The edge of the forest revealed a field planted with grains. Behind that a castle like structure rose to the sky. Heavy, gray stonewalls ended in turrets and towers. The castle was at least five ordinary houses high and ten wide. It loomed like a mountain. A heavy, dark wooded gate barred entry and a bell as big as an oxcart hung in the uppermost tower.
Raina sighed in relief and there was a new spring in her step. Rowan followed with his mouth agape. He let his gaze wander from one part of the castle to the next: The walls, the slate roofs, the metal clasps on the door hinges, the arrow slits and the gargoyles on the towers. He had never seen anything like it.
“Welcome to the temple of life,” said Raina.
They marched up to the heavy gate. The men hung back and Raina pulled the little green bell on the side. A wooden square was removed from the gate and a friendly face looked them over. Raina bowed and introduced the group. The women closed the little window and a few moments later one side of the gate opened with a screech.
“Welcome, welcome! I am Lady Beatrice,” said the woman who had looked at them before and was now holding the gate in place. After everyone had gone through single file, she pressed herself against it until it shut and two other women moved a metal rod through several metal rings to secure the gate. All of them were clad in simple brown dresses with aprons. The blinding white of these aprons stood in such a stark contrast to the dirty, smelly clothes of the travelers, that Hartmut took off his hat and turned it round and round.
Beatrice bestowed a gentle hug on Raina and then led the group into a high domed building. It was laid out in black and gray marble and had stained glass windows that broke the light in exquisite colors. Rowan held out his hand to see the sunlight dapple in dark reds and blues and greens on his skin. Cat took his extended arm as an invitation and walked down his arm from his pack and jumped to the floor with nary a sound.
In the front of the domed building was a dais and outlined in marble blocks there was a circle. Raina and Beatrice bowed and stepped inside. Rowan watched as Mortimer followed and then everyone else made their way in the stone enclosure. He followed reluctantly. His spine tingled in anticipation.
“Let us cleanse ourselves from all outside influences,” said Lady Beatrice and bowed her head. Just a moment later a wall of flames rose around them from the marble circle.
“By the sorcerer’s tail!” exclaimed Brian and all the men besides Mortimer moved inward and closer together. But even though a wall of men-high flames surrounded them, the air was quite cool and there was not even a singed hair on anyone. Raina and Beatrice intoned the first few notes of the cleansing song and soon the dome was filled with a multitude of voices, rejoicing in the feeling of renewal that the flames brought them.