The ferryman stared broodily into the water. His skiff lay beneath the overhanging branches of a willow; its leaves trailed in the water. The tide was rising and he smelt the salt tang of the ocean, just out of sight behind the bend in the river. The ferryman disliked the ocean with its wild waves and its crashing cliffs. It was full of things older than he was, things he feared.
Behind the thick banks of brown cloud of the southern bank, he knew the citadel still stood, despite the changing world. But for how long? In the mountains at his back, the green magic was working. Slowly, to be sure, but he saw signs of it even here, within sight of the Asphodel Fields. The blight was sinking into the earth, the wounds healing over. The willow that poured its branches like a cascade about his little boat was alive and green. She was moving.
The Asphodel Fields were full of shades. It was a grey, mournful place, but it was part of his story. The ferryman existed simply to carry the dead souls across the Great River of Death, where they would wander in the grey gloom for eternity. But She had no truck with shades and gloom and misery. She would turn the Asphodel Fields into a sunlit meadow. Then what?
The ferryman chewed gloomily on a piece of bread, three thousand years stale, and spat a fragment of millstone into the river. He watched the ripples, then the tiny movement that meant some miniscule fish was nosing the bread fragments attached to the bit of stone. He frowned. What next?
He knew the answer. He heard the laughter in the breeze from the sea. He and his kind would fade like the shades beyond the river. No one would remember the grey half-life; the shades would go wherever shades go when they are forgotten, and the Asphodel Fields would bloom with bright flowers. The dead souls would ride with the seals or the dolphins to a place of light and peace. If She should win the battle.
The hosts were assembling. He heard the clash of iron and the howling of the hellbeasts. He saw the glitter of steel spear points, the swirl of bright cloaks, and he heard the laughter of her host. The citadel still stood, wreathed in cloud and demons’ wings, but the sky was brightening. Soon the sun would pierce the cloud. Soon it would be time. The armies would clash and the fight between life and death would begin. Perhaps, at the end of it, the ferryman would row his skiff across the river one last time, and his own soul would step out on the other side to wander into oblivion.
The skiff lurched as the incoming tide picked it up. The ferryman frowned at the salt smell, and the laughter in the waves. They were singing. The singing grew stronger every day. She was goading him, bringing them into his river. River waves lapped against the bank, something sinuous rippled just beneath the surface. He caught his breath. A head broke through the rolling water. Sleek and water-slick with big brown eyes. A mouth full of pointed white teeth opened in a grin.
The ferryman threw the chunk of bread at it in a fury. The seal dived to safety. The sound of laughter hung in the air.