The appearance of a bloody head at an isolated monastery leads an unwilling monk on a journey to ascertain the meaning of this dark omen.
Brother Hob lit a lantern. Yawning, he rubbed a handful of cold gravel into his hair, smacked himself sharply on each cheek—an optional devotion—then pulled his rough-spun robe over his head. Chewing a bit of mint-flavored bread, he plodded on fur-lined sandals down the dark hall leading to the north gate.
A late winter’s breeze greeted him as he threw the doors wide. He inhaled deep, embracing the cold. The pre-dawn glow lit the fringes of the snow-tipped mountains like a halo. In the valley, sunlight would grace the Mount Stoic Monastery in another bell, when his brethren would arise. Enough time to prepare the dawn ritual.
Long strides through the new-fallen snow brought him to the center of the Garden—a ring of pine and arcylla trees mingled with flowering zafira bushes. At the center arose a stone gazebo, solid as any castle, wrapped in vines of crimson snowberries. While an indoor garden would have been more comfortable, such wishes did not pave the path to enlightenment—or so claimed the Abbot.
Taking careful steps, he ascended the icy steps, as he had each morning since his ordainment as Celebrant of the Dawn Sacrament. It meant less sleep, true, but he was excused from choir and got first shot at the mulled snowberry wine.
He withdrew a heavy broom from the gazebo’s tool shed to clear the snow, when an unfamiliar shadow caught his eye. At the center of the gazebo rested a melon-sized lump of snow and frost. He drew nearer, noting the shadows around the lump were tinged the color of snowberries.
Did someone drop a wine cask?
Circling, he gasped as realization fell like a hammer blow: it was a severed head. The broom skittered away as he dropped to his knees, eyes averted, heart threatening to burst his ribs.
Lady of Dawn, preserve us.
Brother Hob had been a novice for far longer than he’d been a celebrant. He’d received no training for this sort of thing, not… murder. Or witchcraft, even. Trembling, he lurched to his feet and ran to alert the Abbot.