The city's ocher stone pavement ended between the Temple gates. A broad courtyard of glossy blue lay beyond. Ladnor was enveloped by the Temple's ominous presence the instant he stepped inside. He stopped, wary and acutely aware of an unwanted connection to this place.
The city was now a world apart. Under his feet, a seamless expanse of dark blue covered the courtyard all the way to the inner walls. The Temple's insignia lay in the center, white wings stretching out to touch the walls on both sides.
The Temple stood directly ahead, emanating purity and power, like a fixed, vigilant entity. Blue steps led up to the shadows under a broad portico of fluted pillars. The entry door had no handles, but that was the simplest thing to understand about the Temple's many oddities.
Ladnor tilted back his head and looked at the vision that had haunted him since he first saw it as an impressionable child. Then, he was terrified; now, he was intrigued. His logical nature was one that demanded rational answers, but what he looked upon defied explanation. A thrill of the unknown rippled up his spine as he made a study of the statue that topped the Temple dome.
The figure on the dome was female, heavily robed and hooded so that the face was concealed. Her left hand was extended in welcome, the open-palm gesture of peace and blessing. A forked lance was propped at attention in her right hand, and at her shoulders were upraised wings, poised for flight.
The fanciful addition of wings didn't bother him. It was the effect of the statue's properties that mesmerized. No other metal in the land resembled the crystalline blue of this statue. The robed figure glittered in the sunlight, fierce and vibrant against the backdrop of a brassy sky. Shimmering and incandescent, the statue captivated him. He felt curiously drawn to the duality of its ominous, yet benevolent, posture.
He had expected the courtyard to be full of worshippers, but only a small crowd had gathered. Petitioners, seeking to be healed, waited on the blue steps. Novices had assembled under the portico while he was staring at the statue. Since High Priestess wasn't among them, Ladnor lost interest.
And he felt uncomfortable under the statue's observant presence. He'd had the same impression passing through the city that morning, as if many eyes were watching. Chastising himself for letting this imagination get out of control, he left the courtyard.
He jogged along the Temple's exterior wall until he saw the street ahead. Slowing his pace, he entered the affluent Hillside District. The wide streets in this district were terraced with shallow flights of steps, and at this time of day, crowded with the local elite.
People stared at his haste in the enervating heat, bemused by his impatience and curious as to his identity. He was unable to suppress his aggravation when their languor forced him to waste time weaving around and through groups of rudely rooted individuals. He felt they had no business cluttering up the passageway with their fragrance-saturated bodies. Their bows of acknowledgement at the sight of Sha's torque around his neck inflamed his surly mood.
The heavy necklace Ladnor wore was ancient, clasped in the center with charger jaws locked in eternal combat, symbolizing the wearer's ownership and obligation to his province. He ignored the covetous glances drawn to the sparkling green gems embedded in the metal's subtle luster.
A commotion erupted farther down the street just as he reached the spiked fence in front of Protector House. Doors to houses slammed, and courtyard gates clanged shut. The suddenly deserted street was permeated with an unnatural silence and stillness.
Ladnor backed up the flight of steps, searching for an alcove in which to hide, but found none. He peered down the street that had so quickly emptied and saw the reason for the abrupt evacuation.
The bobbing, serpentine head of a charger appeared. Its large, luminous eyes warily surveyed the street, searching for an enemy. A Cavalry warrior was mounted on the charger's high, short back. Three of her comrades rode in single file behind her on their own nervous mounts.
He had no fear of these semi-domesticated beasts of war. He'd been blessed with the gift of empathy with chargers, and relatives of the charger--not nearly as magnificent as the approaching Cavalry mounts--ran wild in Sha's misty forests and remote hills. The violent and often volatile beats accepted orders from females with an empathic gift, which made Ladnor's ability all the more precious and amazing. He was modest about this remarkable talent in public, but in private, he gloated endlessly.
He studied the black charger in the lead, the largest he'd ever seen, a massive specimen with intelligent eyes and a viciously aggressive attitude. The sloping shoulder and short neck were heavy with muscle, the legs longer and finer than most of his kind.
Without the spiked battle armor, the approaching military mounts didn't appear as ferocious, but Ladnor, wise in the ways of the beasts, pressed his body flat against the side of a house. An irritated slash of their fanged jaws and filed teeth could lacerate to the bone, and if in earnest, could easily take off a head or limb. They were draped in frilly parade tack. Bright colored ribbons had been tied to the tufts of mane on the stout necks, belying the grim fact that they were living machines of destruction--sly in a fight, fearless in combat, and unfailingly devoted to their riders. Each pair of black, red-rimmed eyes turned back to glare, glistening with distrust. As they strode by, each mount displayed a snarl of possessive warning.
Ladnor stepped away from the wall and into the middle of the empty street, watching powerful tail-docked rumps retreat up the steps. If nothing else, it had been worth the trip to see the chargers on parade.