although showing on the map as part of the "empire", it should not be thought that the region in which our story is commencing had many of the imperial features of order, security and gracious living so celebrated by modern authors like gibbon. and in such a backwater as the old soldier barentius had established himself, the rough, hardly "roman", roads between farms and towns offered little more safety than that of daylight itself, such as it might be said to offer comfort to the senses of the traveler.
probus, the servant despatched to the village to summon the priest, father propertius, had gone about halfway when he felt a cramp in his leg. he sat down beneath a tree by the side of the road, to give himself a few minutes to recover - a luxury he would never have allowed himself, or the rough recruits under him, in the vanished days of his career as a sergeant at arms. when he awoke, darkest night had fallen. a pale sliver of moon was barely visible through the trees. and he was thirsty.
"ah," he said aloud to himself. "i should have taken aquilina." he was referring to the old, cantankerous mare that barentius' s sons had offered him. he had preferred the surer method of walking, to her unpredictable and potentially disastrous ways.
"did you say something, old man?" came a female voice from the darkness. he turned and saw a woman outlined against the road. he scanned the darkness and saw another female form, off to the right and slightly behind himself. he felt a moment of unease but it quickly subsided when he could not find a third. he knew that witches always traveled in threes - wolf-women in packs of three or more.
"i was talking to myself," the old soldier politely answered the first woman. as his eyes adjusted to the darkness he saw that she was slightly bent, and far from the bloom of youth.
"nothing wrong with that," replied the crone. "who better to talk to, eh?"
"ah, i am afraid it is a sign of wandering wits. and of not being as young as i used to be."
"not at all, not at all. who talks to themselves more than babes in arms?"
"it is kind of you to make such an observation." probus straightened himself up as best he could and brushed a few leaves and twigs from his clothes. despite his advanced age he had an aversion to seeming weak or foolish before the fair sex. he continued to scan the darkness. though probably not witches or wolves, the two might be in league with brigands.
"and who more attentive to what you have to say, eh?" the second woman laughed - a low melodious laugh of a young girl. so - maybe they were witches after all. witches traveled in threes - two old and ugly, and one young and beautiful. occasionally two young and one old (these were to be particularly avoided). was there a third in the darkness, behind a tree?
"are you lost?" the older woman interrupted the old man's thoughts.
"no, no. i just stopped to rest a bit. i am on my way to the village to summon the good father propertius."
"ah. the good father propertius."
"i wonder, though, if he will still be awake. i seem to have tarried longer than i planned."
the younger woman answered. "if mother ariana's alehouse is open, he will be up."
the older one laughed, and added, "yes, he makes himself available to his flock."
they both continued to stare at him from the shadows. the old soldier did not wish to be rude, but wanted to be on his way. just a couple of countrywomen, he decided, loath to give up on the smallest opportunity to gossip.
he rubbed his hands together and took a step forward. "i had best be on my way then, before mother ariana closes up. and before brigands or any other creatures of the night make their appearance."
the older woman shrugged. "yes, the night advances."
"even in these peaceful times," added the voice of the younger one behind him.
the old woman stepped aside as probus reached the road. "would you believe it," he said familiarly to her, " i had the strangest dream just before i woke up."
"ah. you dream a lot, old man?"
"yes, i dream of my old campaigns."
"ah, a soldier! you know, sister, i took him for a soldier right away!"
"as did i," came the musical voice behind him. "it hardly seemed worth mentioning , it is so obvious."
"so, mother," said probus, "you are skilled at reading dreams? you and your - sister?"
"heavens, no! what do you take us for? we are good christian women. we pray to the holy saints and take what comes what may. none of that old fashioned foolishness for us."
the young woman laughed, louder than before. "this is the new age. we love the emperor constantine - the light of the earth - and the holy saints and jesus king of heaven."
"yes," added the older one, "i wonder what good father propertius would say if he heard you asking such a question of devout christian women? as if we were - what did they call such women in the old days, sister?"
"let me think - sybils?"
"yes, that was it - sibyls."
"and who knows," continued the young one, "what he may suggest to us next - being a soldier and all?"
"i was only having a little joke," probus replied. "i served the emperor constantine loyally. as you know, of the many things the emperor demands of his troops respect for women is among the foremost."
"of course. long live the great emperor constantine!" shouted the old woman.
"yes," cried the young one, "long may he reign - constantine - the messenger of heaven and the scourge of darkness!" her voice echoed through the trees,
probus laughed. "i feel like i am back on the parade ground."
the old woman laughed back. "well - we will let you go. we would not want you to miss father propertius."
"thank you." probus stepped to the center of the road. as he did he saw a dark shape among the bushes on the other side.
it was a woman, so small as to be virtually a dwarf. a wide brimmed hat gave her a toadstool shape. she looked a hundred years old.