She hurried along the castle corridors, torchlight flickering at irregular intervals along the rough stone walls. Her flame hair streamed out behind her and a handful of skirt was gripped tightly in one hand so she would not trip over the long hem. The corridors were empty, the windows looking out into blackness - a velvet so dark not even the flicker of stars could be seen. She spared not a glance for this; she had not seen the sun, stars, or moon once in her short life, and their absence did not strike her as unusual or ominous. The silence of the castle, however, could be felt as well as heard. Her feet pounding the flagstones made the only sound, and it echoed down the long halls.
She ran around a corner, and halted at a door concealed in shadow, barely large enough to admit her slight frame. She halted to catch her breath, and when her heartbeat had quieted at last, pushed it open. The stark bare walls of the passage vanished behind her as she stepped into warmth and light.
"Ashrinde! At last! Come quickly, child, I am needed in the council room." Not all of the castle slumbered. The queen had changed herself from her nightgown into a simple dress of deep red, but her hair still lay across her shoulders, tousled from sleep and gleaming in the light of a lamp set upon the wardrobe. Ashrinde curtsied, and crossed the room in a swishing of skirts to do as she was bid. Her mistress may have dressed herself, but her hair still needed to be put in order.
"Why have you been summoned, milady?" Ashrinde asked, beginning her work with the comb and her voice pitched low to disguise her curiosity.
The snowflakes drifted down from the velvet black of the midnight sky, swirling like dust as they dropped gently to the ground. The snow was thick, covering the hilly landscape in a pale, luminous blanket. There was no wind, though the air was chill, and the silence was broken only by the sound of footsteps, crunching.
There was a road hidden beneath the snow, and upon it walked three figures, all swathed in black. The tallest of the three led the way, his broad shoulders and long strides at the point of an arrow formation. To his right and left were two smaller figures, more delicately built than himself.
"How much further?" one of the smaller figures asked, voice breathless from the cold.
"It will be as far as it is," the second small figure replied. "If the cold bothers you so much, Maurelle, you should have stayed behind."
"I am not the one shivering," Maurelle pointed out, her voice easily as cold as the weather. "Perhaps you should have stayed behind."
They both lapsed into a frigid silence, in which they did nothing more than follow their leader, who appeared to take no notice of their squabble, and had his eyes fixed directly ahead. Maurelle turned to look at her companions. Her hair, dark and wildly curly, had been stuffed into a hood, but several rogue curls had popped loose and framed her face. Her nose was sharp, as was her chin; her eyes were a pale brown color, and set beneath thick eyebrows.
The other woman was smaller than Maurelle, more ethereal. Her pale skin seemed almost to shimmer in the faint light of the snow, and her brilliant green eyes glittered at the perceived slight from her female companion. Her own hair was quite as curly as Maurelle's, though it hung in ordered ringlets that shone like gold. She had a rounded face with faintly flushed cheeks, and a flash of green showed at her throat, where the cloak was fastened with a silver clasp. She shifted her shoulders, and breathed out sharply, a plume of smoke in the air. Forestyne would have given almost anything to be out of the snow.
"Could we not have taken a portal to get here?" Forestyne asked. Their leader again appeared not to hear. Forestyne scowled, her pretty face twisting.
"If there were a portal nearby I am sure we would have used it," Maurelle said. "Unless there were a good reason for coming this way." Forestyne glared at Maurelle, her eyes flashing fire, her normally full mouth thinned in anger.
The leader, his dark hair pulled away from his angular face, strode easily across the glittering expanse, his sharp eyes watchful, picking out a fence post here, a man-made cut into the earth there. If they wandered from the road they might be forced to suffer another night in the snow. They would survive. But he had no desire to listen to Maurelle and Forestyne quarrel over inconsequential things, as he knew they were doing now. He had listened to quite enough as it was. Urwin's eyes narrowed as they topped the crest of a hill, and he raised one gloved hand to point.
"Garnel," he said.
The sudden appearance of a vampire outside the town of Dingleswick was cause for much concern. Though the rest of the towns in Dainsbury had been enveloped by darkness, Dingleswick could still see the sun on occasion, though through a red haze. They had never seen any evil creatures of the night there, and the presence of even a newborn vampire nearly caused a panic in the streets.
When Helyas, the blacksmith's son, came running into town, his eyes wide as he gasped for breath, the goodwives on the mainstreet doing their shopping for the week stopped to stare. When he had caught his breath, he shouted "I saw a vampire birth in the mountains!"
The street went still for a moment. "Up north," Helyas said, pointing vaguely toward the towering northern mountains. "A vampire," he repeated, his arm dropping limply to his side. The pedestrians stared for a moment longer, and then went about their business. Perhaps Helyas had visited the tavern before his trip to the mountains, many reasoned; he had obviously had more mead than was good for him. Other towns had challenges with evil creatures birthing in their lonely places, but Dingleswick had never had such a problem. So they went about their business, ignoring what they thought were the mad ravings of a drunk man.