Brother Almo shuffled along the paved walkway. Even through the soles of his sandals, he could feel the coolness of the stone slabs. He thrust his hands into the wide sleeves of his habit and, huddled against the breeze, hurried to the front gates. The caller was pulling the bell rope with mounting impatience – and no wonder at it, thought Brother Almo, on an inhospitable night such as this, I can fully appreciate the desire to be inside and warm.
He pushed back the heavy bolts and lifted the bar that lay across the doors’ centre. He pulled open the gate and peered into the night.
“Good evening, stranger?” he called, although he could see no one there.
Old fool! Had he imagined it? Had he dozed off during his watch and imagined the bell? Father Krimp would laugh with dismay when he heard about this…
But then –
“Help me,” gasped a small voice from the shadows. Brother Almo squinted and could just about discern a hooded figure, about three feet tall in the darkness.
The figure sounded weak, struggling for breath. Brother Almo stepped out just in time to catch the stranger, who collapsed into his arms.
Brother Almo backed over the threshold, pulling the stranger with him. “Ho!” he cried. “What ho, within!”
Minutes later, other members of the order came running, barefoot, pulling on their habits, rubbing their eyes and yawning.
“What is it now?” complained one.
“It’s Almo,” said another, as though that explained everything.
“Brother Almo!” boomed Father Krimp, suddenly arriving and towering over the scene. “What is the meaning of this brouhaha?”
Brother Almo gestured to the stranger, slumped against the wall, face hidden by a hood.
Father Krimp gestured urgently to the others to keep back. “Brother Almo,” his voice was low and filled with foreboding, “What. Have. You. Done?”
“I answered a cry for help,” Brother Almo swallowed hard. “Is it not written that –”
Father Krimp cut him off with an imperious hand. “It may not be too late. Turn this – thing – outdoors and pray for your soul! Do it!”
“But – but –” Brother Almo protested. “We are bounden to do what is charitable. We must take in the infirm and the needy.”
Father Krimp shook his head. “You have brought a stranger within our walls. At night! You know of the creatures that infest this area. You know how they take advantage of the weak and simple-minded, how they take human form and finagle their way into people’s homes.”
Brother Almo scoffed. “Foolish, superstitious claptrap!”
Father Krimp bristled and drew himself up to his full height. “You will remove the thing from the premises at once. If it – he or she – is still there in the morning, then you may take it to our hospice. You know the rules.”
He turned and marched back indoors. The other brothers followed, some of them smirking over their shoulders. Others sent Brother Almo looks of concern. But they all left him to it, just the same.
Alone with the figure, Brother Almo dithered. What to do? If he turfed the stranger out again, the morning might be too late. But if he disobeyed Father Krimp – if Father Krimp was correct… Brother Almo had let a hellacious creature into the monastery, endangering the lives and immortal souls of everyone in it.
He stooped to peer closely at the refugee.
What am I going to do with you?