rosalind strode up to miss prue. she took a paper from the white hat. "anti-religious. huh. what religious am i to be anti?"
"that is for you to decide. let me say to all of you," said miss prue, "that some of these categories are indeed very broad. you will have to use your own judgment as to what is best meant by them."
"you mean to read the judges' minds," said ameline.
"if you want to put it that way," said miss prue. "pick from the black hat , please," she told rosalind.
"sir walter scott. " rosalind rolled her eyes, and returned to her seat.
"i believe scott was the oldest author in the list," said miss prue. "next."
by rosalind montmorency-st winifred
illustrated by roy dismas , konrad kraus and rhoda penmarq
the spread of the christian religion through europe, in the first twelve centuries of the new era, was not nearly so unimpeded, or so complete, as the devout of modern times generally believe. in the northern forests of the continent, in particular, the old religions not only survived but were little troubled by the attentions of those devout apostles of the new faith, later distinguished by the name of inquisitors, who made such severe and sincere efforts against the adherents of the old ways in the sunnier and more pastoral regions of the former empire of rome. in those northern regions in which our story takes place, rome itself had never truly succeeded in planting its banners. with what indifference and contempt, then, did the rough chieftains of the almost impenetrable forests view the few apostles, often armed only with crosses and crudely printed scriptures, who presumed to trespass their dark domains?
but there was one class of persons who viewed the ragged evangelists with somewhat more respect, even a modicum of alarm - the women who formed the priestly class of such religion as existed in the forests, the menfolk being chiefly, if not solely concerned, with hunting boars, drinking grog, and cracking each others' skulls. it would seem that in all times and places the contemplation of eternal mysteries is largely the province of the distaff, but especially in those where existence is the proverbial daily struggle. in any case, there were no "priests" in the forests, only those women who would be designated in more supposedly enlightened times as "witches".
our story begins in the depths of the fourth century. the long breakup of the roman empire had begun in earnest, with its interminable fits and starts, and inevitable end. barentius, a rough soldier in the army of the emperor constantine, had so far prospered in that great man's service, as to be able to retire to a small estate in the province of dacia - recently retaken by the soldier-emperor, after having been lost by his less warlike predecessors in the previous century. the estate he purchased, however, taxed his old talents as a warrior at least as much as his new inclinations to be a farmer, as the entire region was constantly thrown into turmoil by the continued flareups of rebellion from the elements of the populace still indisposed to suffer the yoke of empire. nature, too, proved unfriendly to the old soldier and a series of poor harvests had reduced him to near penury and a stoic despair after twenty-five years on the frontier.
one thing only had proved fruitful - the young local woman he had betrothed on arrival, and who had given him six living sons and a daughter in the first twelve years of their marriage.
three of the sons had repaired to the capital to take up the profession of arms in the imperial forces, leaving the oldest son, the daughter and the two youngest sons to watch, with their mother, over the old man's deathbed, when, after a quarter century of doing battle with pitiless nature and recalcitrant rebels, he expired in the same taciturn manner as he had lived.
asmeralda, the daughter, who had proved as dutiful a daughter and as pure a maiden as ever graced the earth, was the only one of the five witnesses to show any emotion as the graybeard lay breathing his last. she had sent the only servant - an old soldier almost as old as the master who had served him faithfully since he had been a lieutenant in constantine's army - to try to find the local priest, but he had yet to return.
the lone candle by the old man's bed flickered fitfully. asmeralda, wringing her pale hands, stood at the window looking out into the darkness. "oh, probus, probus, why do you not return?" she turned to the others. "i hope nothing has befallen him."
"nothing has befallen probus in almost sixty years," retorted the oldest son. "it would be too good a stroke of fortune to be rid of him at last." the fifth son laughed, and the matriarch smiled grimly, at this sally
"oh, how cruel!" cried asmeralda. "surely you are in jest, brutus, but this is no time for your raillery."
"as you wish, sister," brutus replied. he looked down at his sire. "come, old fellow, we have stood here long enough, would you not agree? this is quite as wearisome as a night's watch on the marshes. have you anything to say for yourself, at last, eh?"
"i did not think so." brutus stretched his long arms and went over to the window, which asmeralda had vacated.
asmeralda, meanwhile, had knelt by the bedside. "oh, father, probus has not returned with father propertius. but surely, surely you can see our dear lord coming for you. surely you can see him on the cross, beckoning to you as he did at the milvian bridge!"
the old man raised his hand, looked back at his eldest son standing at the window, and tried to speak. he gasped three times, and died.
"oh, he is dead!" asmeralda began to sob. the youngest son, asmodeus, looked at his feet, a bit abashed. the other three looked on coldly as asmeralda continued to weep and shake. "he blessed you, brutus, did you see him? he blessed you!"
"but you can bless us even more," laughed commodus, the next to youngest son. brutus had returned to the bedside and casually slapped commodus across the head. "silence! we can have a little respect here, eh, mother?" he poked commodus in the chest. "speak when i tell you to speak."
"oh," cried asmeralda, "what will become of us all now?"
"an excellent question, " replied brutus. "we will discuss it in the morning." he turned to his mother and two brothers. "we will bury him in the morning whether the priest shows up or not, eh?" the mother nodded assent.
"what about her?"
"let her sob." the old woman shrugged and regarded her only daughter. since early childhood asmeralda, who had now attained the age of twenty-two, had had only one wish - to enter a convent. her family, however, had other plans. "she can stay up and wait for the priest," she continued. "if he ever shows up."
"not for a while," said commodus. "him or probus either. you know the two of them are sitting in a ditch somewhere. i mean the three of them - the two of them and a wineskin."
"did i not tell you to be silent?" asked brutus. he smacked commodus across the skull again, harder than before.
they fell silent, except for asmeralda. none of them made a move to leave the room. the air grew a little colder, and the candle, which had been flickering, burned steadily.