The Lord of Death by Flora Annie Steel
Once upon a time there was a road, and every one who travelled along
it died. Some folk said they were killed by a snake, others said by a
scorpion, but certain it is they all died.
Now a very old man was travelling along the road, and being tired, sat
down on a stone to rest; when suddenly, close beside him, he saw a
scorpion as big as a cock, which, while he looked at it, changed into
a horrible snake. He was wonderstruck, and as the creature glided
away, he determined to follow it at a little distance, and so find out
what it really was.
So the snake sped on day and night, and behind it followed the old man
like a shadow. Once it went into an inn, and killed several
travellers; another time it slid into the King's house and killed
him. Then it crept up the waterspout to the Queen's palace, and
killed the King's youngest daughter. So it passed on, and wherever it
went the sound of weeping and wailing arose, and the old man followed
it, silent as a shadow.
Suddenly the road became a broad, deep, swift river, on the banks of
which sat some poor travellers who longed to cross over, but had no
money to pay the ferry. Then the snake changed into a handsome
buffalo, with a brass necklace and bells round its neck, and stood by
the brink of the stream. When the poor travellers saw this, they
said, 'This beast is going to swim to its home across the river; let
us get on its back, and hold on to its tail, so that we too shall get
over the stream.'
Then they climbed on its back and held by its tail, and the buffalo
swam away with them bravely; but when it reached the middle, it began
to kick, until they tumbled off, or let go, and were all drowned.
When the old man, who had crossed the river in a boat, reached the
other side, the buffalo had disappeared, and in its stead stood a
beautiful ox. Seeing this handsome creature wandering about, a
peasant, struck with covetousness, lured it to his home. It was very
gentle, suffering itself to be tied up with the other cattle; but in
the dead of night it changed into a snake, bit all the flocks and
herds, and then, creeping into the house, killed all the sleeping
folk, and crept away. But behind it the old man still followed, as
silent as a shadow.
Presently they came to another river, where the snake changed itself
into the likeness of a beautiful young girl, fair to see, and covered
with costly jewels. After a while, two brothers, soldiers, came by,
and as they approached the girl, she began to weep bitterly.
'What is the matter?' asked the brothers; 'and why do you, so young
and beautiful, sit by the river alone?'
Then the snake-girl answered, 'My husband was even now taking me home;
and going down to the stream to look for the ferry-boat, fell to
washing his face, when he slipped in, and was drowned. So I have
neither husband nor relations!'
'Do not fear!' cried the elder of the two brothers, who had become
enamoured of her beauty; 'come with me, and I will marry you.'
'On one condition,' answered the girl: 'you must never ask me to do
any household work; and no matter for what I ask, you must give it
'I will obey you like a slave!' promised the young man.
'Then go at once to the well, and fetch me a cup of water. Your
brother can stay with me,' quoth the girl.
But when the elder brother had gone, the snake-girl turned to the
younger, saying, 'Fly with me, for I love you! My promise to your
brother was a trick to get him away!'
'Not so!' returned the young man; 'you are his promised wife, and I
look on you as my sister.'
On this the girl became angry, weeping and wailing, until the elder
brother returned, when she called out, 'O husband, what a villain is
here! Your brother asked me to fly with him, and leave you!'
Then bitter wrath at this treachery arose in the elder brother's
heart, so that he drew his sword and challenged the younger to
battle. Then they fought all day long, until by evening they both lay
dead upon the field, and then the girl took the form of a snake once
more, and behind it followed the old man silent as a shadow. But at
last it changed into the likeness of an old white-bearded man, and
when he who had followed so long saw one like himself, he took
courage, and laying hold of the white beard, asked, 'Who and what are
Then the old man smiled and answered, 'Some call me the Lord of Death,
because I go about bringing death to the world.'
'Give me death!' pleaded the other, 'for I have followed you far,
silent as a shadow, and I am aweary.'
But the Lord of Death shook his head, saying, 'Not so! I only give to
those whose years are full, and you have sixty years of life to come!'
Then the old white-bearded man vanished, but whether he really was the
Lord of Death, or a devil, who can tell?