Barron woke to a noise.
It was the second time that morning.
Noise was a fairly common thing in a tavern; the volume of it ebbed and flowed depending on the hour, at some times thunderous, at others murmuring, but it was always there, in some measure. Even when the pub was closed, the Stone’s Throw was never truly silent. But Barron knew every kind of noise his tavern made, from the creak of the floorboards to the groan of the doors to the wind through the hundreds of cracks in the old walls.
He knew them all.
And this one was different.
Barron had owned the tavern at the seam—for that was how he thought of the aching old building—for a very long time. Long enough to understand the strange that drifted past and in like debris. Long enough for the strange to seem normal. And while he was not a part of that strange, having no interest or affinity for the practicing of that strangeness others called magic, he had come to develop a sense of sorts, where the strange was concerned.
And he listened to it.
Just as he listened now to the noise above his head. It wasn’t loud, not at all, but it was out of place and brought with it a feeling, under his skin and in his bones. A feeling of wrongness. Of danger. The hair on his arm prickled, and his heart, always steady, began to beat faster in warning.
The noise came again, and he recognized the groan of footsteps on the old wooden floor. He sat up in his bed. Lila’s room sat directly over his own. But the footsteps did not belong to Lila.
When someone spends enough time under your roof (as Lila had beneath his), you come to know the kind of noise they make—not only their voices but the way they move through a space—and Barron knew the sound of Lila’s tread when she wanted to be heard, and the sound of her tread when she didn’t, and this was neither. And besides, he had first woken to the sound of Lila and Kell leaving not long before (he had not stopped her, had long since
learned that it was futile to try, and had long since resolved to be instead an anchor, there and ready when she wandered back, which she invariably did).
But if Lila was not moving about her room, who was?
Barron got to his feet, the shivery feeling of wrong worsening as he tugged the suspenders from his waist up onto his broad shoulders and pulled on his boots.
A shotgun hung on the wall by the door, half rusted from disuse (on the occasion trouble brewed downstairs, Barron’s hulking form was usually enough to quash it). Now he took hold of the gun by the barrel and pulled it down from its mount. He drew open the door, cringing as it groaned, and set off up the stairs to Lila’s room.
Stealth, he knew, was useless. Barron had never been a small man, and the steps creaked loudly under his boots as he climbed. When he reached the short green door at the top of the stairs, he hesitated and pressed his ear to the wood. He heard nothing, and for a brief moment, he doubted himself. Thought he’d slept too lightly after Lila’s departure and simply dreamt the threat out of concern. His grip, which had been knuckles white on the shotgun, began to loosen, and he let out a breath and thought of going back to bed. But then he heard the metallic sound of coins tumbling, and the doubt gutted like a candle. He threw open the door, shotgun raised.
Lila and Kell were both gone, but the room was not empty: a man stood beside the open window, weighing Lila’s silver pocket watch in the palm of his hand. The lantern on the table burned with an odd pale light that made the man look strangely colorless, from his charcoal hair to his pale skin to his faded grey clothes. When his gaze drifted up casually from the timepiece and settled on Barron—he seemed entirely unfazed by the gun—the tavern owner saw that one of his eyes was green. The other was pitch black.
Lila had described the man to him and given him a name.
Barron did not hesitate. He pulled the trigger, and the shotgun blasted through the room with a deafening sound that left his ears ringing. But when the plume of smoke cleared, the colorless intruder stood exactly where he’d been before the blast, unharmed. Barron stared in disbelief. The air in front of Holland glittered faintly, and it took Barron a moment to grasp that it was full of shot pellets. The tiny metal beads hung suspended in front of Holland’s chest. And then they fell, clattering to the floor like hail.
Before Barron could squeeze off the second shot, Holland’s fingers twitched, and the weapon went flying out of Barron’s hands and across the narrow room, crashing against the wall. He lunged for it, or at least he meant to, but his body refused, remaining firmly rooted to the spot, not out by fear,
but something stronger. Magic. He willed his limbs to move, but the impossible force willed them still.
“Where are they?” asked Holland. His voice was low and cold and hollow.
A bead of sweat rolled down Barron’s cheek as he fought the magic, but it was no use. “Gone,” he said, his voice a low rumble.
Holland frowned, disappointed. He drew a curved knife from his belt. “I noticed that.” He crossed the room with even, echoing steps, and brought the blade up slowly to Barron’s throat. It was very cold, and very sharp. “Where have they gone?”
Up close, Kell smelled of lilies and grass. Holland smelled of ash and blood and metal.
Barron met the magician’s eyes. They were so like Kell’s. And so different. Looking into them, he saw anger and hatred and pain, things that never spread, never touched the rest of his face. “Well?” he pressed.
“No idea,” growled Barron. It was the truth. He could only hope they were far away.
Holland’s mouth turned down. “Wrong answer.”
He drew the blade across, and Barron felt a searing heat at his throat, and then nothing.