Squirrel Tree Inn

Deep in the boundary of the Oakthorn forest, nestled beside the road that leads from Brambleward to Sunnydown, you will find the Squirrel Tree Inn.  Run by a family of grey squirrels, the inn is built into the trunk of a massive oak. It is both shelter and sanctuary, second home to a menagerie of regulars and temporary respite for travelers of every species. 

Wander in for a bite, for a well-earned rest, or just to warm yourself by the fire. The Squirrel Tree Inn is open for business. 

(The Squirrel Tree Inn is a webserial from author Frances Pauli and will be available here and on her Patreon through the first story arc, after which it will be available to patrons only. This is a rough draft/first version webserial and will not be perfectly edited nor exactly resemble the finished product that will be the Squirrel Tree Inn books.)

Episode One: The Toad's Prophecy

The toad had slept in her yard for seven seasons. He moved very little, spoke even less, and aside from a brief week when the snows covered his warty hide and she feared he’d freeze solid, had been no trouble at all.  Millie’s friends had suggested she evict him. He paid no fee at the inn, but then, he’d taken no bed either. Her patrons ignored him, and her son’s children had grown fond of dressing him in assorted hats and scarves when his slumber proved deep enough that he failed to shoo their antics away. 
His name was Elijah, and of all the guests Millie welcomed to The Squirrel Tree Inn, he was by far her favorite. 
Not that the inn had many visitors of late. Millie shooed her grandchildren away from the old toad’s shadow and tilted her furry gray head to one side. They’d put her bonnet on him, tied haphazardly below the wide chin and barely covering a single wart on the top of his massive head. It perched there, a straw and dried flower protrusion between his huge, bulging, blissfully closed eyes. 
“Now how am I supposed to get that off?” Millie’s fluffy tail twitched in irritation and a chorus of tittering giggles echoed from behind one of the oak tree’s massive roots. 
Elijah had chosen the yard for his seasons-long nap, and he’d nestled in between the roots where the children played. He could hardly find fault if they’d adopted him as part of the furniture there, as entertaining as the see-saw or the rickety swing that hung from the overhead branch that was the inn’s first floor. 
Bathrooms. Bathrooms that needed to be cleaned. Floors that needed to be swept and a whole day’s work ahead of her once she sorted out how to de-hat the snoozing toad. 
Millie and her late husband had run the inn since before their children were born. They’d kept the place impeccable, and she meant for that tradition to continue, even if the rooms were usually empty now. It felt wrong to do anything less. 
“Just a little more business,” she whispered. “A few paying guests, is that too much to ask?” 
Popping onto the tips of her rear paws, she reached for the satin ribbon and snagged the very end with a single claw. Gently, every so carefully, Millie tugged at the half bow the twins had somehow managed to tie without disturbing Elijah’s rest. She held her breath, held her tail still, and felt the ribbon slide. 
The hat shifted to the right, knocking against a bulbous eye that was suddenly quite open. 
“Oh.” Millie let go and fell back on her tail. 
The toad blinked, his eyes sinking briefly into the recesses of his head before popping back up, both open now. 
“Elijah,” Millie stammered, watching the hat tumble down the bumpy back. It landed in the root’s shadow, spawning another round of giggling from the twins. “I’m so sorry, sir. The little ones. I can imagine how they’ve been, and with their parents working so hard to help with inn and no real companions their age…” 
She paused when she ran out of air, blinking, nearly  bursting into tears just at the thought of it. No families staying in the inn. No children standing in line for their turn on the big swing. Once The Squirrel Tree had been a constant bustle of activity. It had worked for them together. 
On her own, she was making a mess of it. 
“If only Trevor hadn’t…. If I knew half of what… It’s all fallen to me.”
Elijah’s eyes closed again. They sank lower so that they might have been only twin warts, only slightly larger than the rest. Millie flicked her tail and watched him settle in again, wondering how long he’d stay. If the inn crumbled around her, if she lost everything that they had built here, would the solitary toad still sit, years later, among the ruin she’d made of her life?
“It’s hopeless.” She whispered it, confessed to the silent toad what her heart feared most of all. She couldn’t do it. Even with her sons’ help. She was failing. The inn was failing. All that was left of Trevor would be gone soon. “I can’t do it.”
The twins bolted, springing across the yard and leaping the see-saw. They raced for the tree trunk, for the inn’s door and the huge, hollowed-out rooms inside it. Millie watched them, red and gray, two streaks of fur and energy. What would they do, if the Squirrel Tree closed? Would her boys go their own ways? Who would she have then, when it all ended?
“Help is coming.”  
The toad’s voice was a branch cracking, the slow snapping of thin ice, the scratch of claws against hardwood. When Millie turned around again, both eyes regarded her as impassively as ever. The wide mouth, however, was open just enough to display a fat pink tongue. It rolled back and forth inside that massive maw as if searching, tasting for the next word.
“Elijah?” Her fur stood on end. Another breeze swirled through the yard, this time cold as ice, carrying the first reminder that autumn would end soon. 
“Soon,” he said. A noise like mud bubbling came after, and the old toad tilted his head to one side, spat out a lump of something slimy before continuing. “Help will come, but you must see it for what it is. You must see past…” 
He fell silent again. As she watched, one eye slid shut, sank slowly into the toad’s head. The other lid drooped, and Millie’s patience evaporated. His words had stirred both a light and a terror inside her. Her body leaned toward the toad, bending of its own accord.
He started, jerked in a full-body twitch and opened both eyes wide and high again. Her face was close to his lips, close enough for him to open up and swallow her whole had he wanted to.  Millie saw the yellow streaks in his watery eyes, and she smelled whatever muck he’d coughed up on the ground between them. 
“Danger.” The huge toad whispered it, and Millie went stone still. He shuddered, parted his lips one last time, and then clamped them shut again. 
His eyes sank back into his head. His breath stilled so that he might have been a carved figure, as silent and lifeless as the roots that heaved from the earth around them. Millie shivered and straightened. It might be days or months before he spoke again. The breeze lifted her errant hat, and she jumped to one side and chased it, snatching the ribbon firmly this time and reeling it in like a kite. 
Her tail flipped back and forth, and her thoughts clouded like the sky above, far beyond the tangle of branches that was her oak tree, her inn, her family’s home. Danger, he’d said, but also help. One was more than welcome and the other… the other set her tail flipping again. Her paws tightened on the ribbon, claws poking neat pinholes in the satin while she ground her front teeth together. 
She had enough on her plate already, more than one widowed squirrel and her family could manage on their own. She didn’t have time for danger, and if it came knocking at her inn’s door, she’d just have to send it packing.

Episode Two: Hector's Plight

Hector pulled the blanket around his body and leaned into the wind. His fur rippled, silver across his shoulders and back but fading to a pale ivory along his belly. He limped along the dark roadway, stumbling when a loose stone rolled beneath his paws. His bald tail whipped back and forth above the roadway. He staggered, used one arm to keep his balance and lost the edge of his blanket in the process. 
The wind bit with a cold that said winter was too near. He floundered, grasping for the blanket and wincing, scrunching up his pointed muzzle when the wound in his side reopened. Damn. It would bleed again, had only scabbed over during his long walk away from Sunnydown.  
Away from the life he meant to forget as soon as possible. 
His claws hooked the flapping flannel, and he dragged it around himself again. Not for warmth so much as camouflage. The big owl had eyes everywhere. If one of the boys spotted him this far from town, they’d be on him fast enough. They’d drag him back, wounded or not, and they’d have more than a few questions he didn’t care to answer. Couldn’t answer and still get away with his skin intact. 
They’d want to know where the money had gone. They’d want to know about the only thing he’d done in the last ten years that he didn’t regret. 
Hector hunched against the wind and dragged his feet forward. His side burned where the knife had found its mark, and he could feel the first trickle of blood from the newly opened cut. He’d leave a trail like this, far too easy to follow. The scent-covering powder he’d bought with the last of his coin wouldn’t help him if his blood dripped into the roadway. 
He reached around and pressed the blanket tight against his side. Pain flared. His paw came away damp, but the fabric would soak up most of the blood. It wasn’t running now like it had been. It wasn’t going to kill him any time soon. So long as he got far away from Sunnydown as fast as possible. So long as he found a place to lay low until the big owl forgot he’d ever had a possum named Hector in his employ. 
The sky darkened overhead. Even though the oaks’ branches twined together over the road. There’d been light only moments ago, bright patches of sky visible between the bare twigs. Their leaves adorned the sides of the roadway, piled into high drifts that stood taller than his head. Beyond these, the trunks made a shadowy wall. Whatever weather approached had turned the forest into an unfriendly quilt of black and gray. 
Hector needed shelter, if those skies could be believed. If the wind’s teeth meant what he suspected, then he’d run out of time long before he reached Brambleward. He eyed the trees to either side, scanning for a path or a sign of habitation. Even a hollow root would do, a twist of old bark where he could slink inside and wait out the coming storm. 
What he found instead was something out of a dream. 
Ahead perhaps twenty paces, lights had begun to twinkle. Hector blinked rapidly, certain the spirits of the wood had come to lead him astray. He kept walking, partly because he deserved such a death and partly because he didn’t believe in spirits. He reminded himself of that with each step. 
I don’t believe. I don’t believe in you.
When the lights clarified into windows, his mind stopped chanting. A massive oak, older than any he’d passed since leaving Sunnydown, grew four paces back from the leafy berm. It’s roots bucked and twisted, infringing on the way enough that someone had widened the road in response, making a sort of pullout for larger carts and animals to navigate around the tree’s appendage. 
The oak’s bark was thick and rutted, like the skin of some ancient desert animal. It stood taller than the trees around it, and judging from the windows, the lights, and the blinking sign hanging high above the road, it was well inhabited. 
He read the letters, staggering to the side of the road and craning his head back. Inn, it said. Here in the depth of the Oakthorn, he’d found an inn. Hector chuckled and stopped walking. He looked up, up into the far boughs. What an inn it was, too. Even in the dim light he could see the massive limbs stretching to all sides, the wings, so to speak, dotted with windows that were mostly dark. Black patches against the bark. 
Vacancies. Rooms to rent to the weary traveler. Everything he could hope for lay inside those rough walls, but without a coin to his name, it might as well have been a mirage. He barked a sharp laugh, a sound as vile as his past, as gruesome as the jobs he meant to leave behind him in Sunnydown. He’d meant to start over, to do things right. 
The wind mocked him, jabbing and tugging at the blanket. “Fool,” it whistled. “You can’t run from your own self.”
Hector winced again, reached for his side, and brought his paw back red and slick. He’d never make it to Brambleward. Not with a storm and not with the open wound. He stared up at the inn’s sign and felt the certainty sink through his dense fur, sink into his bones and burrow there like a parasite.
He was what he was. Thief. Thug. Liar. One of those would buy him shelter tonight. Already, his brain pieced together the story he might tell. He limped a step, dragging his rear paws, and in a moment of daring, letting the blanket loose. 
The wind snatched it, lifted it like a magic carpet, like a flag or a shroud. The flannel rolled and twisted, raised higher and higher until the night swallowed it. Hector heard it flapping a moment longer. Heard the howl of the storm landing and, just below that, the soft mutter of voices inside a warm room. 
He sighed. Hunching forward, he let his tail drag, let his body slump and his wound bleed freely. His claws found the thin scab. He braced himself, closed his eyes, and ripped the thing free. With a groan, he clapped his paw over the cut, squeezing until the blood oozed between his fingers. 
His head danced for real then. He swayed, fearing for a second that his ruse would prove too effective, that he’d fall in the road where the odds of being discovered were much less. He breathed. He closed his eyes and gnashed his teeth. The dizzy spell faded. 
Hector made for a gap in the leaf piles, wove his way like a drunk toward the narrow, well kept path. He smiled briefly, but by the time the circle of light touched off the silver in his pelt, he slunk, dragging himself forward as if death were riding on his tail. 

Episode Three: The Soup is Ruined

Millie’s daughter-in-law was an angel. When Jeremy brought home the diminutive red squirrel, she’d questioned how so delicate an animal could thrive alongside her robust son. Patricia surprised her. Raised in a nest with six rowdy siblings, the girl could probably hold her own against a nest of adders. Millie would have bet against her son if the two youngsters ever found themselves at odds. Which was unthinkable, of course. Jeremy adored his little bride. 
When the boys stood in for their father, taking on the lion’s share of the work at the Squirrel Tree Inn, Patricia assigned herself to maid duty, to laundry, errands, and helping Millie serve when the dining room at the top of the massive oak tree was busy enough to require more paws. 
Lately, of course, that was almost never. 
There was still plenty to be done around the inn, and without Patricia’s help, Millie might have given up on the whole thing after Trevor’s death.
When she stepped inside, clutching her battered bonnet by the ends of its silk ribbons, little Patricia stood in the lobby, arms extended, with one of her children dangling from each paw. She’d caught the twins by their scruffs, and from the look on their faces, they’d already been thoroughly scolded. 
“What have they done this time?” Their mother asked. “I caught them racing for their den as if the devil had their tails.”
“No, just me,” Millie smiled and shook her head. “And nothing terrible. They’ve been decorating poor Elijah again.”
“Oh no.” Patty’s eyes darkened. 
Before she could start in on the twins, Millie waved her paws, waved the bonnet like a white flag. “It’s fine, really. The poor thing barely noticed. Sometimes I think… I wonder if…”
She’d meant to get the kids out of the heat, but her mind went back to the toad’s odd warning, to the conflicting proclamation of both assistance and danger. 
“They can stay in their rooms this evening,” Patty announced. “Maybe supper alone will take some of the mischief from them.”
Millie doubted anything could do that, nor would she want it to. But she knew the twins preferred to eat alone, safe from any lectures about their table manners. So she nodded sagely for their mother’s sake and flashed them a covert wink when Patricia looked away.  
They both stuffed their paws over their muzzles and managed to look contrite as they were set down and shooed off to their room. Their bushy tails twitched as they departed in a way that suggested they already worked on their next plot. 
“What will I do with them?” Patty sighed. A smile that was both blissful and unconscious passed over her muzzle and she looked, once again, like the angel she was. 
“Love them,” Millie said. “What else is there?”
They both laughed, but the sound drowned in the clunking steps descending the spiral stair. It wound up and down the oak’s trunk, and Millie’s eldest appeared in the stairwell beside the front desk. 
Jeremy paused at the sight of his wife and his mother. He held a mop over one shoulder, a bucket in his free paw, and his fur was damp from his rear paws to his knees. 
“Another leak?” Millie felt like sitting down, like running away. 
“Only a small one,” Jeremy said. “And it’s all fixed. Thankfully, Jacob found it on his way out.”
“Oh good,” Millie sighed and then suffered a bolt of panic. “What do you mean on his way out?”
Jeremy paled, the skin around his nose turning ghost white beneath his silver-gray fur. His tail fell, laying sad and limp on the stairs behind him. 
“Where was he going?” Millie’s chest tightened. She counted the minutes until dinner service and she smelled, suddenly, the distinct aroma of something burning. 
“I-” Jeremy looked at his wife, who already scooted toward the stairwell. “He said something about the leaves.” 
“I’ll get him.” Patricia paused only long enough to hop on her tiptoes and plant a brief kiss near her husband’s ear. Then she scurried up the stairs, faster than any of them and the most likely to retrieve their errant cook before the guests arrived for dinner. 
Jeremy stared after her, deflated and sagging. 
“Help her,” Millie said. “I’ll check the kitchen.” 
She bounded past him, certain it would take a few moments for the order to sink in. Moments she didn’t have to spare. If her nose was right, the hazelnuts for the evening’s soup were currently about six minutes past done. 
 Millie fled down the last arm of the spiral, the twelve stairs leading to the inn’s underground level where the storage room and kitchen nestled between twisting roots. As she ran, the scent of burning hazelnut thickened. At the bottom she turned right, bursting into the kitchen with her heart pounding in her ears. 
The main oven smoked faintly around the door, a pot simmered on one of the burners, and bowls of ingredients adorned the counter top like festive decorations. There was no order to the way her youngest son ran his kitchen, no sense to it, and absolutely no discipline.
Millie lunged for an oven mitt. She stumbled and nearly tripped over a fluffy ringed tail. The potholders snagged on her reaching claw, tumbling to the kitchen tiles where a familiar raccoon curled into a pose of deepest slumber. 
He was drunk again, but then, Roger was always drunk. 
She stepped over him, stuffed her paws into the only mitt still waiting on its hook, and danced sideways to the oven. The tray of hazelnuts emerged in a cloud of smoke, and Millie set them on top of the oven and glared at them. 
Trevor would have cut off his own tail before he served something that crisp, but as she eyed the mess her youngest had made of dinner prep, Millie already calculated how many she could save, if it would be enough to finish the soup, and how many of the remaining guests would call the front desk to complain about the food later. 
Her paws trembled. She stuffed them into her apron pockets and closed her eyes against the press of frustrated tears. Trevor would roll over in his grave if he saw the mess she’d made of things. 
“Hey, you got em.” Jacob bounced through the door and leaped over the sleeping raccoon. She heard his steps, didn’t need to open her eyes to know he was grinning, dancing through his evening without a care in the world. “Thanks, mom. They look great.”
“They’re burnt.” 
A spoon scraped as he stirred his soup. Did he mean to just dump the ruined nuts in and pray no one noticed? 
“They’ll be fine. Look.” 
Despite herself, Millie peeked. Her youngest leaned in beside her, smiling and as bright as the polished ladles hanging on the wall. He was sterling from tip to toes, beautiful and bold and about as responsible as a leaf on the wind. When he saw her watching, he plucked one of the nuts from the sheet and popped it into his mouth. 
“Where were you?” 
“Just nipped out for some fresh air,” he said. “The storm is gorgeous from the top of the tree.”
Millie tightened her paws into fists. Her claws bit into her pads and she breathed through her mouth, panting softly, feeling the urge to scream or bolt, to leave them all here to do this without her. She was losing it, and she loved them all too much to let them see it. Instead, she focused on an easier target.
“What is Roger doing in the kitchen?”
“Too drunk to make it up the stairs.” Jacob grabbed a spatula and began selecting the least charred nuts, dropping them one by one into his pot. “Must have started somewhere else tonight.”
“I haven’t seen him in a few days.” Millie turned away from the tragic soup making and focused on her most regular regular. She sighed, and then she reached for an apron and draped it over the sleeping animal. “Must have had it hard, don’t you think?”
What would drive a sensible man to a life of semi-consciousness? For a breath, Millie imagined it, considered the freedom of senselessness and the luxury of just blacking out when things became overwhelming. 
She bent over, tucking the fabric around as much of Roger as possible. 
“Who knows?” Jacob said. “I’ve never seen him sober enough to ask.”
Her anger ebbed. Jacob had never asked for this life, had never wanted to cook in his father’s inn. He deserved to be free even more than she did, and she knew he longed for it, dreamed of a life where he could do whatever he pleased. 
He was young still, and he was wasting himself here. She opened her mouth to apologize, to promise for the hundredth time that this was temporary, that she’d find a full-time chef soon, even if neither one of them believed it anymore. She started to speak, but before a single syllable emerged, someone above them shrieked. 
There was a pause like a held breath, a moment when the whole inn froze and listened, and then the screaming began in earnest and everyone moved at once. 

Episode Four: Teresa's Discovery

The skunk screamed, muzzle stretched into a wide gap and pink tongue curling around the single, terrified syllable. 
Hector moaned, let his lashes flutter and peeked just enough to be sure she had no weapon, that he wasn’t about to be beaten or stabbed… again. 
He’d chosen the walkway as his best chance of discovery and collapsed artfully across the stones only three steps from the inn door. The skunk broad hadn’t even noticed him until she’d trod right on top of his tail, pinching enough to make him groan and dragging her attention downward. She’d been lost in frantic conversation with herself before that, and Hector had cataloged her words in case they were of use later. 
“Mustn’t let my mouth run wild. Have to be sensitive. Poor Millie.” 
He recorded the data and let out another agonized groan. 
From the tree at the end of the walk, a thundering of steps answered the skunk’s wailing. A door thumped, banged and thumped again. Hector felt a maddeningly faint flutter of warm air. He smelled the heat, the animals approaching, and behind that, the biter aroma of something overcooked. 
Sinfully burnt.
“Teresa?” A lilting, feminine voice reached him next. It was both gentle and aggravated, strong as oak and as soft as a touch of satin. “Oh dear.” 
Hector shifted as if the effort would be the end of him. He let his eyes flutter long enough to catch the blur of gathered faces. Squirrels mostly. A whole spectrum of huge-eyed, egg-shaped furry heads. A dancing panorama of flicking, bushy tails. 
“He’s wounded.” A gruffer voice announced this, one that rumbled with dark suspicion. “There’s blood on the leaves.”
The skunk had ceased screaming. Hector caught the flash of her black and white tail and cringed. More than once, he’d tangled with her kind in a back alley. When it came to skunks, even when you won, you lost. 
“Who is he?” When not screaming, the skunk broad’s voice had a purring vibrato to it. 
“Trouble,” the first guy said. He’d be tricky, Hector figured. If he managed to get in the front door, this one would be his biggest challenge. 
“Well we can’t leave him out here to bleed or freeze.” The first lady, the one who trilled when she spoke declared his salvation. “I suppose we’ll need to bring him in.” 
“Is it safe to move him?” Another voice, one that might have been male or female. 
“Better than not,” Skunky purred. “No other sensible choice, Dear Millie. Tragic, how everything falls to you.”
“Not everything.” The squirrel woman’s trill vanished. 
Hector would have sworn she was irritated, ready to bite the patronizing skunk. He considered doing it for her when the same paw that had crushed his tail shifted, pulling a hank of his silvery pelt with it. 
He winced for real this time, curled against the pain and felt the slice from his side in earnest. That’s right, he was wounded. Had he wrapped so much lie around the moment that he’d forgotten he really had a need, that it was his real blood darkening the leaves where he’d set his scene?
“Hello?” The skunk leaned far over him, bringing the faded musk with her, the scent that was merely a warning of what might be should he make a wrong move. She practically yelled in his face, as if her were deaf as well as bloody. “We’re going to move you inside.”
Hector answered her with a grunt and a squint that brought her into sharp focus. Pinched face, scrunched muzzle, and a roundness that said she’d never spent a day hungry in her life. He’d have stolen her purse only a day earlier. It dangled inches from his clenching paw.
For the second time in the last twenty-four hours, shame filled him. It was a new feeling, one that set a prickle beneath his pelt and made him itchy. 
“Jacob,” the squirrel he deduced was Millie called out. “Help your brother with him.”
Paws shuffled. The leaves answered with a crackling song. When a warm arm slid beneath his shoulders, Hector realized just how cold he’d gotten, how swiftly the wind and the ground had numbed him. Perhaps, he really was in danger out here, freezing while his conscience experienced a second birth. While the deeds of his past caught up with him, and a new furor to be different seized him by the bones. 
But it was something far more solid that held him now. Arms beneath his shoulders. Firm hands around his legs. He felt the press of warm bodies as he was carried, jerking forward and then back as his bearers fought for a rhythm. 
These were a different sort of animal, something he had no experience with and therefore couldn’t accurately judge. Even the bitter skunk showed a kind edge as they shuffled forward. She lay a velvety paw against Hector’s shoulder and purred. 
“Just a little farther.”
He was out of his league, and even though it had been his idea, Hector panicked. Even though his plan was working exactly as he’d wanted it to, he felt a rising terror, the sense that it was he and not these forest bumpkins who stumbled now. As if he were about to step in a trap, as if the jaws were closing tight around him. 
He dared a peek, eyes widening as they passed through the door in the tree. Golden light spilled from the entrance. It made a halo, turned the animals around him into shadows. Before Hector could breathe, before he could give in to the sudden urge to struggle, they’d carried him inside. 
Heat fell over him like a pile of blankets. From somewhere above, laughter tittered, echoing and bouncing around the inside of the tree. The aroma he’d only barely sensed outside filled his head, making his thoughts swirl. 
Hector blinked, stared up into a ring of smiling faces, and cringed. 
“I think.” He mumbled, cleared his throat and tried again. “I think someone has burned dinner.”


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