there are perhaps no subjects which have so exercised the imagination of fearful humanity, and about which so much has been written, and so little known, as witches and witchcraft. those learned authorities who have pondered and studied the subjects, and discoursed and written on them at length, begin by disagreeing, in the most extreme manner, on the extent that they have ever existed.
the learned friar h-------------, resident scholar of the abbey of p----------, in the century of otto the great, averred confidently, not only that witchcraft has existed in all human societies since adam and eve were banished from the garden, but that as many as seventy-five percent of all eve's daughters have been initiates of the dark arts since that event (an event the culpability for which he ascribes entirely to adam's unfortunate helpmate).
the modern reader, heir to what he perceives as centuries of "enlightenment", will no doubt smile at the monk's conclusions, and might smile even more, if he were to take the time to peruse his arguments, derived about equally from scripture and from the recorded lives of such heroes as alexander and charlemagne.
the most opposite, and most aggressively argued opposite view is found, somewhat surprisingly, not in the most recent scholarship, which tends to the view that belief at least fostered some attempt to justify the beliefs, but from the perhaps unjustifiably obscure writings of the erudite abbess s------------, a contemporary of gervase of tilbury and rudolf von ems, who took the stance that the very notion of the black arts was a canard to be ascribed to the sages of the early christian era, particularly the "pagans" who sought to question the validity of the new society coming into being under the twin aegises of the church fathers, and constantine and his imperial successors. a modern reader, thinking from my description to find a kindred spirit in this learned lady, should be forewarned that no small part of her arguments derive from the study of astrology, which was just then beginning to be reintroduced into europe from the moorish world.
i have briefly sketched the two most opposing views. the most notable aspect of the cacaphony of intermediate views may not be their divergence or their multitudiousness, but their dispersion over the whole terrain of recorded human existence. the witch is young or old, a woman of the country or the town or the forest or the desert, the woman in the next cottage or the follower in the train of the invading army, she is in possession of the most terrifying powers or the most trivial, but she is everywhere, or somewhere, in every time.
the ferocious were-wolf, the insatiable vampire, the ghastly zombie, and the dread leopard-man, among others, have had their local fear and fame in various corners of the globe and odd stretches on the track of time, but perhaps only the ghost can rival the witch in the lore and belief of all peoples and eras.
in conclusion it must be noted, that in this as in so many other subjects, the most confirmed skeptics often pass by in silent contempt, not deigning to spend their allotted time on earth arguing beliefs that seem to them beneath notice.
reader, we apologize for this digression, which says both too much and too little. the dust emanating from the corners of our library has no doubt affected our brain and caused us to imagine ourself possessing some little authority on this elusive subject.
we return to our story, where we left the old soldier probus on the dark road in quest of father propertius, whom he sought in order to administer the last rites to his old master barentius.
the laughter of the three women he had encountered faded away behind him as he hurried down the road to mother ariana's, where he hoped to find the cleric. if not there, he would have to try the church, where the priest would surely be asleep.
as he hurried his aged frame along as best he could, guilt and fear went back and forth in his mind like wind and waves.
guilt - at having fallen asleep by the side of the road, thereby endangering his chance of finding father propertius in time to give barentius the last consolations - perhaps putting the very soul of barentius in jeopardy?
fear - of the three women behind him , who had answered exactly to the most common description of witches - one young and beautiful, two old and wizened - the third indeed, old beyond description.
the fear gradually overcame the guilt. he had difficulty imagining his masters soul but the three witches had been there before him - they could have reached out and touched him!
was that their laughter - the laughter, in particular, of the young one - that he still heard?
no, it was only the wind in the trees.
suddenly he remembered the dream he had had before awakening.
he had been walking alone down a dark road much like this one - or was it the road to the capital city - or the road to heaven - or the road back to the forest where he had been born?
unlike this road, though, it had had a light at the end of it - a light now golden, now red, blazing brightly, but without lighting up the darkness around it. and without growing larger or smaller as he approached.
in the dream he passed a dark building made of rain. and the rain spoke to him in a language he did not understand.
he passed another building on the opposite side of the road. the building was made of wind, and it laughed at him.
he came to a third building, low and round, on the same side of the road as the first, made of blue flame. and the blue flame spoke one word to him -
the word was blown away by the wind.
the light in the distance went out.
three forms appeared on the road before him.
and then he had awakened.
or had he?
was he dreaming now?
the three women - had he really seen them?
or just dreamed them?
in the center of the dark road, in the shadows beside it -