Abbess Hilda was sitting at her desk, looking at a heavy, leather-bound book that lay open before her. The numbers there, carefully collected and arranged into rows and columns, confirmed her concerns. "Well," she said, "at least we don't need to dip into the reserves, yet."
"Not yet," confirmed Sister Tiva, a solidly-built dwarf woman in brass-colored robes lined with silvery gray. Though a perfectly competent priestess, Tiva's real skill was in her ability to analyze and balance the numbers, and her relentless attention to detail. "But donations are down, and likely to remain that way."
"People are hoarding their money with the threat of war approaching," said Hilda. "They'd be fools not to." It was troubling, though eminently understandable.
Someone knocked on the door, and Hilda sat back. "Yes?"
Birno opened the door and stepped inside. "Abbess?"
She glanced past him into the antechamber, and said: "Oh. Yes, one moment."
Sister Tiva was already closing the book and moving toward the door. "Tomorrow, Abbess?"
"Get a good breakfast first," Hilda advised, and was met with a light laugh and a dismissive flick of Tiva's fingers. The dwarf never missed breakfast, and swore by the value of not trying to do math -- or anything else -- on an empty stomach.
Birno motioned the elves forward, and they followed him into the room. The one in front was clearly a warrior, dressed as he was in a suit of the thin, delicate-looking elvish chainmail and carrying a double-bladed scimitar on his back; the woman beside him was almost as broad-shouldered as he was, but wore a simple brown robe; a wolf walked at her side.
"You must be the paladin Werendril," said Hilda, and he nodded. He was looking around, taking in the simple stone walls of her office and the three paintings that decorated them; then he turned back to the rest of his troop.
"Wait outside," he said quietly. "We're in no danger here, and there's no call to crowd the Abbess. Shondrelle and I will speak with her."
Birno bowed immediately. "I'll fetch food and drink, then, and make sure the guest wing is prepared."
Hilda said, "Find Aesa and Anica, if you can, and let them know the elves have arrived."
Birno nodded at that and followed the scouts and paladins out into the antechamber, closing the door behind him.
Werendril turned back to her. "I hardly know how to greet you, Your Grace."
Hilda laughed. "You can start by dispensing with the formality," she said. "I am Hilda Sturmgart, or 'Abbess' if you must."
Werendril sniffed, but it was a sound of amusement; his lips quirked towards a smile. She'd read him right, then.
"As you wish," he said. "I am Werendril; this is Shondrelle, a wood elf of the circle of druids."
Shondrelle glanced at them, nodded, and went back to her study of the painting. It was a lovely piece of work, one of Akkora's best; a rendering of the temple atop its height, with all the colors of dawn in the sky behind it.
"I'm glad you were able to come," she told him. "We have much to discuss, not least of which are several measures I have in mind to help protect both our peoples and ensure that our shared history is not lost."
"I am at your service," Werendril said, "though of course I cannot speak for the whole of my order. But -- if you'll permit me to put the personal before the professional -- am I to understand that Ruin recommended me for this? My master and I both were mightily puzzled by your invitation."
"Your master?" For a moment Hilda was confused. "Oh, yes. The Exalted Order of the Bow Made Golden by the Touch of Dawn uses an apprenticeship model to train their new paladins. Your new paladins. I'd forgotten."
Werendril glanced briefly away, then met her eyes again.
Concerned, Hilda asked: "Did I say it wrong? I meant no offense."
"No," said Werendril. "No, it's just that the Order took its name in nobler and more bombastic times. Nowadays most of us just refer to it as the Order of the Golden Bow. As to my question...?"
"Ah," said Hilda, and filed that away for future reference. "Well, several months back the Twice-born stopped here at the monastery. While they were here, the bard Geddy spoke with me about King Mythrandril and his political goals and hopes for his people. After they left, it occurred to me that I had been too focused on helping the people here, and remiss in looking at what might be done to discourage the likelihood of war and soothe the anger between our peoples. Ruin, as it happened, had mentioned your name to our newest cleric, so as a paladin and a friend to the Twiceborn I hoped you would be sympathetic."
Werendril frowned. "This would be the cleric that Birno said Ruin had... somehow helped to join the priesthood?"
"Yes," Hilda studied him, seeing the doubt in his expression. "Her name is Aesa."
"Forgive me," said Werendril, "but Ruin is absolutely the least religious person I know. He prays to no gods, makes no offerings or observances... I cannot imagine him being part of something like that."
Hilda offered a smile. "You should really have the story from Aesa, but my understanding is that he was actually trying to teach her how to fight. Your name came up when he was encouraging her to beat him over the head with a wooden sword -- to get her to stop pulling her blows, I believe."
Werendril said, "Oh," and his expression changed to something more speculative. "That... does seem possible."
"As I said, you should really have the story from Aesa; I'll arrange for her to meet with you in the morning. For tonight... Birno should be returning with food and drink, and I'm sure you'd like some refreshment and some time to think before we dive into the sort of political discussion that both our peoples might consider treasonous."
Shondrelle turned and smiled as Werendril rubbed at his forehead. "Yes, I suppose that might be for the best."