despite the widespread woe and chaos that they have been credited with spreading, individual witches, unlike kings and conquerors, have not had their lives much chronicled by those scribes who have undertaken to record the histories of nations.
it may be doubted if a single witch has attained real fame, by name, in the history of humanity. the witch of endor, described in the first book of samuel, is not named other than as "the witch".
it is commonly believed that joan of arc was accused of being a witch and tried and executed for being so. in fact she was tried and condemned for the more unromantic crime of heresy.
those persons of an antiquarian bent who are interested enough, can, of course, find the names of actual persons condemned as witches and wizards in europe, in the british isles, and in north america, particularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
let us return, then, to our story in the fourth century of the christian era.
the three women whom the old soldier probus had encountered on the road to mother ariana's alehouse - were they, in fact, witches?
let us dispense with speculation and simply note that they, and a few others like them, were considered to be so by most of the inhabitants of the area, and that they considered themselves to be so, though they would never acknowledge this outright to any but each other.
if the authorities had not taken note of them, it was because there hardly were any authorities, as a citizen of today's world would understand the term.
barentius, who had constituted such authority as there was in the region, was quite indifferent to their existence, as were his sons (except as they might view the younger of them as pleasing specimens of femininity).
the devout asmeralda, however, was scandalized by their existence, and had she had the ear of a more complaisant governor, or of some powerful abbot or bishop, would have urged the utmost zeal to be employed in the investigation and prosecution of their suspected activities.
the youngest of the three women who had amused themselves by frightening poor probus, and whose melodious voice still echoed in his brain and sent a thrill of mingled terror and excitement through his simple martial soul, had a history which was no doubt repeated thousands or millions times over in all places and ages - the beautiful young woman of the peasant or beggar class who comes quickly to the attention of the males, young and old, of all classes -
who excites the jealousy of women of her own class and the contempt of those of the higher class (and sometimes, the amusement of those of the very highest class) - who resists, briefly or not so briefly, sometimes spiritedly, not infrequently to the death - the casual but implacable cupidity of the siegneur - who is then cast aside to the mockery of her former fellows and the horror (though very occasionally the compassion) of the pious - who is regarded as fallen and ruined by all - who then makes her way as best she can until vanishing into that darkness which awaits the peasant and the potentate alike.
it is not to be wondered at that many of these women join the ranks of "witches" or "sibyls" or whatever other designation would be used in a particular time and place.
their presence would also account, to the rational minded, for the common belief that witches were almost all either young and beautiful, or old and withered, and that they traveled in groups embracing both types.
it also seems obvious, on reflection, that the fear engendered by assuming the role of the "witch" would be regarded as a form of protection, to be courted even though risking the alternate peril of arousing the attention of the inquisitor or witch-finder.
perhaps less obvious, though not immediately susceptible to refutation, is the idea that some very young women, perhaps alerted to their coming dangers by observing the fates the others, should anticipate their attackers by joining the unholy ranks even before reaching the first bloom of womanhood.
such in fact was the story of celia, the young woman whom probus had encountered on the dark road in our previous chapter.
celia had had an older sister, even more beautiful than herself, who had aroused the attentions of the third son of barentius, named claudius, who had long since departed for the capital and a lieutenancy in the imperial army.
the sister, paula, had also departed, none knew where.
rosalind yawned. she stopped pecking at her typewriter. she got up and looked out the window.
there was nothing out there - the same nothingness and blackness that was out there every night. if she scrunched her neck around - or if she opened the window and stuck her head out but it was cold - she could see a few dim lights from the houses on the mountainside.
what a bore this whole thing was. what a crushing, frightful bore.
rosalind missed the excitement of the war. but the war - sigh - was over.
this stupid "contest" was taking forever - even more forever than she had expected.
and when it was over, then what? what would be more of a bore, being "empress" or some kind of lady in waiting or lady's lady or whatever in this dreary post-war world?
not that she actually knew what was going on in the outside world, but with the sort of people who won the war - really, what could one hope for?
look at the lack of respect she got even in this place, where at least she was recognized as a princess.
though of course nobody seemed to appreciate that she was not just a "princess" but a member of the british royal family.
it had never crossed rosalind's mind that she might finish last in the contest and suffer the consequences it entailed.
she tried, without success, not to think of jeffrey. or where he might be. at least writing the stupid novel kept her mind off jeffrey.
jeffrey, her beautiful - so much more beautiful than herself , dashing, heroic, doomed brother. who would always be hers because he had absolutely no interest in other human females.
where oh where was he now?
behind her the bed squeaked a little.
sarabelle, her regular night guard, had sat up and was yawning and scratching her neck.
"i hope i'm not keeping you up," rosalind asked her.
the girl was impervious to sarcasm and just about everything else. "not me. did you want the bed?"
sarabelle flopped back down and closed her eyes. her whole being oozed disrespect. she was a pleasant enough companion in some ways, but nothing could make her understand, in bed or out of it, who was the mistress here and who was the servant.
rosalind had hardly ever been alone for a minute in her life, and being alone was the one thing in the world that frightened her - actually terrified her . she kept one of the guards or the maid - she was one of the few contestants who had chosen to keep a maid - in the room with her whenever she was in it. but the maid went home at night and she was left usually with saucy sarabelle.
what rosalind would like to do - really, really like to do - would be to take a switch and beat some respect into sarabelle and the other little jills who thought they were as good as their mistress.
yes, that would be jolly fun.
but it was not meant to be.
she turned from the window and sat back down and resumed typing.