They started with a building that seemed less ruined than the rest. The entrance was by way of an arched porch and a creaking wooden door. They pushed through and found themselves in the monastery kitchen.
Their footsteps sounded hollow on the stone floor, their whispers multiplied into a thousand echoes. Thick cobwebs hung in the corners of the ceiling and grime covered the stoves and worktops on three sides. On the fourth side—
‘Someone’s been cooking!’
Shining pans hung from hooks, clean crockery was stacked on shelves, and jars of preserves and bottles of sauce were set out ready for use.
Tam approached the one clean stove and touched the iron hotplates. Still warm! He pulled back his hand in a hurry. When he looked underneath, he could see recently burned wood and a faint glow in the embers.
Nina had been watching. ‘Someone’s still living here,’ she muttered.
‘Indeed I am,’ said a voice behind them.
Tam and Nina spun round. Another door had opened, and a tall gangling man dressed in a grey monk’s habit stood in the doorway. His eyes were pale, his cheeks hollow, his skull as bald as an egg. He had an unusually long neck, and his Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat as he spoke.
‘Brother Ambril at your service. Welcome to my monastery. And your names?’
‘Nina,’ said Nina. ‘And my brother, Tam.’
Brother Ambril smiled, though there was nothing jolly about his face. ‘So pleasant to have visitors. I haven’t seen another human for—oh, ages.’
‘What happened to the other monks?’ asked Nina.
‘Wolf-soldiers took most of them away. The rest went off soon after. Good riddance.’
‘They left you on your own?’
‘I wanted to be on my own.’ The pale eyes flashed, then the smile returned. ‘You’re welcome, though. Come through, come through. I’ll show you my private retreat.’