They stood together on the riverbank, the three brothers, watching the fierce current beat and batter the branches and other flotsam that was carried in the raging water. “Had we a boat, we would be able to cross,” said the second of them.
“What care I for boats?” said the first. “A strong man would fight the river directly and swim across.”
The third was silent for a moment, looking down at the water. Then: “Any boat small enough would be ruined, and any man who attempted to swim would be killed, my brothers.”
At this the first brother gave him a haughty stare and the second snorted. “Are you brave enough to be questing as we are, then? Perhaps you should return to our mother’s knee if you will show such cowardice in the face of our first small obstacle.”
“This is no small obstacle. I am no coward but I will not play the fool and suffer the consequences,” said the third. “If you would have your boat and your body dashed on the rocks and would sooner drown in the river than cross it, I will have no part in it.”
The other two subsided and all was still as they gazed at the river. “Then we must consider this further,” declared the second.
“The power we have already learned may be enough to take us across,” said the first.
“It may,” said the third, and the three began to sketch complicated diagrams in the earth before them, murmuring incantations and bringing from their packs different herbs and magical ingredients to facilitate their crossing of the great river. The first drew out the solid structure of the bridge they were to create; the second drew out the runes that would be used to conjure the bridge; and the third made adjustments, with another support added here, a rune changed there.
When the time came for the true conjuration, they each had a task to perform: the first brother would bring the materials they would need and create the bridge’s outline; the second would transfigure them and solidify them; and the third would anchor them in place so that neither the river nor the natural currents of magic would sweep them away. The spell itself was simple, but required immense concentration on each of their parts. The first chanted his part, and the second created a harmony that wove through and around the chanting of the first, and the third provided a descant, twining above and through melody and harmony. All three wielded their wands with great skill, above the normal run of men.
At the end, once the task was done, they congratulated one another, clapping each other on the backs and laughing as they set foot on their bridge. Not only had they made the bridge solid and complete, they had expended as little energy as possible on its creation.
The youngest noticed first that something was amiss, and he halted while his brothers went on. They realized a moment later that he was no longer beside them, and the first looked back. “What is it?”
“The mist.” The third brother looked at the river, from which a strange mist was rising, unlike anything they had ever seen before. Then, suddenly, a black-cloaked figure arose as though through the very wood of the bridge. The first and second brothers yelled and hastily scrambled away, brandishing their wands and calling the beginnings of spells for combat and for flight. The third only watched from several paces away as the dark figure formed and became solid. He heard the spells die unfinished on his brothers’ lips and knew it would be no use to begin one of his own.
“It is Death,” whispered the second brother, clutching the rail of the bridge so tightly that his hand turned pale.
“I do not fear Death,” the first said, defiant and unaware that he had continued to back away. “Will you fight us here?” he called, his voice rising. “If so, I will be the first to challenge you!”
“No, I have not come to fight,” said Death, his voice like an icy finger running up the brothers’ spines. But as he continued to speak, his voice changed its tone so that it was warmer, more welcoming. The first and second brothers relaxed, but the third remained on his guard, keeping a close eye on Death. “I see that you have cheated your rightful deaths in this river. I am impressed by mortals who manage to escape my clutches.”
The first brother nodded in acknowledgment. “Our magic is powerful enough to cheat death. We have learned much.”
“So I see.” Death now sounded much like their elderly uncle, who had always been very fond of his nephews no matter what trouble they found their way into. “Such talent as yours deserves reward. Name whatever you choose, and it will be yours.”
The younger brothers deferred to the eldest, and the first brother spoke confidently. “My wand and my spells hold great power, but still there is more that may be mine. I would wish for myself the most powerful wand on this earth, the like of which has never been seen before and will never be seen again. It must be invincible, so that I, its wielder, may never lose any duel.”
Death inclined his head. “It will be done.”
The eldest brother of the three found himself in a great forest, with no notion how he had come to be there. His eyes narrowed and he gripped his wand, prepared to deal with whatever threat might manifest itself. “If you have lied to me, Death, I will make you pay!” he shouted into the dark of the forest.
That’s right, said a voice near his ear. He recognized it as Death’s voice, though it did not sound as it had sounded on the bridge. Feel the rage of being betrayed. Only then will you be able to craft the wand you desire. Come.
“This had better not be a trick.” Still holding his wand, ready to use it if necessary, the eldest brother followed the direction in which the voice beckoned him. He walked over the springy moss, through the eerily silent forest, until he came to a clearing. Standing on the far side of the clearing was a single, enormous tree, ancient and reaching up and up, beyond where his eyes could see if he did not crane his neck back to look.
Here, said the voice. Here we will create for you the wand you requested.
He obeyed the voice, using his own magic to scale the great elder tree and to cut from it a bough from which to hew his wand. His hands seemed to work of their own accord, stripping the bark from the wood, shaping the branch and reducing its size until it would fit comfortably in his hand. He would not later remember why, but he found himself furious, sitting in the clearing and considering what he would have done had Death betrayed him and broken his promise.
Yes. Feed it with your anger, the voice whispered in the ear of this eldest brother. Therein lies true power, and therein will lie the power of the wand, the power to defeat all those who stand in defiance of your might. And the voice that whispered such things was his own, but he did not realize this, so intent was he on creating his invincible weapon.
His fingers flew as he worked feverishly and tirelessly for he knew not how long, his mind singing with fury as he cut cruelly into the wood with the use of magic and of his own strength. His hands began to bleed, and this only spurred him to greater heights of rage. How dare Death bring him here to work him like a common mule, to hurt him! Still he did not cease in his toils, for it seemed to him that with such a wand he could conquer even Death.
Then it was done, and he turned his work over in his fingers wonderingly. His own wand lay forgotten on the forest floor. “This is it,” he said, his tone becoming exultant. “The wand that will overcome all others!”
And he was on the bridge once more, standing by his brothers, his new wand secure in his hand. No time seemed to have passed, though surely it had been hours, days, perhaps even weeks that he had been in the forest “This is it,” he told them, holding the wand aloft, his voice a snarl of triumph.
“And you, second born?” Death turned to the second of the brothers. “What will you have from me?”
“So I see you have held true to your word, and we have truly humbled Death.” The second brother laughed, and the laugh held both heady excitement and an undercurrent of fear. “Then I will do my brother one better. I wish for myself the power to recall those already dead to life. My elder brother may conquer the mortal world, but I will conquer the realm beyond!”
Again Death inclined his head. “It will be done.”
The second brother found himself then at the shore of an endless sea. The roar of the waves rang in his ears, though no seabirds called and there was no one in sight but himself. “What is this?” he demanded, whirling, his eyes wide. “I have often thought Death a liar. Is this proof?”
Perhaps, said a voice by his shoulder, and he whirled again to stare. Still there was no one that his eyes could see, only mile after mile of land and water. Yes, fear me. Fear me, and you will find what you seek.
He stepped forward, driven by the voice to the very edge of the sea. Something in that voice was terrifying to him, and he did not wish to be touched by the invisible, clawlike hand he could not help imagining. Kneel, and find what you look for, said the voice, coaxing and horrifying. The second brother sank to his knees and saw there, among the ordinary beach stones, a pebble that shone with an internal light. He picked up the stone, hand trembling.
It must be made into what you desire, the voice told him. He nodded, his movement jerky, and found he knew what needed to be done. This only increased his terror until it was all he could do to remain with the stone, on the beach, instead of running as fast and as far as he could. He could only assume that he had been possessed by death, and the thought was his worst nightmare come true.
Yes. Use your fear in the crafting, the voice murmured into the ear of the second brother. If your fear of death is strong enough, death will never be able to touch you, and you will stand victorious over mankind’s most ancient enemy. And, as it had been with the eldest, so too it was with the second brother, and it was his own voice that spoke to him, urging him on.
The spells done, the inner glow the stone had possessed faded away until it was barely visible. The second brother clutched the stone. “I have it,” he said, barely believing himself. “I have it! I will conquer death itself!”
And then he too found himself on the bridge once more, and it was as if no time at all had passed, though surely the spells had taken him days, weeks, perhaps even months to complete. He opened his hand to gaze upon the stone, and then he laughed again, the laugh wild with the fear that had been harnessed into the talisman. “It is mine!”
“And what of you, last born?” Death finally turned to the youngest of the three brothers. “What will you ask of me?”
The third brother considered this, turning his head so that he could look at his brothers, who were celebrating their good fortune and their newfound power. “I would as soon we had never have met you on this bridge,” he replied honestly, bringing words of negation and disbelief from his brothers. “But if I am to have whatever I want, I wish for myself a way to leave this place, a way that Death may not follow me from here.”
At that, time seemed to stand still. The first and second brothers froze in place, and Death paused for a long moment. Then, to the third and youngest brother, he spoke in his own voice for the first time, a voice that was neither welcoming nor threatening, neither cold nor warm, but something simpler and more complicated at once. “You would choose to conceal yourself in something far wiser than anger or fear. You choose well,” said Death and, very solemnly, he removed his own cloak. He stepped forward. The youngest brother moved neither forward nor back, but waited as Death settled the cloak around his shoulders. “With this, you will walk unseen by all, including Death himself. Use it well.” The last words were no more than a whisper.
“Thank you,” said the third brother, and Death hesitated as though startled, and for only a split second, the youngest of the brothers saw that Death was no more than a man like them. In that second, Death bowed low to him as though bowing to a king.
Then the moment was gone, and the youngest brother watched Death dissolve back into the mist from which he’d come. Then he looked at the marvelous cloak that had been given to him, a cloak which concealed him as though he was not there at all. It was silky soft beneath his fingers, and strangely comforting.
“So? What did you receive from Death?”
Time had begun again, and the youngest brother looked up. His brothers stared at him, amazed, when they realized that he was invisible from the neck down. “Truly, we have all received incredible gifts,” the eldest declared.
“Yes,” said the youngest brother, fingering his cloak. “Truly, we have.”
He was the only one of the brothers who looked back once they had crossed the bridge, and he was the only one who saw what was there, and he never told a soul.
They had decided before setting out from their home that they would go in different directions to seek their purposes in life. The first brother wished to be known as the most powerful in the land. The second wished to find a home of his own and to have a family. When they came to a crossroads, they agreed to part ways, the first brother going to a large city where he would earn the reputation he desired, the second brother going to a small village where he had been before, the home of the woman he loved.
The third brother did not know what he wished for in his life. He stood at the crossroads when his brothers had gone. He looked back along the path they’d come from, and knew that was not his road. They had learned all they could from those who had taught them their magic, and he would not find his place by returning to his parents’ home.
He was uneasy, as his brothers did not seem to be. They had escaped Death once, but the youngest brother was not certain that they would remain in safety. So the youngest brother slipped on his cloak of invisibility and followed along the path his eldest brother had taken, to find his eldest brother and to satisfy himself that all would be well.
“You take your brother’s path and not your own.”
The youngest brother glanced up to see that Death was beside him. He knew that Death could not see him or touch him while he was beneath the cloak, but they could apparently speak with each other. “I follow only to make sure that my brother is well,” said the youngest.
“You think he will not be.” It was a statement, not a query.
“I do not know.” They walked on in silence, and when he reached the borders of the civilized region, Death departed from his side. The youngest brother did not miss him, but nor was he overly glad to have Death go. As companions went, Death was not a bad one.
When he arrived in the city, it took him no more than a day and a night to find the place where his brother had found lodging. Everyone in the city seemed to know of the stranger who had come to the city and vanquished all of its most powerful men within several hours of his arrival.
The common room of the inn was crowded with people when the youngest brother slipped inside, still clad in his wondrous cloak. When he stood on his toes to see beyond the crowd, he saw his eldest brother, sitting in a place of honor by the fire. Beautiful maidens knelt by his feet, gazing admiringly up at him, and young men pulled chairs around him to listen to his every word.
“I received this wand from Death himself,” boasted the eldest brother. “Many days and nights he toiled in its creation, and now it is mine, and it cannot be defeated by any other wand!”
A sigh of admiration rose from the crowd, and the eldest brother smiled. But the youngest brother saw what the elder brother did not; he saw that in some eyes the admiration was mingled with envy, and he knew that envy could be a dangerous thing.
He waited until most of the others had dispersed, and he followed, silent and invisible, to his brother’s room. He slipped through the door after his brother, and when the door was closed he threw back the hood of his cloak.
Instantly his brother’s wand was out, pointed directly at the third brother’s throat. “How dare you enter without my permission!”
“Brother!” said the youngest. “Do you not recognize me?”
The eldest lowered his wand in surprise. “I did not expect to see you here! I had thought you went in a different direction to seek your way in life.”
“I do not yet know my way,” said the youngest brother. “But I was uneasy, and I felt that my mind might be put to rest, seeing you well.”
“Oh, then your mind must now be at ease,” said the eldest. “I am doing very well for myself. I have defeated all of the most powerful men in the city with this wand. The men and women who come to hear my tale hang on my every word. I am satisfied!”
“But I am not,” said the youngest. “Please take care. Those who listened this evening admired you, but I saw that they were jealous as well.”
“Let them have their jealousy,” the eldest replied. “For I am the most powerful in the world, and none can stand against my wand!”
Still the youngest brother was troubled. His brother invited him to share the inn room, and the youngest consented, for at least if his brother would not listen to his fears, the youngest could keep an eye on him to make sure that he came to no harm.
They had both traveled far that day, and fell asleep almost immediately. When the youngest brother awoke, the room was pitch black, and there were strange sounds coming from the darkness. He reached for his wand, calling, “Brother?”
A sudden flare of light blinded him, and he cried out, covering his eyes. He heard a loud crack, and then silence. He whispered a spell to light his wand and went to his brother’s bed. Once there he dropped his wand, horrified by what he saw. His brother lay in the bed, his throat cut, dark blood soaking into the white sheets. His brother’s right hand, his wand hand, had been cut off, and the wand from Death taken along with it. The youngest brother cast a spell for healing, but it was already too late.
He wept over his brother’s corpse until a hand touched his shoulder, icy and hard. The youngest brother did not have to look up to know that it was Death.
“He is mine now,” said Death.
“You promised him power,” said the youngest brother.
“And he had it,” said Death. “Now the power has passed to another, another who holds such rage and envy in his heart that he was willing to kill for a wand.”
The youngest brother did not answer, and Death went away, taking with him the soul of the eldest of the three brothers.
Before dawn came, the youngest brother had buried the eldest in a field outside of the city. He did not weep again, but he knew that there was much he had to do before the day was through.
As quickly as he could, the youngest brother journeyed back to the crossroads, this time taking the path of the second brother. He wore his cloak of invisibility, shielding himself from the eyes of men and Death. By the time he reached the village, it had been five days since he and his brothers had first parted ways. He feared for his other brother’s life and knew that he must hurry if he was to reach his second brother in time.
“Brother,” said the youngest with relief, when the second brother opened the door to the cottage he had been planning to live in with his wife. “I am glad you are well.”
But he knew as soon as his brother spoke that his brother was not well after all. “Am I?” said the second brother, his voice hoarse and rasping. “I do not… I do not know anymore, brother.” His eyes were blank, vacant, and somewhere behind them, a long way behind them, there was true mortal terror.
“Tell me, please tell me what has happened here,” said the youngest brother. “You are not well.”
The second brother blinked slowly, as though it took him a very long time to remember how to do it. “No. No, I am… not.” He began to speak, stopped, and then started again. “When I… when I arrived here, I meant to make her my bride. You know that. Yes. I knew…” he gave a cracking laugh. “I knew she would accept. And I… I asked after her, and they told me. They told me that she had been killed. An accident with a potion, they say…that’s what they said to me.”
“I am so sorry, brother,” said the youngest, appalled at this news. “I know nothing I can say will be a comfort, but-”
“Comfort? Why would I need comforting?” His brother let out another laugh, and this was the laugh of a madman. The youngest brother did not step away from him, but he flinched at the sound that was so unlike any his brother had ever made. “She is not dead. Not anymore, oh no.”
And behind his brother’s shoulder, the youngest brother caught a glimpse, for the first time, of a woman as pale as milk. Her expression held no fear, no sorrow, no joy, no life. She was colorless, from her face to her hair to her clothing, but as he looked, he saw that sometimes there passed through her almost a shudder of color, a brief instant when she might have been alive again. But she was not.
“You used the stone,” the youngest brother breathed, more horrified than ever. “You brought her back.”
“Of course I did!” his brother snapped, going from one mood to another in the blink of an eye. “Of course I did, I am master over death, I could give her life back. I love her. Brother,” and now he was pleading. “I love her, brother.”
Before the youngest brother could move, his second brother had let out a sob, drawn his wand and choked out a spell. The youngest brother lunged, but again, he was too late. Perhaps his reappearance had brought back whatever had been left of his brother’s sanity, and his brother had chosen that moment to act. Perhaps his brother would have acted regardless. The ghostly woman let out a long, keening sigh and dissolved, her eyes meeting his, finally showing a flash of pain.
There was not enough left of his second brother to bury.
As he sat in the cottage, having cleaned up what he could and given his brother the proper rites as best he knew how, a voice spoke at his shoulder. “Still you do not follow your own path.”
“No,” said the youngest brother. He was cloaked in his shroud of invisibility once more, for he had known that Death would come. “No. How could I, knowing that you would take my second brother as well?”
Death did not speak again, but laid a hand on his arm. For a long time Death stayed with him, until the youngest brother felt able to rise unsteadily to his feet and leave the cottage. He did not know where his second brother had put the stone, and he did not care.
He had to go.
The youngest brother wandered for a very long time. Months passed, and years, and years beyond those. He did not see Death as a cloaked figure again, but he saw Death in the murder of a beggar, in the death of a girl’s pet bird, in an old woman whose time had come. He did not feel the shadow of Death on himself, for he wore the invisibility cloak whenever he was able, but he cursed himself for being unable to protect all those he saw suffering.
He mourned each death he saw as though it was his brothers’ deaths happening again.
When many young men his age were taking wives, he did not. He remained under his cloak, invisible and silent, watching others love and live and die. He did not fear Death, and he was not angry with Death, but he knew that it was an inevitable thing, that the specter hung over each and every person who was born.
For a very long time, then, he left the world of man to live in the jungles and mountains and forests of the world. At first he saw Death there as well, hiding in every shadow, waiting to ambush and steal the life away from a young deer, from a fox cub, from an old owl.
But here there were other things; a fawn born in springtime, grown to a beautiful young doe by the winter. A baby owl he rescued and replaced in its treetop nest. A butterfly emerging from its cocoon, wings rapidly drying, carrying the creature in flight.
He did not know why, but all of this compelled him to return to the human world, to live among his own kind once more. He no longer remained behind his cloak, save when he felt the shadow of Death near. He spoke with people, made friends. It did not take him long to find a woman who loved him, and who he loved more than anything. Together they laughed, and cried, and mourned his brothers when he told his wife the tale. After several years, his wife had a baby, a boy.
He looked down on his newborn son in the cradle, and said softly, “Oh.”
Death was a part of living, and living was worth the price of Death. As he stroked his young son’s hair, and his son sighed in his sleep, the youngest brother began to understand what he had not been able to comprehend before. He took off his cloak and draped it gently over his son’s sleeping body, and his son’s tiny hands curled in the fabric.
He had found his path.
When his son was twenty years old and had fallen in love with a beautiful young woman, when his wife had been dead for a year, the youngest brother began to feel a stirring in his blood. This time he knew the path he was walking, and now he knew where that path ended, or perhaps where it began.
He removed his cloak in the middle of the night, and laid it over his son while he was sleeping, just as he had done so many years ago when his son was a baby. Then he smiled and, for the first time since he’d acquired it, left his home without the cloak. He went to the bridge, the bridge he and his brothers had created, the bridge he had not returned to since that day. It had stayed solid and true ever since then, he saw, and was not surprised.
“You understand it all now.”
“Yes, I do.” The youngest brother smiled again, at Death this time, a familiar companion at his side. “Or as much as I ever will, anyway.”
“That is all any man can ever comprehend,” said Death, and he extended his hand.
The youngest and wisest brother of the three took Death’s hand and let himself be pulled into the embrace of an old friend. He looked up and saw the eyes of Death, no more or less terrifying than those of any man. He had not known for what he had thanked Death the last time. Now he did. “Thank you,” he said, quietly.
“Thank you,” Death replied, his tone warmer than it had ever been.
But the youngest brother could no longer hear him.