In the dark of early morning, Abbess Gjolla gazed eastward from the side of the dirt road. The high mountains surrounding the secluded valley appeared as an irregular divide between impenetrable black below and star filled above. The sky took on a royal violet. As it lightened, the low stars diminished, were extinguished. A sudden recollection heightened her senses, sent a frisson rippling across her skin.
Abbess Gjolla crossed her arms, gripped her shoulders. Rubbing the fabric of her robe, she turned fully about. She peered at the silhouette of a covered cart that had been outfitted for her travels. Her aid stood on the rear deck outside the enclosure. Dressed in the same habiliment of a Priestess as the Abbess, she appeared an amorphous shape.
"The sun has risen, Maska,” Abbess Gjolla said. Though she spoke softly, her words seemed loud in the stillness of early morning.
“We’ll be departing soon,” Maska replied.
Abbess Gjolla ignored the ambiguity of whether Maska voiced that as a question. “Did you know," she asked, "that the Susemhren have a belief that just before dawn a crack appears in the world through which Spirits pass.
Often Abbess Gjolla would smile at the way Maska still joined her title and name with a sibilant ’syo’ sound. She didn’t now.
“Yes, Maska. Spirits of the Ancients.”
After a delay, Maska asked, “Do we believe that?”
Abbess Gjolla took her right hand from her shoulder, touched her index finger to a small insignia affixed to her forehead, just above the bridge of her nose, an eight pointed star set on a circle. “No,” she answered circling her finger on the metal. “We don’t.”
“You could return to your residence, go back to bed.”
The unspoken insinuation clear, Abbess Gjolla moved her hand downward, along the front of her gown, pressed it over a concealed pocket. The fore-thumb sized message bearing device remained within. She averred her commitment. “I will deliver the message to the Susemhren, as was asked of me.” Dropping her hand away, she took steps toward the cart. “We don’t have much time to get there.”
“You were given such short notice. You would think they knew of this for a while.”
Again Abbess Gjolla heard the unspoken question. “That was intentional.”
“Then why the short notice? Do they not know we must prepare to undertake a journey as this?”
Having never seen her aide in the attire of a Priestess, Abbess Gjolla studied the woman’s vague outline. Coming near the cart, she explained, “They didn’t want to leave me with time to deliberate. I needed to decide: go or don’t.” Came to up to the side of the cart, Abbess Gjolla grasped a fold of fabric from her robe and lifted it. “Does it bother you to wear it?”
Her head angled down, Maska answered plainly. “Less than I thought.” After a moment, she asked, “You don’t believe, do you?”
Abbess Gjolla searched in the dark to meet Maska’s eyes. “In what?”
“In the boy.”
“What do I know of him?” Exasperation escaped Abbess Gjolla's usual tempered restraint, colored her tone. “You’ve told me nothing about him, not ever.”
Maska didn’t respond.
Abbess Gjolla clenched her hands. “Is there something I should know?”
Maska shook her head. “Not to know.”
Abbess Gjolla’s frustration tightened her face. She held back from speaking.
Maska added, “To believe.”
“What’s there to believe?”
“That you’ve done nothing wrong.”
Abbess Gjolla flinched. She strained to see Maska’s eyes. “In placing the boy, I’ve profaned a sacred act.”
Maska exhorted, “You don’t know that, Abbessyolla.”
Abbess Gjolla drew a full breath. Exhaled. Calmed. “Can you assure me that I haven’t?”
Maska said nothing.
“Well then, in the absence of knowing, I have to presume the worst.” Abbess Gjolla raised her hands, swung them about, “So that I can protect all this.”
The clop of hooves on the hard packed road took Abbess Gjolla’s attention. She turned, peered into the semi-dark, teased apart disjoint shapes: two men, each leading a horse. She turned to Maska. “Can you tell me about his mother?”
Maska remained fixed. Looking up the road, she didn’t say anything.
“I didn’t think so,” Abbess Gjolla said, added bitterly, “Nothing has changed.” She humphed. “It would be best if this matter slipped back into obscurity.”
Maska turned back to her, said, “Has this matter ever been obscure?”
Abbess Gjolla didn’t answer.
“I didn’t think so,” Maska added.
Abbess Gjolla flinched at Maska’s insolence. She said nothing, again looked up the road.
Beyond the men, nascent light gave shape to the stable buildings on the east side of the road. Paddock fenceposts appeared in the fields, stood as stoic sentinels. Closing her eyes, she recalled the prior evening’s dinner.
Toward the end, she called for attention, announced her travel plans to all the Sisters. She explained the matter’s urgency and the overt origin of the request, but not its true purpose.
The questions asked of her were polite; the many worried glances cast about revealed unspoken concerns. When she informed the sisters that her entourage would comprise Maska alone, urgent whispers flew about the tables.
The recollection had Abbess Gjolla almost laugh to herself: What would they think now to know Maska wore the garment of a Priestesses? That she herself had instructed Maska to do so?
She opened her eyes. The men and horses closer, the beasts took on distinctness though not the men; dressed in their Seekers robes, they continued to present as a vague shape.