2. A New Charge
Four years since the war, the land and people carry scars, Tan read aloud, squinting at the page through thick spectacles designed to hook under his horns. 'Beasts horrid beyond imagination stalk the world, and the fabric of magic itself remains in tatters. Red lightning warns of death from tentacled storms, farmers check their barns for stray harpies, and what can only be the footprints of giants are being cast in plaster 'round the Skyknife foothills. Truly an age of madness has begun.
"Mangrove has ever had a gift for the melodramatic." a gentle voice said from the library door.
Tan started suddenly, dropped the tome. "Father Abbot! My apologies. I seem to have fallen behind on the inventory."
Brother Montrose, abbot of Ermine Redoubt, spiritual leader of the Order of Erminic Penitents, and brewmaster of Redoubt Stout, smiled at his charge. "None are as surprised as I," he said. "My own fault, I suppose, putting you in charge of cataloging our collections." He smiled, warmly. "Like putting a child in charge of counting the gumdrops."
Tan grumbled as he retrieved the book, putting it carefully on top of a stack bearing a sign, Cataloged, To Be Shelved, written in Tan's own angular, hesitant hand.
Montrose leaned against the doorframe. "You've grown so much since coming here, you know."
Tan's gaze was level with the book spines on the highest shelf, attainable only with a ladder for most others in the monastery. "I'd hate to grow any more, I think."
The abbot laughed. "I remember the day you first arrived on that army wagon. All chains and manacles and a glower that could wilt the ivy on the walls. Look after him, they said to me, we can't take him anywhere else." Then he laughed again, "Do you remember the first time I handed you a book?"
Tan winced. He'd tried to eat it. "I remember."
Montrose crossed the room and settled stiffly into a plain wooden chair, the only kind within the austere Order's walls. His bones creaked with the motion.
The land and people carry scars, Tan recalled. Then, he narrowed his eyes.
"Forgive me, Father Abbot, but why the nostalgia? You seem keen to remind me of my many debts to this…"
Then it dawned on him. "You want something of me. Something outside my duties."
Montrose shook his head, rested his arms on the chair's arms. "As sharp as ever," he sighed. "We've had a request from the local constabulary. It seems they have a problem, a wastrel with no place else to go, and who has kept their hands full."
Tan sat himself on a bench opposite Montrose. He was too heavy for the chairs. Tan took up a pitcher and a plain, hammered cup and offered his abbot water.
Montrose didn't take it. "Please. I know you keep some of the black in here. Let's raise a toast to lost souls found, eh?"
Shortly, each man held a tankard brimming with dark brown foam, an open jug of the monastery's own prize stout stood half empty on the table. The brew was a legend in the taverns in Gorzy county.
"Ahhh," breathed the Abbot, as they both wiped foam from their beards.
"So about this lost soul?" Tan delved.
"As you know, Sheriff Peitro is accustomed to handling pig thefts, drunken bargemen and family squabbles, but of late he seems to have caught a tiger by the tail, let's say."
"Some kind of transient?"
"A couple of the families chased her out of their stables last week, and she broke Gordje's wrist in the Red Raven when he tried to throw her out. Then she tried to steal Pastor Zlato's strongbox, the one for the tithes. You know how he chains it to the wall? Well, she didn't. Knocked herself cold."
Tan raised a bushy eyebrow. He hadn't heard about any of this, but then again, he had little use for Gorzy Village or gossip of any kind. Or people, really. His encounters with them were rarely the stuff of fast friendships. Even here at the monastery, Montrose was one of the few who seemed not to mind his company.
But then, Tan considered, given this land's experiences with the war-bred trollborn from the north, he couldn't expect much else.
"Pietro has asked us to take her in. I'd like you to handle that."
Tan's eyes widened. "You want me to babysit this…this…"
"Person? Yes, Brother Tan. I'd like you to take in this person, set her up with a bed and meals, and provide her with duties. She'll be staying with us for a while."
"Will she be okay? She'll be the only woman here, surrounded by dozens of men who don't exactly see women every day."
"It's a situation she's well accustomed to, believe me. Anyway, we have more than enough breathing room for everyone."
That was true enough. The monastery was mostly empty now, but used to house hundreds during the war, mostly convalescents or wounded soldiers, war healers or battle mages needing a retreat from the horror of the field. But always men; the women went elsewhere. That kind of traffic tapered off as the fog of war cleared, leaving only a few Penitents behind, most of those dedicated to brewing the Redoubt's signature dark that provided income.
"Why her? Why now? Why me?"
Montrose looked at Tan for a long moment. "I think you will do each other a world of good, Brother Tan." He rose, his bones creaking, skin tight against a withered frame. He had been a war healer himself, a mage specializing in re-knitting broken people back together, as fast as possible. Using the power carried a heavy cost.
"Anyway, I've grown too old for this kind of thing, and I'm afraid I took in my last stray years ago." He winked at Tan, who looked away. Satisfied his point was taken, Montrose began to leave. "Pietro will drop her at the front gate just before dawn. She's your responsibility from then on. Do you understand, Brother Tan?"
"Yes, Father Abbot."
Montrose swiped a finger around the inside of his empty tankard, and sucked the foam off. "It was a good batch, that one. Full of care." He glanced at Tan. "And patience."
Tan looked at has hands. "Yes, Father Abbot."
Montrose paused at the door and said over his shoulder, "Oh, her name is Igrid."
"Ee-grid." Montrose anunciated, pulling the door closed behind him, "I know you've wondered."
"I have?" Tan said, but the heavy door clacked shut, and now he was alone.
Not, as it turned out, for much longer.
12. Pumpkin Bread
UPDATE 9/24/21: Daily Deviation! What a wonderful thing to wake up to! Thank you Barosus and xlntwtch for the much-needed boost of confidence.
More chapters here.
Such a fitting follow-up, and always with your brand of surprises. I can imagine a lot and yet be guided in it. I'm glad to read more about Tan (and he's reading! in a monastery) and the woman I hope we recognize.
do you ever not realize you've missed something until you see it again? (I mean this about seeing new work from you, but I have a suspicion it applies to Tan and Igrid, too)
I'm looking forward to seeing where they go