The wolf was following. She was sure of that. How close she couldn’t tell, instead she concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, snow greedily swallowing each step. Somewhere there would be lights and warmth. That’s what she kept hoping. Promising her numb limbs. Repeating the words over and over, just trying to keep her lips warm with movement. A flicker, seen out of the corner of her eye. Pausing, breath laboured, she leant against a tree, eyes narrowed towards where she thought she had seen it. This wouldn’t be the first time tonight she had imagined something. The light held, blinking slightly as invisible branches brushed past it. Holding her breath she tried to sense the wolf. There may have been a soft panting? But it could also have been the snow brushing off branches in the wind. Forcing her fumbling body she turned and headed towards the light.
The man didn’t know what to make of it. After he carefully opened the door, gun cocked ready, he really didn’t expect a girl to fall through it. The fur lined coat told him she was wealthy and as he lifted her and carried her to the fire, she weighed less then a doe. As he carefully unwrapped the wet outer garments, her slim build and gentle curves stirred something inside him he thought had died a lifetime ago. She was dressed in forest green velvet, a gift from the forest he lived in. Fire warmed her slowly, spreading a brush of pink across her skin. He watched her and the fire, coaxing the woods cackle lullaby.
She woke. Body rigid, letting only her eyes and mind flit round trying to piece everything together. These weren’t her blankets, the scratching fabric was very unfamiliar. But there was a fire, so she was sheltered and warm. A rumbling snore meant she wasn’t alone. Turning her head carefully she found the source. Slumped in a chair, hair stuck to his scull, snaking round from behind his ears. The beard was the same colour, with flecks of white. The man was wearing layers of patched clothes chosen only for their practicality, not style, a piece of orange twine escaped at one side. It had been a long winter for him as well. Trying to move as quietly as possible, she ran her hands over her body to check what exactly had been removed. A sharp, heavy weight reassured her. Her knife at least was still there. Adjusting her position, she had a look around the room she was in, noting how the door was bolted closed and the gun was close to his hand.
He wasn’t sure what woke him and it took him a few moments to work out what was different. Everything was in it’s usual place. Only an empty blanket and pillow on the floor in front of the fire nagged at his sleepy head. The girl! He sat upright, checking where he’d hung her wet coat and boots. They were still there. A small puddle under them. He eased himself quietly out of the chair and circled towards the back of the tiny cottage and the doorway that lead to the store cupboard and bedroom. The slight scuffing told him she was in the cupboard. He paused to listen and make sure, then flung open the door.
When she had found his store cupboard the dusty outlines told her he was running on near to nothing. The flour that was left smelt strange and the few cuts of meat hanging still from the rafters had pock marks from where he’d picked at them. Jars weren’t labelled, but then hopefully he would know what was in there. There wasn’t too much she could make for them from this.
He found her standing staring at the hanging meat. She shrank back against the far wall. Dusty cobwebs attaching themselves to her dark hair. Teeth bared, there was nothing refined or gentile about the girl in the rich clothes. Glancing round he noticed she hadn’t actually touched anything.
She cursed herself for getting trapped. The only exit was past him and his whole body filled the sturdy wooden frame. There was a gun in his hand, although not actually pointed at her.
He put the gun away. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. Of course you must be hungry. I’ll fix us some food. Come sit by the fire.” He held out his hand, trying to coax the girl out. When she let out a faint hiss, he looked into her eyes. The wildness took his breath. Changing tack he backed slowly away, hands turned out, giving her room to leave the room. He’d had to do the same in the summer when he’d left the windows open and a dove had become trapped in the house.
Once it was safe she bolted from the larder and moved back to the main room. She sat near the fire but kept the front door between them.
He kept his movements slow and measured, pretending that he didn’t notice her watching his every move. He left approaching the fire for as long as he could, watching her wince as the metal pole carrying the pot clunked into place over the fire. She had shrunk back, but hadn’t moved further away and he took that to be a good sign.
The man had put together some kind of gruel. It was something he’d made often by the way he moved so confidently. She watched as he teased the fire, getting it to the right height for the pot. Now he was closer she could smell his scent. A musk mixed in with the fire and earth tones. He was very much a part of the landscape he lived in and that comforted her a little. But the tang of metal clung too, reminding her to still be on guard.
“Where have you come from?” he carefully picked up her finished dish, noticing that she’d pushed it a little way from her, giving herself space. She cocked her head on one side, lips moving, as she turned over the words he had given her.
“here” she whispered. The dustiness still in her words.
He frowned, thinking of all the people he knew in the area, true he hadn’t been into town since the last heavy fall of snow but that would stop anyone new moving in as well. Surely? She wasn’t dressed as a hunter or a farmer. Was there a new preacher? Maybe it was his daughter. Would someone be missing this girl?
She looked into his eyes, watching the thoughts flicker across them. The callused hand, red raw from the plunges into soil and cold, rubbed his matted beard. Outside was muted but she still thought she could hear the wolf. It’s breath on the window pane steaming it slightly.
“A woman used to live here. Maybe it’s time to try again.” He looked over to the second set of snowshoes leant against the chimney breast. Slightly smaller then his and a layer of dust on them. He’d buried her in her best clothes, but there was still her cloak and some of her working clothes. They would suit this new one better then the clothes she’d turned up in. More practical. And he was a patient man. He could wait a little while. Not forever. But she would understand that. He was a man. With needs.
“You are sad.” Her voice hung in the air. Amongst the dust specks dancing in the light.
He looked into her eyes. Watched as she walked towards him. Hesitatingly. They were still wild. Dark. Emotions were swirling through them and as he tried to place the thoughts behind the expression, he was only vaguely aware of her hand moving towards him. Reaching out to touch him. The sharp pain.
She looked down at the body. Her hand and knife covered in blood. She knew the look in his eyes. The hunger. She’d seen it before. Experienced it before. Her coat was still wet, but her boots would be ok, especially if she used the snowshoes. Then she found the cloak. Berry red and heavy, good quality wool. Pulling it round her, the weight and warmth felt comforting. Tucking some wrapped food into the hidden pockets she took a deep breath and headed out into the snow. She stopped on the edge of the cottage clearing, looking back and whispering her thanks to the stones for providing again. She pulled up the red hood and headed on her way.
Somewhere nearby the wolf paced, slightly pacified by the fresh kill.