(Continued from Ruby and Wolf Parts 2 and 1, which can both be read below)
Through the forest we went and my basket felt heavier with every other step. My cape started to become tight around my neck, almost like it was trying to pull me back. I’m not sure how long we walked for and it seemed to me that we had become utterly lost among the pine trees, thickets and undergrowth. Wolf walked his path with easy on almost silent paws. I lumbered behind, battling against scratching branches and tangles of roots.
Wolf’s tail disappeared ahead of me as the basket slipped from my arm. Luckily, I caught it before it hit the ground, though the wicker cracked loudly and items rattled inside. Having set the basket down, I opened it and inspected the contents in the fading light. Nothing had broken, though a few items had come displaced. Sitting down, I started to rearrange them and realised how hungry and tried I was.
I pulled out the quarter eaten gingerbread man from before and finished him off in a two bites. I selected another one and munched on it whilst searching through the basket. With all the other things from before, there were also packets of dried meats, dried fruits and right at the bottom was a bottle of cream. Easing this out, I went to pop the metal clasp lid when a wave of guilt hit me.
I shouldn’t have been here right now in the middle for the forest eating and drinking from grandma’s food basket. I bite my lip and felt tears sting my eyes as thoughts I’d pushed aside came back to me. The whole reason why I’d had to go and get this basket from my grandparents was because Pa was sick and Ma was caring for him. I had been looking after my two younger sisters and three younger brothers for the last few days. Ma had gone to see grandma yesterday and come back with some food and medicine. She had asked me to come and get the other basket this afternoon.
I wiped the tears away and took a deep breath. I popped the lid and took a swig of cream. I swallowed and wonder if it was actually a good idea to drink this. Shrugging, I drink another mouthful then finished the gingerbread. Putting the lid back on, I went through everything again and wondered what else I could eat.
The trees and bushes whispered in the breeze. I looked up and saw Wolf padding back to me. His tongue was hanging out with droplets of drool falling. His fur bristled and has he came close, I unthinkably pulled out the small twigs and pine needles that had become attached to him. He sat down and seemed unbothered by my touching him.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asked, instead.
‘I’m hungry and tried,’ I explained.
He whined and looked about.
‘Here,’ I said and tugged out the dried meat. Unwrapping it, I offered him a slice. He sniffed then gently grabbed the edge and took it from me. I watched him eating and casting his eyes around again. Something was making him edgy, but I was too afraid to ask what it was. I offered him another slice which he took.
‘Is it much further?’ I asked in a low voice.
He shook his head.
I put the meat and cream back in the basket, ‘we should go then. It’s almost dark.’
He licked his lips, ‘thank you.’
I stood up, collected the basket and nodded for him to lead on. This time we went slower and had to force our way through the close net bushes and trees. The night time forest came to life on all sides us with owls hooting, foxes calling, insects humming and night birds squawking. I shivered and pulled my hood up, feeling oddly protected by it.
The natural light had all but vanished when I stumbled on a tree root and found myself in a small clearing. Catching my breath, I looked up to see the flickering of a candle in the window of a small cabin. Smoke was rising from the roof and the door was ajar. Wolf had gone over and was pushing it with his muzzle.
‘Shouldn’t we knock?’ I whispered.
Wolf’s ears flicked back, so I knew he’d heard me, ‘How can I do that?’ he growled.
‘Sorry,’ I muttered and rapped my knuckles on the door as he shoved it open and squeezed into the gap.
‘Come in,’ he called.
Nervously, I opened the door wider and stepped inside. The cabin was a single room, with a curtained bedroom area in the right corner and a back door in the left. A small fire place sat in the middle, with a welcoming fire filling the room with light and heat. Before which was a hand carved wooded large chair, footstool and side table. A bigger table and two other chairs where directly to my left and above them, hung from the ceiling where drying herbs and a pair of dead rabbits.
‘Who lives here?’ I asked.
Wolf had gone to the back door and was sniffing the crudely cut wooden frame.
‘A hermit,’ he replied.
Before I could ask anything else, the back door opened and an old man shuffled inside. He was grumbling quietly to himself and looking down at the floor. He had long flowing white hair and a beard, both of which seemed to cover him completely up. I could just make out the dark blue robe he was wearing underneath.
Wolf touched his creased hand and the man paused.
‘Hello,’ he said and patted Wolf.
‘Look,’ said Wolf and cocked his head towards me, ‘this is forest-child, Ruby. She’s come to help us.’
The old man turned me to and looked at me closely with his bright blue eyes. His brown face looked like a rotting nut, it was covered in folded wrinkles which hide his features. His pale dry lips seemed to curl into a grin. I wasn’t sure about him.
‘Welcome. Please,’ he said coming towards me. He took the basket easily from my hands and placed it on the table, ‘you must be tried. Sit, sit by the fire. Would you like something to eat? I’ve rabbit stew, freshly made. Do you want some water too?’
‘Yes, please,’ I gushed and all but collapsed in the large chair.
(To Be Continued.)