(Continued from Ruby and Wolf Parts 3, 2 and 1, which can both be read below)
The stew was still warm and I ate it quickly. The hermit pottered around the cabin muttering to himself and ignoring me. Wolf after finishing a bowl of meat cut offs, curled by the fire and dozed off. I felt questions pressing inside my head, but I was too tried to voice any of them. When I had finished the hermit offered me his bed, which turned out to be very comfy as it was a proper bed made from a wooden frame and straw stuffed mattress. Furs had been piled high on top and once under them, I felt so warm and safe that I fall asleep straight away.
A cold, wet thing brought me round from a deep sleep. I moaned and pulled back the furs to see Wolf licking and nuzzling my hand. I stroked his head and ears till I came around then got up. Stretching, I glanced around and remembered all that had happened. I felt sad and guilty again, but that didn’t linger long and become replaced by an odd happy and freshness feeling from the sleep.
‘Morning,’ I said to Wolf.
‘Did you sleep well?’ he asked with a nod of his head.
‘Yes. Where’s the hermit?’
‘Out. He left just as the sun rose, gone to collect herbs, I guess. There’s some porridge on the fire. You can wash outside at the well.’
Wolf wondered off and left me to get dressed. Then I slipped out of the back door and stepped into what seemed to be a garden. No fence ran around it, but plants where growing in crooked rows and there was a crumbling well at the centre. I walked over and found a bucket of water already on the edge. I did what I had to do and went back inside. Wolf had been right about the porridge too. The fire had gone down, but was still warm and I helped myself to a few spoonfuls.
‘Do we wait for him?’ I asked, unsure. I knew very little about hermits, though I hadn’t thought they lived like this.
‘Of course,’ Wolf replied with a yawn, ‘he’ll probably give you something to help us and we must thank him for sheltering us.’
I nodded and sat down in the chair, ‘are you going to tell what’s going on?’
‘It’s still best seen.’
Puzzled, I ran my fingers through my hair, untangling it before plaiting it together. Wolf watched me, waiting for anything further I had to say. However, with him being so secretive it was difficult to talk to him.
‘My family are probably wondering where I am,’ I mused.
Wolf shrugged his shoulders, ‘You are safe enough. They know how the forest works and that no harm would come to you.’
‘When can I go home?’ I burst out suddenly.
‘Tonight or tomorrow, it all depends on how long it takes today. We should make good time though and it’s not much further really.’
‘I still don’t understand. Why me? What am I meant to do?’
‘Because you are a forest-child and you have to stop the threat,’ he replied solemnly.
‘I’m sixteen, almost not a child. And what threat?’
‘You are on the cusp and that’s what counts. The threat to life, everything we know, our world is going to be destroyed. You must stop it and help to protect us. You are special Ruby.’
I frowned, not seeing his point and only just understanding what he was saying. I shook my head and answered, ‘why? I don’t fully understand.’
Wolf went to answer as the door opened and the hermit shuffled in. He was weighed down by a sack and his hair was covered in twigs and leaves. I stood up and went over to him as he placed the sack down next to the table and opened it.
‘Morning,’ I said, ‘thank you for last night.’
‘You are welcome,’ he replied and turned back to the sack. He pulled out some leaves, stems and roots and put them on the table.
‘We need to leave,’ I said indicting at Wolf, who nodded.
‘Yes. Of course,’ the hermit replied, ‘I made something for you,’ he added and shuffled off again towards the fire this time.
I picked up my cape and put it on. My basket was still on the table and I peeked inside and saw that nothing had been disturbed.
I looked up and he was handing me a small pouch. It was made out of old sack and had a draw string neck. I took it from him and it felt light, almost empty.
‘What is it?’
‘A healing salve.’
Nodding, I slipped the draw string loop on to my wrist.
‘Good and now we must leave,’ Wolf said and trotted to the door.
‘What about my basket?’ Can I leave it here?’ I said, ‘it contains food my grandparents made. It’s too heavy to carry far.’
‘Of course you may. I shall look after it,’ the hermit answered.
‘Thank you. Goodbye.’
Wolf tugged at my cape and I followed him out, closing the door behind me. Morning dew still clung to the grass and fallen leaves. Perhaps it had frozen overnight and was now just thawed. Birds sung and flickered in the trees. The morning was crisp and bright. Wolf led the way, taking us around the side of the cabin and off into the forest once more.
It was easier to keep pace without the basket and after a good sleep. The forest also seemed less dense than before. We past a few tree stumps and piles of logs, as well as cut down plants. I guessed the hermit had been responsible for these. We came to a small stream and followed it down, after pausing for a drink. The water trickled over large stones and draping plants and roots.
We crossed it at which seemed to be an ancient stone bridge. The remains of the square stones where lying in the water covered in moss and weeds. At first glance they seemed natural, but when we crossed them I realised what they might once have been. Stepping off the last one, I found myself on an old path. Maybe it had once been the route of animals to the stream, which people had then also used before moving on. Nature had taken it back, but Wolf seemed to know the way.
For a couple of hours we walked this long forgotten path and just as I was about to ask to stop and rest, Wolf halted. I stopped behind him and looked around for somewhere to sit. Luckily, there was a tree stump half hidden in plants next to me and I readily sank down on top of it. Wolf sniffed the air, slightly turning to both sides, his ears were pricked, but then with a little growl, they pinned back and he dropped his head.
‘What is it?’ I whispered.
‘We are close. Come,’ he growled and slinked off.
‘I need a minute,’ I called after him.
Folding my dress and cape around me, I watched him melt into the tree trunks. I sighed and looked around. The forest was loud with life, yet peaceful at the same time. The wind moved through the tops of trees and I watched small birds darting around. The air smelt heavily of pine and damp soil. I took a deep breath and smelt something else too, just on the edge. Smoke? Burning wood?
Frowning, I stood up and went after Wolf. Really the forest had changed very little whilst we had been walking, but now I began to notice strange things. Grass and small bushes had been trampled down, there were large patches of mud, some of the other plants looked like they had been cut down. I ducked past a large tree and came to an abrupt stop. Wolf was ahead of me and before us was an empty landscape.
All the towering trees, I had become use to, were gone and only the lowest part of their trunks stuck up from the mud. All the plants had been ripped up and there were no animals. I forgot how to breathe, my eyes and mind couldn’t believe what I seeing. Wolf had been right. There was no way I would have believed him if he had told me about this. In the distant sky I could see a thin trail of smoke and hear a rumble that sounded like thunder.
I tried to speak, but couldn’t form the words.
Wolf continued to growl and snarl. I reached out and touched him gently. Tears collected in my eyes and rolled off my face.
‘Who did this?’ I whispered.
Wolf sat down and twisting his head, looked up at me, ‘The strange men did this. They have a shelter close by and large monsters they control. The forest does not understand them and they do not seem to understand the forest. The only thing we know is that they have killed all in their path and it does not satisfy their hunger. So they continue.’
‘What do they want?’
‘We do not know. That is why you are here. You must go and find out, then do whatever it is to stop this.’
I nodded. Taking a deep breath, I picked up the bottom of my dress and started walking though the dead land. My boot sank deeply in the mud and it took me awhile to find a good footing. Wolf stayed by my side, his legs also sinking into the mud and coming up covered black. We made little progress and soon I had to fasten up my dress and cape to keep them away from the mud and my hands free.
The rumbling had gotten louder and the smoke trail thicker as we got closer. Climbing on top of a stump, I looked around and saw nothing. All the forest had been swept away as far as my eyes could see. Wolf jumped up beside me. Turning back in the direction we were heading, I could see that the land sloped gently downwards. Perhaps, they had found a small valley to build shelter in and keep hidden from everyone?
Patting Wolf, I stepped onto the nearest stump and realised if I carried on, I might get there faster. Selecting another, I moved across again, got my balance and went to the next. Wolf whined, before jumping after me. We made better time and soon, I saw that I had guessed right. At the bottom of the slope the ground stretched out then started to rise again. Without all the trees it made it easy to see this. However, I still would have liked the forest here. In the valley, sat some strange green covered cabins and beside them were some yellow machines. I saw figures moving and my heart jumped.
‘Look, Mr Wolf,’ I cried and pointed.
He came beside me and growled.
‘Come on,’ I added and picked up my pace.
‘Be careful!’ he howled after me.
I moved across some more stumps then jumped down. With a sudden burst of energy, I ran down towards them. Wolf followed me, covering the muddy, torn up ground better now that he was running. I half slide down the slope and at the bottom paused to get my breath. Letting down my dress and cape, I smoothed them out and walked slowly over to the first figure I could see.
(To Be Continued.)