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.



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