Navigating her way across the forest floor in the pre-dawn grayness was tricky, especially as her lack of food began to tell. By the time the sun had risen her stomach was gripped with a painful hunger, the like of which she had never experienced before, and she felt so tired and weak that she had to sit down on a fallen log and lean against a tree to rest. The very high likelihood that she had many more versts to travel before she reached the road, that it might be all day, or even several days, of this, was such a miserable thought that she almost cried. Only the persistent attacks of the mosquitoes that were hovering around her made her get up off her perch and begin slogging grimly forward once more.
But by midmorning the hunger and the weakness were gone, replaced with a euphoric lightness that made her smile for no reason and burst into snatches of song as she strode along, stepping lightly over downed logs and branches, and stopping at every stream to take a handful of water. The nature of the forest changed, with dark, close-spaced spruces giving way to cheery, wide-spaced birches, with a springy carpet of moss underfoot. The thought of spending the rest of the day, or even several days, out here alone brought an even wider smile to her face, and even the whining of the mosquitoes was not enough to dim her mood.
She stopped around midday at a broad, swiftly-flowing stream and settled herself on a thick patch of moss at its bank. Her water-sense stretched out towards the cool liquid flowing past her, and she plunged her hands in, reveling in the sensation of it sliding past and through her fingers, before drinking greedily from it, tasting its faint earthiness and its delicious, clean water taste.
When it came time for her to carry on, she realized there was no way to cross the stream and remain dry. She considered taking off her boots and wading, but the bank where she was sitting was high and overhung, and the water looked to be above her knees, and even if she did make it across without mishap, she would have wet, muddy feet to contend with. She contemplated the situation for a moment, and then, without knowing why, although certain in her choice, she turned right and began walking upstream.
She had only gone a few dozen paces when she came to a double-trunked birch that had fallen over, forming a natural bridge across the stream. Dasha’s stomach twisted so hard at the sight that for a heartbeat she thought the water must have been bad, and that she was about to vomit. She clutched at a nearby tree to steady herself, and after a few deep breaths she realized the pangs were from hunger, which had returned with redoubled force.
It’s only hunger, Dasha told herself. It passed quick enough in the morning, and it will pass quick enough now. Just cross the stream, and keep going! She let go of the tree that was currently supporting her, and made her way unsteadily towards the natural bridge, her knees quaking beneath her as her feet sank into the deep moss.
The fallen trees were still fresh, not rotten at all, and, Dasha judged after bouncing on them lightly, not likely to break under her weight, even if they shook and moved under her with every shift of her body. She took two steps forward—and then had to throw herself off in a diving leap that only just took her onto the ground rather than into the water, as the tree bucked beneath her.
It’s not that hard! she told herself angrily, as she got back up from her hands and knees and checked for damage to her body or her clothing. Tumblers walk across thin little ropes all the time, and here you are falling off a tree trunk wider than your foot! If they can do it, so can you! Those words were more in the way of encouragement than actual truth, she knew, since tumblers trained for years to achieve their feats of balance and dexterity, but they did remind her of an important point, which was that tumblers walking on high ropes often held long poles in their hands as they did so. The first time Dasha had seen that, she had been very puzzled, convinced that it must make their task that much harder, but Boleslav Vlasiyevich had explained to her that no, the pole actually helped with balance, and had demonstrated to her, walking on a fence with and without a stick in his hands. He hadn’t let her climb up on the fence with him, no matter how much she had begged, but he had set up a narrow plank on the ground, and let her practice with that. Even staying on the plank, much lower and wider than the fencetop he had walked on, had been more difficult than Dasha had thought it would be, much to her chagrin, but holding a stick crosswise in both hands had allowed her to traverse its length without tumbling embarrassingly onto the ground. That memory, from at least ten years in the past, came back to her, as clear and as real as a vision, so that she could feel the stick in her hands, and the solidity it would give to her footsteps as she attempted to cross on the fallen tree.
She cast about her for a suitable stick. Movement caught her eye, and a tiny frog hopped away from her, leading her gaze to a branch lying on the ground. She went over and picked it up; it was thin and straight, and near as long as the span of both her arms, the perfect balancing pole.
“Thank you, little frog,” Dasha said. There was no reply, but she realized as she returned to the fallen tree that her head had cleared, and the hunger pains had gone.
Armed with her makeshift balancing pole, she stepped back up onto the natural bridge. The double bole meant, she discovered, that she could walk with one foot on each trunk, which meant she had to shift her weight frequently, as each trunk moved independently underneath her, but made her feel less like she was about to go tumbling off to the side.
Step by cautious step, pausing between each one, she made it halfway across the stream, and then had to pause and wait for the motion of the tree trunks to stop. She glanced down at the deep pool beneath her, and saw small fish flashing back and forth in the water. For a moment the sight distracted her and she thought she might fall in, but then the tree trunks, which had been shaking from her footsteps, stilled from her immobility, and she was able to look up and begin walking again.
One step from the far edge of the stream, the tree trunks, which had grown very thin, began to bend beneath her weight, threatening to spill her into the water, and she threw herself forward in a desperate leap, her foot tangling in the leaves and twigs of the tree’s crown. She slipped and stumbled, using her pole to catch herself and propel herself out of the tangle and onto solid ground.
A hissing came from the treetop. She looked down and saw a brown-and-yellow viper rear her head up and hiss at her in warning, her mouth gaping open in a wide grin.
“I’m sorry, little mother,” Dasha said to her, scrambling backwards. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to disturb you.” She tried to peer over from a place of safety and see if she had injured the snake or any of her young. She could see no sign of that, and after another hiss of warning, the viper slid back down into the leaves and disappeared.
Now that she was safely on the other side, undunked and unbitten, Dasha could see all the ways things could have gone wrong, and especially in the end, when she could have fallen into the water, she could have stepped on the snake and killed her, she could have been bitten, she could have been bitten and fallen into the water, where she would have drowned as the poison flooded through her system, incapacitating her, and those little fish she had been admiring would have eaten her flesh, and she would have been gone forever, or perhaps come back as a water-maiden like Vika, dragging others under the water to join her in her cold and watery fate…
Stop it! she ordered herself, dragging herself to her feet from where she was crouching by a tree. She looked around nervously several times, her feet crawling with the fear of stepping on a snake, before setting off again.
The crawling sensations abated as she continued to walk along, but the pains in her stomach intensified, and soon her head was swimming again, until the sounds of her footsteps seemed to fill up her ears. So it took her a while to realize that it was not just her footsteps she was hearing.
She froze. There was another footstep, and then silence. She took another step. There was another step, and then more silence, punctuated after a moment by a snuffling snort. A bolt of terror, so keen Dasha was surprised not to see blood welling out of the wound, pierced her chest. She wanted to sink down onto the ground, curl up like a hedgehog, scuttle away like a mouse, bolt like a deer, slither off into her hole like a snake, but her body felt enormous, so huge it must be visible from half a verst away, with her blood pulsing through her veins so loudly that surely every other creature in the forest could hear it.
After an agonizingly long pause, she looked up into the tree beside her. Could she climb up into it? But it was a spindly thing, with branches that only started above her head height, and that wouldn’t bear her weight anyway. Her eyes darted to the neighboring trees. All the same. There was no safety to be found that way.
That panicked thought was followed by the slightly less panicked thought that, while she hadn’t found a place of refuge in her desperate survey, she also hadn’t seen her invisible stalker. So it must be farther away than she had originally thought. Her heart thundering in her ears, and her eyes so alert that even the shade of the forest seemed painfully bright, she took a step forward. Her ears were ringing so much that she couldn’t have heard anyone walking even right beside her, but nothing launched itself out of the woods and pounced on her, so she took another step forward. Still nothing. Another step. Her heart quieted down enough for her to hear heavy steps off in the trees, to her right, accompanied by snuffling and snorting.
A wolf? she wondered, but then she remembered how silently Serenkaya had moved. A bear, then? She had never seen a wild bear. Occasionally tumbling troupes would bring tame ones with them as part of their act, and force the poor things to dance, shuffling sadly from foot to foot, iron rings through their noses. Dasha had always looked away, not understanding the pleasure that others seemed to take at this horrid spectacle. But she doubted the bear, if that’s what it was, here in the woods with her would care. Even if he knew what was in her heart, she hadn’t done anything to stop the cruelty to his kin, despite abhorring it. And she rather doubted that bears cared about such human considerations anyway.
Stay, or keep walking? she asked herself. Perhaps if she stood here long enough, the bear would go off on his own way and leave her alone, and she could continue her journey. Or perhaps he would come over and investigate her, or she would be stuck here all day, which meant all night as well. Her stomach twisted painfully, flooding her mouth with saliva. She took a step, and then another, and another. Her shadower continued to move parallel to her, just out of her sight, but made no move to molest her. She began walking more confidently. Her shadower picked up his pace as well, but came no closer.
This continued for at least, as best Dasha could judge the distance, another verst. The birches began to be interspersed with more and more firs, and then gave way to them entirely, as the light open forest through which she had been moving became dark and dense once again. This slowed her pace; she hoped that her follower would turn aside and return to the open woods, but the snuffling and the heavy footsteps continued, keeping pace with her just out of her sight, although she began to have the sense that they were drawing closer and closer. She turned to her left, off to the South, for several dozen paces, but the unseen stalker seemed to turn with her, so she turned back West again.
The sun was already below the treetops, and Dasha was beginning to think that she couldn’t take another step, when she stumbled out into a little clearing. She clutched at a tree for balance, disoriented by the sudden lack of barriers around her. The heavy footsteps off in the distance kept going, and they were not so far off in the distance now.
They’re coming right for me! Dasha thought. She backed up against the tree she was currently clutching, and tried to climb up into it, but its branches were both thin and closely set, and all she managed to do was scrape her hands and get covered with needles and sticky sap. There was a loud whuffling noise behind her. Slowly, her head and her feet moving as if belonging to separate bodies, she turned around.
A large round shaggy head was peering into the clearing, topped by small round ears that that were incongruously toy-like. Seeing Dasha’s gaze upon him, the rest of the bear came shambling into the clearing on all fours, and then stopped and sat back on his hind paws. His head rose well over two yards above the ground, taller than a tall man. His thick brown coat, along with his round head and ears, made him look almost comical and cuddly, but each of his claws was as long as Dasha’s hand.