Death and the Three Brothers
Black Beard pocketed his winnings and stood, stretching his over 6-foot height. He strode out, but as he crossed the open doorway he fell across the threshold, planting his face in a pile of horse dung that lay just outside on the dirt street. The tavern erupted in laughter. An almost invisible piece of twine that had been stretched taut across the door posts slithered away behind the front counter, but no one seemed to notice this.
“What are you laughing at?” Black Beard growled, and abruptly the tavern went quiet. No one wanted to spark a fight with this man. He looked over every face to make sure the smiles were wiped off them, and then stumbled out the door in his drunken, dirty-faced state. The tavern gradually filled with conversing voices again, and Wilhelm appeared at Marcus’s shoulder, sat down beside him and grinned.
“Up to your usual tricks I see, little brother,” Marcus commented, though a satisfied smile split his face as well. Ivan fell into the empty chair beside the two, staring mournfully into his empty tankard.
And so it was that the three brothers—the drunkard, the gambler, and the trickster—witnessed in the tavern an event that would forever change their fortunes.
Voices abruptly stilled in the room to make way for the shouts coming from the stairs. Two men emerged from an entryway, dragging a body between them—the body of a man. His form was limp, covered by a sweat-stained nightshirt, greying hair lying lank against a deathly white forehead and eyes open and staring. Staring out at a world he would never see again.
Wilhelm stood up to get a better look. “I know that man!” he exclaimed as dark mutters erupted around them. “The only honest horse dealer in this forsaken town.” And under his breath, “Easy to swindle.”
“Died not an hour ago,” the innkeeper muttered, wiping a dirty cloth across their table. “Killed in his sleep by a stealthy thief known as Death. Heaven help us all.”
“Where does this Death come from?” Ivan asked, his interest pricked.
“I hear he’s been visiting Mortley, the next town over,” offered a man at a nearby table in a low voice, as if he was afraid of being overheard. “I reckon he lives there.”
“That’s what I heard,” another man confirmed.
A barmaid passing by with a tray of empty mugs overheard their conversation. “Death!” she whispered noisily, “he took my husband, my John, only last week from there. Someone ought to do something about the villain, the scoundrel, the fiend.” She bit her lip and moved on to the next table.
Ivan slammed his tankard on the table. “We’ll find this Death!” he announced, hardly slurring the words at all. Marcus and Wilhelm agreed.
“Yes. Death will be dead, when we get through with him!” they declared.
And so it was that the three brothers set out for the village, just as the sun was cresting the hills in the distance; they had whiled away the entire night in their frivolities at the inn. And so it was that they met an old man in peasant garb, walking slowly along the path, tapping a staff in front of him as old men in stories are apt to do. Wilhelm called out to him, commenting on his “quick” stride.
“Fie, you fool boys!” the old man cried. “Death won’t be taking me so soon!” He turned his milky white eyes upon the three brothers, who stepped back in surprise at the freakish gaze.
“Why is that?” Ivan asked boldly. “Are you a friend of Death? Do you know where he lives?”
The man chuckled. “So you seek him, do you?” He lifted his wooden staff and pointed up a side path that led to a large oak tree. “I left him there, and there you will find him.” Then he wobbled past them, tapping his staff upon the ground. And when the brothers looked back, there was no sight of him along the path that stretched back to their village, though the tapping of his staff seemed to echo forever, vibrating in the air.
So the three brothers strode up the path until they reached tree, regarding the gnarled branches that were leafless despite surrounding green shrubbery that was full in bloom. The ground around the foot of the tree was barren of even the brownest blade of grass. But there was something glimmering among the roots of the trees. Something that reflected the light of the sun into many rays. Something like…
“Gold!” Marcus shouted, throwing himself down before the tree and digging furiously at its roots, piling gold coins beside him. His brothers helped him, and they soon had a sizeable amount collected.
“We should wait until nightfall to take it away,” Wilhelm suggested. “We don’t want anyone to see. Why share this treasure with anyone else, when we are the ones who found it?”
His brothers agreed, and they drew lots to see who would go back to town to bring them something to eat and drink. Wilhelm drew the short twig, and shrugged, dutifully trudging back down the path to the village.
And of course, with brothers such as these, it is to be expected that the two remaining would find themselves infested by greed, and so it was.
“You know,” Marcus said to his brother, “there would be even more gold if it were only split between two instead of three.”
“True, brother, true.” Ivan shared a sly glance with him. “And one is easily overpowered by two.”
They nodded in silent agreement, and knew what they would do when their brother returned.
But it is also expected that the youngest, the exceptional trickster, would think along similar lines as his older brothers. Thoughts of all that gold shimmering among the tree roots filled his mind as he was traipsing back to the village, until he could focus on nothing else. What if he didn’t split it with his brothers, and kept it all to himself? His face widened in a cunning grin, and he began to whistle as he walked. And so once he reached the village, along with the food he bought three bottles of wine and a vial of poison from the apothecary.
When he returned to the tree, gleeful at his own brilliance, Ivan and Marcus set upon him with the knives they kept at their belts, and killed him as the blood-red sun headed down towards the horizon. Then, congratulating each other, they each took a bottle of wine and indulged themselves in a drink.
And so it was that the three brothers set out to find Death. And so it was that they found him.