Palla heard the bells calling her to devotions, so she picked up her pace going in the opposite direction. Her sandals snapped loudly against the stone floor. She tried to walk more quietly, but that required a strange, uncomfortable, tip-toe gait. They must make all the novices wear these sandals to ensure we can’t go sneaking around anywhere, she thought.
One of the temple guards gave her a curious look as she shuffled past, trying to get to the balcony. Palla gave her what she hoped was a confident, convincing smile, and passed on by.
Hopefully the guard would forget her face, and no one would miss her in the crowd at devotions. This was the best time if she wanted to slip over the balcony and get to the cave entrance she had discovered a few days ago. There might be more relics stashed in there, or even a tunnel all the way through to the main cave system.
When Palla reached the balcony the sacred doves were in a panic, flying around and banging on the carved stone screens of their dovecote. At first Palla thought there might be a weasel around somewhere, but then she saw something worse. A pilgrim.
It was a boy, a little younger than herself, standing right next to the dovecote with his fingers hooked in the holes of the screen. He was making the birds crazy with terror.
“Get away from there!” Palla said in her most authoritative priestess voice. “You’re frightening the sacred doves.”
The boy turned a pale, foreign face to her, his strangely golden-hazel eyes wide. “It’s not me they’re scared of,” he said in an odd accent. Palla couldn’t place it. “There’s something coming.” He pointed out over the valley to the distant mountains on the far side.
Palla looked where he was pointing, and after a moment she could make out a swarm of black specks against the blue. It looked like a pack of flies, only so tremendously far away they must be huge. As she watched, and her eyes adjusted to the glare of the sky, they resolved into what might be bird shapes, but once again, they were too big to be birds.
One of them spurted blood-red flame.
“Dragons!” Palla said. “Dragonriders. They’re coming. Get to the caves!” She ordered the bewildered pilgrim. “That way! They’re coming to attack us. You have to get out of sight.” She gave him a shove in the right direction, though he continued to just stare at her stupidly. There was no time for idiot pilgrims, Palla decided. She ran for the sanctuary.
She found it guarded by one of the elder priestesses, Herenaia, who sat placidly beneath the stone goddess who held the pearl in her hand. Out of breath, Palla shouted. “Dragonriders, coming, from the mountains! Hurry, we have to warn everyone.”
“How many are coming?” Herenaia asked. She didn’t sound surprised, but grim, as if she had known this would happen someday.
“I don’t know. Dozens. A whole swarm of them.”
Herenaia turned to the guard. “Go and sound the warning bells.”
When the guard had left the room, Herenaia reached for and took down the pearl. It was large enough she had to hold it in two withered hands.
“Everyone knows you have explored the caves better than any other,” Herenaia said. Palla flushed. She had thought she’d kept it secret. “Now you must take the pearl to a safe place. Find your way through the mountain to the city of the moon and give the pearl to the king.”