This night is dragging. It is unusually quiet, especially given the hour. One thing running the bar has taught me is that Others keep strange hours. Sundown to sunup. Of course, not all of them needed the darkness, but everyone just seemed more comfortable in it. It was almost an unspoken agreement, especially in smaller towns like this one. The normal townspeople had the day, but the dark was kept for the nightfolk. My clientele is almost exclusively the latter as a result. Not many “plainfolk” ever came here, and if they did they were easy enough to spot. Eyes wide, caught in the headlights. It was almost as if they knew. Gods knew I tried to make the place as innocuous as possible. On the outside, it did not differ from the “normal” pubs in town. Everything out of the ordinary was kept below bar, so as to not spook the locals. It was common knowledge amongst the nightfolk that it opened late, much later than a normal joint. But they were always careful to keep their comings and goings discreet.
But the plain folk still looked uneasy if they stumbled in by accident, and they almost never stayed past the one drink it usually took to twig to the fact that they were somewhere unknowably foreign. There were exceptions, of course. Just one, in this case.
She wasn’t here.
It felt queer, seeing the spot she usually sat and bristled in empty. Every night she had been here, without fail. I never even asked her name, but I had gotten used to seeing her here. Ordinary to a tee, everything about her just screamed “human”. Sure, she smelled nice, nicer than most plainfolk, but she still smelled ordinary. And yet.
The regulars accepted her for a start. Not just tolerated, there was no sense of ‘playing friendly so the normals don’t realise what we are’. It was almost as if they liked her. And she was a prickly little thing, abrupt and not at all interested in being anyone’s friend. But nevertheless, nightfolk who passed by her bar stool would invariably stop for a chat, and the woman would sit white-knuckled over her drink with all the grace and cuddliness of a porcupine.
She also knew what I was. Not just guessed, she was far beyond the point of just having an inkling, a sixth sense that something was amiss. I had seen my fair share of the look that came over most dayfolk when they realised they were speaking to, not a human, but a predator. This was not, and this woman had never worn such an expression.
I could remember the first night she was here. It was clear she was different to our normal clientele the second she walked in. She was small, and pale and you could see heads turn from across the room when she slid onto a seat wedged in the corner against the bar. It had nothing to do with looks, and everything to do with food. Sometimes young men, hopped up on testosterone, would march in on a dare and then frantically swig beer until they deemed their mates need to watch them suffer sated. Big men made bad dinner. They tended to fight back. And though most of my patrons wouldn’t go as far as to eat anyone, being a bit big and a bit stupid got you struck off the “maybes” list pretty quickly.
It seemed like a good idea to drift over and take her order quickly. The faster she was out of the bar, the better. No use letting the wolves salivate over a fat lamb. It just made some of them irritable that the bar had a “don’t touch” policy.
She must have felt me loom over her, and looked up. At that moment I had reassessed the “totally ordinary” box I had placed her in without thinking. Her eyes were striking, set in a pale face surrounded by a sea of soot black hair. I’d never met anyone with mismatched eyes, and hers as she looked up through her lashes were almost unsettling. One was a pale blue, so pale it was almost the colour of ice. The other was darker, a strange hazel that looked more grey than brown or green. The little woman regarded me expressionlessly and sniffed once before her eyes shifted away over the faces in the then-crowded bar.
“A whiskey, demon boy.”
The imagine of a lost lamb who had wandered into the lion’s den abandoned me in that moment, and I don’t think I succeeded in keeping the surprise off my face.
The strange eyes rolled back towards me, with the barest touch of a smile.
She propped her elbows on the bartop and rested her chin on intertwined, gloved fingers.
“People do talk, you know. Especially in bars.”
My mouth snapped shut, and I felt the beginnings of irritation. I clunked a glass down in front of her, perhaps a little too hard. It always rankled, being outed. Even by other nightfolk. If you fell outside the vanilla vampire, shapeshifter dynamic that dominated most of the communities like this one then the vast majority of people had trouble pegging you as this or that, except of course in situations where they were the same. Aquis had, for example, a thriving faerie population.
I was usually safe though. Most nightfolk had a “don’t ask” policy, so if you kept your mouth shut and were lucky enough to not run into anyone who shared your specific affliction, then you could generally fly under the radar. So I could call bullshit on the explanation that someone had blabbed in earshot of a human of all things. But then how? How in fresh hell could a girl that would barely reach my elbow standing, no more out of the ordinary than plain white bread, possibly know? There was the poxy eye, of course, and for a moment I entertained the notion that maybe she was some sort of freakishly boring looking fey, one without any of the glamour and sparkle usually associated with the giggling, smug little bastards. But she was just all wrong for fey, or for anything really. Human; she looked it, she smelled it and there was really not much else to it.
Even Witchfinders gave off more of a charge than this little one, unless their technology had surged to a new level in a matter of mere days.
I’m embarrassed to say that I never resolved it. I honestly had no comeback to speak of. So I poured whiskey and attempted to ignore her, as she steadfastly refused to leave. She stayed most of the night, and every time I had to walk past her, I could feel the back of my head itching. If I caught her eye, she would smile thinly and lift her glass in salutation, and my eye would start twitching as if on command. It was not until the next night, when she came through the doors and everything repeated again, the swivelling of heads and ordering of whiskies, that I realised that my regulars seemed fine with her, if not friendly.
The Blue Mare had not been my pub for long. I was new, much newer in fact than many of my patrons, who had been visiting here for many years. The previous owner had been an elderly shapeshifter, who decided to retire to the country, far away from nosey Witchfinders and the threat of raids. It had been a supernatural bar for as long as anyone could remember, which given the lifespans of some customers, was a long time.
So at the first opportunity, I cornered one of my regulars I was more familiar with, to ask about our newest, strangest barfly. And then I cornered another. And another. And then I had to go have a breather in the back office to stop from punching a hole through something. Because every time, every damnable time, they would just smile and shrug. No one thought it was strange that she was here, and fast enough, she stopped drawing the attention of my less-regular patrons - not because they were used to her, but because they could see showing undue attention would draw pointed, aggressive disapproval from more than one long-time customer if they so much as entertained the thought of laying a finger on her.
So it was aggravating, and beyond that it was just plain weird. But as the nights wore on, I even felt myself unwinding a little. You couldn’t stay as tightly coiled as a spring forever. And for a human, she didn’t seem that bad. She was a prickly little thing, and beyond that first night she maybe said a handful of things to me beyond the words “whiskey” and “demon” which seemed to be firm favourites. Even the regulars that seemed so enamoured of her could barely draw three words from her, but to a tee all of these massive, imposing supernaturals that could probably rip her in two using only their pinkie fingers seemed thrilled when this tiny little thing spoke to them.
She never looked comfortable. Not in the way of most normal folk, whose heads would whip round like they were on strings, trying to look at all the big scary mean things all at once, who tried not to blink until their eyelids quivered in the fear that in that second their eyes were shut something would jump on them. In comparison, she was a little oasis of calm. But there was an awareness to her that never went away. Like she knew she was sitting in a den of vipers, but had no choice but to do so so she was going to make damn sure she wouldn’t step on one. Which made absolutely no sense, because she could leave at any time, and because she did literally nothing except drink whiskey, wedged in a corner with her back against the wall. She never seemed to be there to meet anyone, and never seemed to have any goal or plan other than to sit and drink. And it wasn’t even good whiskey, if I was being honest with myself.
But still like clockwork, she was there. One or two of the big burly shapeshifters took to guarding her seat until she arrived. She was just there, as regular as breathing.
It was late, very very late. And almost dead quiet, with no more than a few regulars nursing drinks in the dark corners of the bar. But no whiskey girl. I stood at the bar and could feel the part of my back between my shoulders itch, and my skin felt like it wanted to crawl off my bones. It was strange how unsettling it was just to see one seat vacant. I knew I wasn’t the only one looking for her too. So I was already wound pretty tight when one of the serving girls pulled me aside to say I had a visitor.
She’s in the kitchen, and instantly the feeling of unease I am nursing ramps into overdrive. I have never seen her like this. Usually everything about her was neat and normal. Perfectly unremarkable clothes, as if to blend in as much as possible. And she always, always wore gloves in the bar. Tonight, not so. She is dressed in black head to toe, with her arms exposed, and instantly I can understand why she wore gloves, when she dressed usually in such muted and unremarkable colours. The tattoos were vibrant and more intricate than any I had seen, covering her from wrist to the point at which her arms disappeared into the sleeves of her shirt, and probably beyond. Had she left them uncovered, she would be recognisable at a glance. She looks up from her clasped hands the moment I enter, and instead of her usual furrowed brow and studied disinterest she almost looks worried.
Without ceremony, she reaches out and grabs my sleeve. I could have stood my ground easily if I wanted to, but something about the strangeness of the way she is acting makes me allow her to tow me into a corner. She tucks in against the wall, pulling me so I stand as almost a physical shield between her and the rest of the room. When she begins speaking, I understand. I wouldn’t have wanted someone lip-reading what she was about to say either.
“I want you to listen, and listen well,” Her voice is so low as to be almost nonexistent in the noisy kitchen. She has a strange sort of accent, one I had never noticed before in our limited interactions. It is like a queer amalgamation of dialects that I have heard before, but don’t really recognise.
“When we are done speaking, I want you to pull aside one of your wait staff. Get her to tell the other staff to leave, as quickly and as quietly as they can. After that, get one of them to tell the patrons to do the same. Get them to use the back door, if you can, or any other door besides the front. If they have to use the front, they shouldn’t leave together, just ones or twos at a time. Tell them to gather their families, and get out, get as far away from the city as they can. If they can’t,” and she pauses for a moment, fingers still wound in the sleeve of my shirt as she seems to consider something. My heart is pounding, and my mind racing. She is so serious, and I have a sinking feeling I know why.
“If they can’t leave, tell them Sanctuary will be open to all. Your girls will know what that means.” Finally her eyes rise to meet mine, and they are as grave as her tone. I have always found her prickly, a little standoffish, but there was always something light about her. Now that had all disappeared, and her gaze is heavy and oh so serious. Not for the first time, I find myself reevaluating just how defenceless she seems. It was not a look that a lamb would give a lion.
“When you have done that, you need to come with me, and do exactly what I say to do. If you don’t, you will die, and there will be nothing I can do to prevent that.”
The bottom drops out of my stomach, and nodding, I turn to catch the eye of my nearest server, Susie. She sidles up almost instantly, and in an equally low voice I relay what our whiskey woman has told me. From the expression on her face, the one that is there just for a single, raw moment before the blank happy “customer service” mask falls back into place, I know she is scared, and in that moment I know I probably should be too. With a single nod, Susie turns, and glides away back towards the other staff. There is a smile on her face, even as she bows her head towards the others and speaks to them in hushed terms.
The small woman in front of me watches them for a moment, and seemingly satisfied, turns her gaze back to me.
“If something happens, and you need to play along, you can call me Gunnr. It’s what is on my identification. If you can avoid it though, don’t speak to anyone. Now come with me,”