloved hand to help her aboard braced for her to notice the lack of flesh on his finger bones.  She said nothing.  Her scarred bodyguard climbed aboard. Not the usual man, the boatman noted.  The barge moved smoothly onto the river.

Halfway across the river, the guard stabbed a long knife through the boatman’s back. Without waiting to check on the boatman, he turned on the woman brandishing a second knife. Her face was pale, her lips compressed. The boatman was fascinated. He’d never seen a murder committed, only ferried its victims across the river. The guard’s knife grated against his fleshless ribs. He pulled it out. It clattered to the bottom of the boat. Distracted by the noise the false guard spun, almost losing his footing. Which meant the boatman’s pole caught him full in the face, smashing his skull. Grinning a genuine death’s head grin for once, the boatman hit the guard again knocking him into the cold waters.

“My thanks sir” The woman was a little breathless but composed, “ask for any reasonable reward and it shall be yours”. She pushed back her hood to reveal red hair dressed with pearls.

“No reward necessary, my lady.”

She peered forward into the depths of his hood. He braced himself for a scream but she merely sat back, a considering look on her clever features.

“May I have the name of he to whom I am so indebted.” It was not a request.

“Charon, my Lady”

“Elizabeth” she replied, gazing over the water after her would be assassin. There was not a ripple to show his passing.

All rivers dream and remember in dreaming that they are echoes of the great river between life and death; The Styx .The Thames bore the guardsman’s corpse downstream for the mud larks to find and exclaim over.

The Boatman smiled again.

 

(To here the audio version of this read by the brilliant Ian Stuart please click here)