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.