Don't Pay the Ferryman by Ness Ayton

This first appeared in "The Alternative Robin of Sherwood Zine" many years ago. This story is based on the song of this title by Chris de Burgh which can be found on his album "The Getaway". Thanks for the inspiration, Chris!

Running. Always running. Heart pounding. Thump. Thump. Thump. Black fear almost tangible. And running. Always running. Grief threatening to overwhelm. Guilt so heavy that he must fall. And running. Always running. Haunted by a lonely silhouette against a blood red sky. And running. Always running. Searching for he knew not what. Peace? Absolution? Death? And running. Always running. A hill, a river, a boat. Nothingness.

Nasir sat bolt upright. Hair wet, face pale, heart pounding he sought to escape the nightmare through wakefulness. How many times had he lived Loxley's death in his dreams? He had not been there, yet he seemed to know every detail – the words spoken, the broken promise and the final arrow's flight. The pain and loneliness of the last moments flooded through him in waves and he buried his face in his hands. He should have been there to help and protect, but he had been held captive in the village. He had not even said goodbye and, although Robin's soul might now be at peace, his was not for he had no chance to say his farewells. Running. Always running.

He dragged his mind away from the hypnotic sound of running feet and realised that this time, however, the dream had been different for there had been a river. Black water swirling and eddying around jagged rocks. And a boat, small but seaworthy, with a figure in the prow. Even awake Nasir could see the figure of his dream. As it turned towards him he gasped for, instead of a face, there was a white grinning skull and, for the first time since Loxley's death, Nasir knew what he had to do.

"It was late at night on the open road,

Speeding like a man on the run,

A lifetime spent preparing for the journey;

He is closer now and the search is on,

Reading from a map in the mind,

Yes there's the ragged hill,

And there's the boat on the river."

Night stalked the land trailing her long dark skirts over the hills and filling the hollows with blackness. Birds fled before her, animals hid in their dens and men closed up their houses, retreating in the face of her advance. Unnoticed by any, save the bats and owls who were her attendants, shadow crept from under the eaves of the forest and made its way down the road to the west. If the night saw the shadow she allowed it to wend its weary way for she knew of its destination and unconcerned with its affairs.

Uncluttered by material possessions, save the clothes in which he stood, and having laid his swords aside, Nasir stole from Sherwood like a thief and turned his steps towards the west where the sun died every day, knowing that he was travelling towards Avalon and the Blessed Isles. His soul, heathen as it was and burdened with guilt, was not, he knew, for such places but he was sure that near them must lie the thing he sought.

He did not know the way, nor did he have a guide, yet he travelled unerringly. Those who met him on the way spoke not to him as he seemed fixed on his goal, reading, it appeared to them, a map in his own mind's eye. Over hill and dale he journeyed, desperately seeking, looking for some sign to help him until at last, in the distance, he recognised a small ragged hill and turned towards it.

As he drew nearer he could see the blackness of a river swirling round the foot of the hill and knew, before he even saw them, that a boat was moored to the bank and that a hooded figure stood in its prow waiting for him.

"And when the rain came down,

He heard a wild dog howl,

There were voices in the night – 'Don't do it!'

Voices out of sight – 'Don't do it!

Too many men have failed before,

Whatever you do,

Don't pay the ferryman,

Don't even fix a price,

Don't pay the ferryman,

Until he gets you to the other side.'"

Then the rain fell. It seemed to Nasir to be wave upon wave of arrows piercing his clothes and skin leaving him soaked through. Only for him it was water, for Robin it had been blood. Again he lived through Loxley's last moments in a state of half waking and half sleeping.

Semi-conscious he staggered on. Somewhere to his left a wolf howled. To his feverish brain everything around him seemed to find a voice – the wolf, the rain falling on the ground, the dripping trees, the animals of the night, the night itself. All were crying out to him, warning him of the figure in the boat and not to cross its palm with silver until it had taken him to the other side and set him on dry land. He gave a short laugh. If only they knew.

On he went, part walking, part running. Running. Always running. Feet pounding. Thump. Thump. Heart pounding. Thump. Thump. His dream alive in his mind. The river swirling and eddying. The jagged rocks. The boat. He hesitated. And the mist rolled in.

"In the rolling mist then he gets on board,

Now there'll be no turning back,

Beware that hooded old man at the rudder,

And then the lightning flashed, and the thunder roared,

And people calling out his name,

And dancing bones that jabbered and a-moaned

On the water."

The figure kept its back to him as he climbed aboard, but the moment he seated himself in the stern it raised a hand and the rope silently slipped free of its mooring and unseen hands wound and stowed it under the seat. Slowly the boat moved out into the current, propelled forward by some invisible force, the cowled figure gently steering the craft as it made its way through the rocks and down the river.

Damp mist clung to him, tendrils crawling round his shoulders. His hair dripped and he shivered slightly, trying to doze, waiting for the demand from him. Hour after hour passed in a grey haze as the boat slipped sluggishly down stream.

All at once the figure jerked its head. The sky overhead was rent in twain by a great flash of lightning and thunder rolled menacingly over the hills. Nasir became aware of a low moaning sound and a rattling in the distance. Across the water he could see green lights weaving and dipping about. As the boat drew nearer he could make out the spectral forms of skeletons, bathed in phosphorus, dancing grotesquely and beckoning to him. The moaning had become words and he realised with a start that they were calling his name over and over again.

"And then the ferryman said,

'There is trouble ahead,

So you must pay me now,' – 'Don't do it!'

'You must pay me now,' – 'Don't do it!'

And still that voice came from beyond,

'Whatever you do,

Don't pay the ferryman,

Don't even fix a price,

Don't pay the ferryman,

Until he gets you to the other side;

Don't pay – the ferryman!'"

A white hand snaked out from under the figure's robes and wriggled its fingers at him. Nasir knew it wanted payment to leave him there and he dug into his money pouch so that at last his suffering would cease. Suddenly a voice called out to him over all the rest and his hand faltered in mid-air as he recognised Loxley's tones.

Torn in two he buried his head in his hands, willing himself to pay the ferryman and yet unable to ignore the familiar voice. The white hand waved in front of him and the abruptly disappeared from view as the boat bumped gently into the opposite bank.

Nasir looked up at the robed figure standing motionless in the prow as before and knew that his only chance to be at peace was gone. Slowly he rose from the seat and stretched his cramped muscles before moving forward. The ferryman climbed out stiffly, leaving him room to disembark. He did so with a heavy heart and walked past the figure.

After only a few steps some strange compulsion made him turn to look at the figure. He gasped at the sight that met his eyes. It stood, head bowed, two swords held out to him. As he took a step closer he recognised the swords as his own. Then the figure raised its head and threw back its hood. Nasir fell to his knees as Loxley smiled at him. Gently the young outlaw raised him to his feet and returned the swords.

"Look after Marion for me."

Nasir nodded and knew that his life was no longer his own to do with as he wished. Solemnly he accepted his swords back and watched Loxley return to the boat.

"Salaam aleikum, Robin."

Robin turned and smiled at him as the boat once more slipped its moorings and drifted off into the mist.

Sheathing his swords Nasir turned for Sherwood. His heart and soul were at peace and he knew the nightmares would no longer haunt him. Taking a deep breath he set his teeth. He had a job to do and a promise to keep.