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.
Maurelle and Forestyne joined him atop the hill, and looked down into the shallow valley.
"Does Garnel have an inn?" Forestyne asked, her sight fixed hungrily on the tiny glow of the town.
"Perhaps," Urwin said. "If it does we shall impose upon their hospitality. We should be there soon." With that, he strode down the slope of the hill, Maurelle following after with a feline grace, with Forestyne closely behind, her nose red with the cold.
They walked steadily for an hour as the lights of the town drew nearer, illuminating like a beacon the low-hanging clouds. Garnel was a town of middling size, looped all the way around by a stone wall. Bricks built into the wall were glowing, imbued with some spell that made them shine eerily in the dark. The guards at the gate looked them all in the face, and then waved them through. The gate shut behind them with a clang.
The wall had been built large enough to allow growth of the town, which left a gap of space between the town itself and the protective stone; this gap had been scattered generously with boulders that had also been spelled to glow. As the group moved forward along the path, their faces were lit from below with different colors: green, red, white, yellow, purple. It gave their faces a ghostly cast that vanished once they stepped into the town proper.
A riot of scents, colors, and sounds accosted them like a wave.
The main street of Garnel was clear, the snow heaped up on either side, and was lit with torches that hissed and sizzled as snowflakes died on the flames. The buildings were decked in brightly colored ribbons and the road itself was lined on either side with lit bricks. Twining winter flowers grew up the sides of houses, glowing red and lending their light. Lanterns hung from the eaves of houses and shops, burning cheerily despite the snow, which glittered and gleamed in every color. Trees along the roadside were coated with a white layer of snow, and small lit stones with holes ground through them had been strung on twine and looped about the lower branches. Scents sweet and savory drifted through the air; meat was cooking, as were nuts and pastries. Fruits, cheeses, various spices, all mixed together in the air and wafted beneath their noses.
"What is all this?" Forestyne asked in disgust, kicking a lighting stone that had fallen from its tree. The stone clattered across the paving before thunking against the wall of a house.
"Does it matter?" Urwin asked, the first time he had answered one of her questions in several hours.
"I do not know what we are here for, Urwin," Forestyne began, in a tone that said she believed she should have been taken into his confidence, "but whatever it is, surely knowledge of current events would be of use?"
"That is my concern," Urwin said. "Not yours. Now, there must be an inn in a town this size. Let us look for it."
As the three companions wandered down the main street and its branches they heard many voices and the sound of food being prepared, as well as bells, singing, and laughter. Maurelle's eyes were drawn in the direction of the clamor more than once, as were Forestyne's. Urwin alone seemed wholly focused on finding an inn in which to stay.
Maurelle and Forestyne wandered a distance from Urwin, looking down side streets as they went. But it was Urwin that found it first.
"Here," he called. They had stayed close by, and returned to him at once. He was standing beneath a hanging sign that proclaimed the establishment was "The Golden Ring." The door was wood, polished with age, and bolstered on either side by paned glass windows that let a cheery wash of firelight drop onto the snow. Figures could be seen inside, and talking and laughing could be heard.
Urwin thrust the door open, and led them inside.
After the cold of the ice and wind, the heat was enough to make skin pucker and feel as if it were being burned. Forestyne brushed the snow from her shoulders with fussy care. Maurelle just gave herself a good shake, and Urwin paid it no mind at all. He was looking around the large common room, filled with men in work trousers and serving maids in gowns and aprons. Their arrival prompted a short, balding man to approach them.
"Afternoon, lord and ladies," he said in a squeaky voice. "What may I do for you?"
"Are you the proprietor of this inn?" Urwin asked softly.
"Indeed I am," the man said, puffing out his chest and beaming up at them.
"We would like a room for the night."
"Right away, milord," the innkeeper said, bowing and then bobbing off. The three companions barely had time to exchange glances before the diminutive man was back, a large key held in his fist. "Right this way, if you please, and I will show you to your room. Are you certain you want just the one?" he asked, as if just realizing there were three of them.
"Just one," Urwin said. Forestyne frowned under the hood she still wore, and all three of them followed the bustling innkeeper through the crowd and up the staircase at the back of the common.
The innkeeper was talking about something, his words pouring out with the speed of a waterfall, and it was not until he arrived at their room and placed the key in Urwin's hand that Maurelle began to listen.
"-festival in the square," he said.
"What sort of festival?" Maurelle asked.
"The winter festival, of course," the innkeeper said. "The Lady of Garnelthicke Manor hosts one every year at the first real snow. She gives out food, gifts for the children, and everyone in the town makes treats to sell. Candies, biscuits, skewers, little trinkets. My wife," he continued proudly, "knits little caps and sells them every year. Sells out of them, too!"
"Ah," Urwin said, unlocking the door.
"Perhaps you young ladies might enjoy the festival as well," the innkeeper said. "There are games with prizes to be won, and the baker only makes his special cookies and cakes for the festival. He is famous, you know."
"I am sure he is," said Maurelle as Forestyne shut the room door in the innkeeper's face with a snap.
"What a tiresome man!" Forestyne exclaimed, unfastening the clasp at her throat. She shrugged the cloak from her shoulders with a sigh, and a pair of glistening green wings rose from her shoulders.
"Have a care," Urwin said in a low voice, glancing around the room to make sure the window shutters were closed tight.
"No one is going to see," Forestyne said, cutting her eyes at him. "I do not understand why we have to be so secretive, anyway."
"If it was important for us to know, we would know," Maurelle said, a note of warning in her tone.
"Miss Maurelle, the know-it-all. Maybe he told you, hmm?" Forestyne walked slowly up to Maurelle until they were nose-to-nose. Maurelle refused to back down, and Forestyne held her aggressive stance until Urwin's voice whipped through the air.
"Forestyne, if you want to be part of my team, then you are going to have to get along better with the other members. Apologize to Maurelle at once."
Forestyne's wings shivered. She had only been cold and frustrated before, but she was nearly incandescent now, her face flushed, eyes sparking, jaw set and mouth thinned. But all the same she turned toward Maurelle, and without a sign of contrition, spoke.
"My apologies, Maurelle," she said. Her voice was calm, but there was an undercurrent in the room now that felt like electricity - lightning about to strike.
"I am going to the common," Maurelle announced, watching Forestyne warily.
"Do not leave the inn," Urwin ordered.
"Yes, Urwin," Maurelle said. Forestyne covered her wings reluctantly as Maurelle slipped through the door, closing it behind her. She breathed a sign of relief.
Inside the room, Forestyne released her wings once more. "Why did you insist on bringing her?" she asked. Her tone was even, controlled, and more intimate than before. Now that Maurelle was absent, she appeared to have relaxed.
"You know what she is capable of," Urwin said. His own voice had eased with the end of the conflict, and they sounded more like friends.
"Yes, yes, I am well aware of what she is capable," Forestyne said, with a hint of impatience. "But she does not fit as easily among us. Her presence causes strife. You have seen it."
"I see only that you refuse to get along with her," Urwin said. "When it is only Maurelle and I, there are no conflicts. She never questions me as you do, and she rarely rises to your bait."
"I do not bait her," Forestyne said hotly.
"Oh, indeed you do," Urwin said. "I have an idea as to why. But no matter. The fact remains that the conflict is caused, not by her, but by you. After seeing how you interact with her, I was told to explain why I desired to bring you. I was never questioned about whether I should bring her."
Forestyne lurched backward as if she had been slapped.
"But..." her anger slipped from her face, and for the first time her eyes glinted with something other than fury.
"You have your own talents," Urwin said, his eyes piercing her from the other side of the room. "But in order for you to remain with me, as you so obviously wish to, you must learn not to provoke Maurelle. She saved my life, as you know very well."
"But you fulfilled your end of the Immortality Pact long ago," Forestyne protested. "She has no hold over you any longer."
"That is a matter of opinion," Urwin said, and would say no more, no matter how she pressed him. Eventually she fell into a sullen silence, and wondered what Maurelle was up to. She ground her teeth. She would have to hold back her animosity, or risk being removed from Urwin's presence. That was a chance she was unwilling to take.