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The long climb out of the lands of punishment was at last behind us and at last the nether world

extended before into the distance. My name was Rotan when I lived in the world of the living and I was the first Ferryman to be appointed by the ‘Lord of Punishment’. Pulling the boat was a giant black mammoth that had been assigned to me. Sometimes I rode him and sometimes I walked beside him as he pulled the strange craft that the imps had fashioned. There were times when I would have to ride the boat and apply myself to the tiller and allow the beast to come aboard onto the flat platform at the front. This would happen when the waterway developed a strong current that pulled the boat along. It was a strange place, a world of marshes, lakes and water channels that criss-crossed the landscape. Very little seemed to live here and it was eerily quiet, but now and again things rustled in the reed-beds. There were times that I could see plainly into the world of the living, but more often the view was closed. It was against this backdrop of un-natural quiet that I heard a splash and a cry of fear. More splashes and people crying out in bewilderment followed this first drop into the water. I steered the narrow boat towards the commotion and signalled the mammoth to stop. I quickly made my way towards the bow and helped the people out of the water via the nets that hung down the side of the boat. There must have been forty or more people clustered together at the bow consisting of women, children and hunters, all frightened and confused. It did not take long for the leader to push his way to the front and confront me. He was stocky, well muscled with the first greying of his black hair beginning to show and naked as the day that he was born. I looked at all of them and they were all just the same. “Who are you and where is this place? A few moments ago we felt the Earth shake and rocks began to fall around us, inside our cave,” he said. “My name is Rotan. I am a Ferryman sent to save you and care for you as best I can. As to where you are, I am afraid that you are all dead. This is the ‘Nether World’ where I collect the souls of the deceased and take them to the ‘Final Lock’. At this place you will become the responsibility of Gaia and my task will be over.” The man stared at me in disbelief and answered, “How can we be dead? I breathe and I can feel this wooden thing beneath my feet. My eyes can see the countryside around us and I recognise the beast that pulls this craft as a mammoth. You are a man just like me. Explain to me and my people where we are and what your purpose is.” I sighed and looked at these first souls that I had rescued from the waterway and thought about how I could explain to these countrypeople of mine. They were hunter-gathers with the same roots and the same origins as myself. I asked, “Did your tribe have a shaman who served the goddess, the great mother? If so have him come to me and let us talk together. He will be better able to explain to you.” The leader turned and called out, “Shab, come forward and speak with this man.”

I watched as an old man came forwards from the crowd and approached me. “I am Shab, shaman to my people and a servant of Gaia, the great mother of all.” “Gaia has gathered your people from the cold earth and at the moment of your deaths, transported you to this world to stay with me until she sees it fit to accept you into her realm. It would appear that we do not go straight to her land and I must find the way to take you there,” I replied. “Fear not, you will not hunger while we move across these water-ways. There will be others of your kind to pick up along the way. It is my duty to take you to her. I only know that eventually this craft of wood will find the way and we will break up and go our separate ways.” The shaman looked deep into my eyes and saw something there that stopped him for a moment and he said, “What did you do to offend Gaia that you remain with this craft while we go on to her realm.” “In temper I killed one such as you when he would have sent the hunters to an area bare of game. He was a parasite who played on the fears of my tribe. I know now that to kill another human being in that fashion has a punishment that has been enacted on me. I have been set upon this task to make amends by the Lord of Punishment. The task given to me was fair and I do not complain. Had any of your tribe been deemed evil or worthy of punishment you would have been incarcerated at the back of this narrow boat to help propel this craft along. See me as I would be, had you been judged to be punished.” The shaman’s face paled as he saw my demonic self that ruled the stern of the boat. “Know this shaman, you are in no danger from me. I must care for you until we get to Gaia’s realm. You are old. You do not need to be. After death your new body will not age or hunger and the children will grow into adults eventually ready to enter the lands beyond the final lock. Now go to your people and explain to them in ways that they will understand.” The old man stood silent and began to straighten himself as the years fell away from him. Within a few moments he had become much younger and fitter. His white hair coloured into a deep brown and the grey disappeared as I watched. He smiled at me and grasped my hands in friendship. “I truly believe you, Ferryman. Look at me! I will return to my tribe and explain to them,” he said and walked away. With that I leapt off the boat and climbed up onto the mammoth’s great neck and urged him to once more lean into the harness and pull the narrow boat along the waterways on a voyage of discovery. As time went by and the boat journeyed on, we pulled more and more people from the marshes. All could remember very little of their time there until I picked them up. It was as if they only came to life when the boat came into range. Judging by their appearance some of them had been waiting centuries for my arrival and soon the bow was full. It was time to make for the ‘Final lock’ and unload my cargo towards

Gaia’s realm. To my satisfaction one of the punished souls pulling the oars at the back was the false shaman that I had speared through the chest. There were others of his ilk that laboured at the back of the boat, their feet stuck down to the wooden floor and their hands unable to let go of the shafts of the oars. As the Dark lord had said, I did not choose their punishment. The boat judged them and would not allow them to board at the front and allowed them to board only at the stern. The sight of me as a demon was enough to keep them rowing at my commands.