The ride to the convent of Shal was not a long one but Hepsie set herself to use the time to restore her man from his bad mood and she was sure she had the ways and means.
“It is strange to think of Raya getting religion,” she said, trying hard to make it sound innocent.
“Oh aye. It is that.”
There was that sudden distant look and the ghost of a smile.
“You and she were…”
He looked at her sidelong, as if to say he knew what she was about. But if he did he played along just the same.
“Was a long time ago – and no – and in case you forgot, I chose you, love.”
That was not the way of it at all. Hepsy could remember clear as day how it had been.
“Pfft! T’was I did the choosing Pollogilt Whinsty, and don’t you forget it. I could have gone off with Galythin, he asked me to, but I said no and I chose you.”
“Really? I couldn’t see you living in a treehouse. All those ladders and steps? You’d never make it”
It was an old topic between them as familiar and comfortable as their chairs by the hearth and carried them along through the afternoon. By the time they reached their destination Poll was no longer under the cloud that seeing the state of Stref had pulled him into.
The convent itself was a fortified manor, not quite a castle but more than just a dwelling. Although it had been a long time since the last army of hobs had reached so far, Hepsy could see that the nuns still kept the watch beacon ready on the corner tower and the walls had been well maintained. Even now she could see a priestess in her workaday robes sitting in a sling seat lowered from a gantry on the tower, repairing the stone. Hepsy was not surprised. Those who had lived through that last attack would never have forgotten, nor would they allow others to forget.
Two young novices greeted them and asked their business. They had never heard of an avowed named Raya, but then they all took new names with their final vows, so perhaps the Registrar who kept the records could help. But, no man was allowed into the convent so the gentleman would need to wait in the guest room.
“Looks like it’s your turn, love. I’m sure you’ll be safe enough with these nuns,” Poll said, dropping a kiss on her cheek as one of the novices let their ponies away.
“Oh I’ll be just fine,” she assured him. “It’s you I’m worried about. No flirting and no asking them poor women endless questions about what they believe and why they believe it. I know what you’re like.”
He chuckled and gently pushed her towards the doors. “Go find Raya, I’ll be good.”
The novice rang the bell on the doors and they were only let in once the gatekeeper had looked through a small sliding spyhole to be sure who was seeking admittance. Then Hepsie followed the novice acoss a quadrangle, along a corridor, around a cloister and was about to head up a small set of stairs when a familiar voice stopped her.
There she was, large as life and looking as elegant as ever. Her face was lined and her hair the same silver as the blade of Poll’s sword, but her eyes were vivid amethyst and her hands as she took Hepsies into them, were warm and gripped firmly.
“Linis. What in the name of…” Hepsie remembered where she was at the last moment and changed her words. “I mean, what are you doing here? Stref said…”
“Stref, as you well know, always said a lot of things. I’m here for the same reason you are, I suppose. To see Raya before… well, before.”
Hepsie felt a small frost claw close around her heart.
“I didn’t know,” she said quickly. “We came, Poll and me came, ‘cos there’s a dragon back on High Top.”
Linis had always been the clever one and Hepsie could have counted out less than the fingers of one hand before she spoke.
“I see. I’ll come. But Raya…”
Raya sat in a high backed chair in her cell, a codex open with it’s illuminated writing glowing in the thin sunlight that fought through the grilled window. She looked as frail as thistledown and as substantial as the mist in the mountains. Her voice though, as the two of them were shown in, was level and determined.
“I knew you would be coming today. Well, I knew someone would. I’ve been dreaming omens and I cast a Foresee.”
That was typical Raya. No moment of greeting, no warmth of welcome. Straight to the point, like a hammer hitting a nail.
“Your message said you had very little time, I took that to mean you wanted me to come and see you. Not sure you needed that Foresee spell.” Linis could be pretty blunt too when she chose. But for all the reaction she got she might not have spoken.
“You will all need to be careful. Last time it was the action of evil that summoned the dragon, this time it is a misplaced good.”
“A misplaced…?” Linis snorted. “What are you on about Raya, you’re sounding like some old oracle. All enigma and obfuscation. If you know something about what’s going on, just tell us. You know how frustrated you got with the Hag in the Hollow when she spoke like that.”
Raya gave a small sigh and tapped one finger on the margin of the page she had been reading.
“It isn’t quite as simple as you seem to think. Things sometimes work out quite other than the way we intended in life. I intended to marry and raise a family. That died with Col. Then I came to this place to escape my past and renounce my magic – and yet here I am giving you advice drawn from magic – and a gift.” She held out her empty hands, one to each of them.
Hepsie knew she must look as puzzled as Linis. “A gift?”
“I need to be with you, but I’m not going to make the journey all that way, I’m too weak. When you need me, join hands and call me. Now, take my hands.”
Without really thinking and still confused by the words that made little sense she gripped one of Raya’s hands.
“No. You mustn’t.” Linis looked horrified and pulled her hand away but Raya snatched at it with surprising speed.
Then, before Hepsie’s very gaze, Raya began to glow, the golden light a halo around her. To Hepsie’s horror the glow seemed to spread over her own hand and it felt like a thousand tiny spiders crawled over her skin. A moment later the glow was gone and so was Raya. Her hands slipped back to her lap, her head against the chair and her eyes open and vacant.
Hepsie recalled nothing of how she left the room and was shown out of the convent. Her next awareness was of being in Poll’s embrace, his face looking down at her with a worried frown.
“You alright now, love?”
Hepsie wondered if she was, but nodded anyhow.
“It was just Raya…”
“I know, love. Linis told me.” His voice caught and she could tell it was an effort for him to go on. He really had cared about Raya. But then they all had. “You seemed a bit out of it. I was worried.”
They were waiting in the stableyard, Linis had already claimed her mount, a fine looking chestnut mare. When the hill ponies were led out they looked small and shabby by comparison. She did not protest as Poll helped her on her pony, though normally she’d have batted him away for fussing.
From a fantasy tale by E.M. Swift-Hook