Dalena struck her stick back and forth across the tree, refusing to admit that she was lost. She was hoping that somebody from the village would hear, but she had already shouted herself hoarse and nobody had appeared. At least it reassured her that there weren’t any bandits in the woods.
The town was supposed to be west from where she was, that was the way the light seemed to be shining from, but she’d been walking that way for forever and the town was nowhere in sight. She couldn’t hear the town either; usually when she snuck away from mother to play in the woods she could still hear the horses and dogs and merchants and other children.
Instead all she heard were the birds, and her stick thwacking against the tree. She grew frustrated and struck the stick against the tree hard enough to break it. Dalena sat down amongst the nettles and moss of the forest floor and bit her lip. She wouldn’t cry, she wouldn’t. Adventurers didn’t cry.
Dalena could hear her mother’s voice in her head: ‘don’t you’s dare go sneakin’ off into those woods again, Dalena. Real adventurers run off and die and leave mouths like yours to be fed. Go off into those woods and you’s will get snatched up by the fairies. They steal children like you a’cause they can’t have they own. You run off again when you’s supposed to be helpin’ me bake bread and you’s will get the switch again.’
Dalena knew for certain that she would get the switch if she ever found her way home...and then stupid Cerny and Lubor would make fun of her for getting lost. She looked off into the woods, the way she had come, and wondered if she could survive in the forest. She knew how to make a fire; all you needed was some twigs. She could catch birds and mice and rabbits, she supposed. All she had to do was throw rocks at them or make a trap.
Except she didn’t know how to make traps, and she didn’t have a knife. Dalena found herself thinking of her father. He would have known what to do. Why hadn’t he taken her with him when he left? They could have had adventures together. Mother said that he’d left Dalena behind because he was too busy having adventures with other women, but Dalena supposed that would be fine. They would probably be nicer to her than mother, at any rate.
Dalena noticed that the light was taking on an orange glow. She sighed and stood up, determined to ignore the hollow feeling in her stomach. A smart adventurer would have brought food with them, she scolded herself silently. Dalena tried to find a way up so she could take a look around. The forest canopy was still too thick for her to see the sun. Eventually Dalena came to a place where the ground sloped sharply up and she climbed. At the crest of the hill, the sun was still hidden, but there was a great big gnarled black tree that looked climbable.
In the upper branches, Dalena could see the forest for miles around. If not for the hills and valleys, the area that she could see would have been just an endless sea of green. Dalena had never seen the sea before. As she studied the position of the sun, tears came unbidden to her eyes. She had been going the wrong way the whole time. No matter which was she looked from her perch in the tree, she couldn’t see the village, or even a recognizable landmark.
There was no more denying that she was lost. Dalena began to wonder instead if she would even survive. Her mother and the stupid butcher’s sons had been right; she knew nothing about adventuring. She was just a foolish little girl who had wandered too far into the forest. The town crier would probably announce that she’d been eaten by wolves.
As if on cue, Dalena heard a howl that seemed to come from everywhere at once. She shivered and hugged the branch. If she stayed in the tree, nothing could get at her, except maybe a bear.
Or a fairy-creature. They could just fly up to the branches and snatch her away to feed their dark gods or make her dance for them until she perished from exhaustion. She had no bread to appease them. Stupid baker’s daughter, she told herself, not even bringing bread for the fairies. She didn’t have a weapon to fight off the wolves, either.
Dalena watched as the sun began to creep down behind a hill. It basked the forest in a glow that seemed almost peaceful. Up in the tree, none of it seemed so threatening, but Dalena knew better. Underneath the trees were dangers that could kill a man, not to say anything of unprepared little girls.
She wondered what her father would have done. First of all, he would have brought the proper equipment with him. Well, there was nothing that Dalena could do about that, but she knew at least how to build a fire. She didn’t have a tinderbox, but she had time before the sun went down, and the fire would keep the dangerous animals away, at least that’s what the men in the tavern would always say when they talked about hunting.
The branches of the tree were mostly quite dry, so Dalena began to collect them as she made her way back down to the base of the trunk. Her stomach complained at her again, but she ignored it. It would get cold in the forest at night, even in the summer, and she knew that staying warm was more important than eating, especially when she hadn’t even thought to bring a blanket or jacket. How had she been so stupid? She hadn’t planned on getting lost, that’s what it was, but it was still pretty dumb to go out into the woods without bringing so much as a knife.
She hoped that she would live long enough to regret getting lost.
It was twilight by the time she got the fire lit, and the wolves were howling. She hadn’t been able to find any stones for a ring so she’d dug a pit with her hands and laid some twigs and dried leaves in the bottom. Then she’d taken two other twigs and rubbed them together until her arms were more sore than when she had to carry the big bread trays for mother. Even after it felt like she couldn’t possibly rub them any longer she had to keep going until finally a spark caught. She hadn’t been able to find a lot of firewood so she knew to keep the fire small or it wouldn’t last.
She couldn’t fall asleep though. The wolves wouldn’t stop howling at each other, and she kept thinking she was seeing things even though it was too dark beyond the fire to see much of anything at all. Her stomach growled almost as loud as the wolves and she was shivering even despite the fire. Dalena had never felt so miserable; it was even worse than the time mother had beat her bloody for stealing one of the apple pies from the kitchen.
At some point her eyes snapped open. Dalena couldn’t remember falling asleep, but she must have because the fire was just embers. The wolves had stopped howling, and she could hear the crickets and frogs. She also thought she heard an owl somewhere far away.
Dalena grabbed a couple more small logs and placed them on the fire with some twigs, then blew on the embers like she did when she didn’t feel like pumping the oven bellows. After a moment, the fire leapt back to life.
When Dalena looked back up, there was a pair of eyes staring at her from across the flames.
She stared back, frozen in fear. The eyes were huge, bigger than any she’d ever seen, framed by a round face and wild red hair. She thought that it was a girl, but in the dim light it was hard to tell. She couldn’t even tell if it was an adult or a child.
“Don’t hurt me,” Dalena whispered.
“Lay’at, tah too?” The voice sounded feminine, but it didn’t sound like a little girl. Dalena had no idea what the woman had said but it sounded like a question. Dalena put up her hands slowly to show that she wasn’t a threat. She had never been so afraid. Even the wolves howling as she’d been trying to sleep was nothing compared to the strange woman with the child’s face and fiery hair staring at her. For a brief moment she wondered if she was looking at a fairy, but then she remembered that fairies were supposed to have wings.
Dalena realized that she’d been staring at the woman without saying a word.
“I don’t understand you. Are you a fairy?”
A flicker of recognition passed over the woman’s eyes at the word ‘fairy’. She shook her head.
“Triaum, tay’yim,” she said as she pointed at herself.
“Tree-aum,” Dalena said, though she couldn’t roll the ‘r’ properly. “My...my name is Dalena,” she said as she pointed at her own chest. “You’re not going to hurt me?”
The woman Dalena decided to think of as ‘Tree-aum’ brought her hands to the fire, which made Dalena flinch. When she realized that Tree-aum was just warming her hands, she relaxed a little.
“Where did you come from?” Dalena asked. “Do you live here in the forest?”
“Nee tuiheem, tay’yim,” she replied with a shrug. Dalena was starting to understand that they were not going to be able to communicate very easily. She studied Tree-aum for a moment as the woman rummaged in her satchel, which seemed to be made of some kind of canvas. Her clothing looked like some kind of woven grass, tight against her translucent skin, but she wore no shoes of any kind. In fact, Dalena didn’t see any leather upon the woman at all. She didn’t see a weapon either, but she didn’t doubt that a woman who knew the forest would have one somewhere. Dalena decided that she had nothing to fear from the woman. All that Tree-aum wanted was to share the fire.
Tree-aum brought some nuts and dried berries out of her satchel, and Dalena’s stomach rumbled loudly enough to wake the long-dead wights of the forest. Tree-aum gave Dalena a look that seemed like pity and held out her hand across the fire. Dalena inspected the contents of Tree-aum’s hand carefully: there were hazelnuts and walnuts, dried cranberries and some shrivelled pieces of apple. Dalena did not want to be greedy, but she found that even piece by piece, she was devouring the contents of Tree-aum’s palm rather quickly. Dalena had never tasted anything so delicious.
When Dalena had finished, Tree-aum opened her satchel and laid it in front of the two of them. It was filled with more of the same mixture of berries and nuts. Dalena dug in eagerly and Tree-aum ate more leisurely. For a moment there seemed to be no other sound than the two of them chewing, and the crackling of the fire.
The contents of the satchel were dwindling by the time Dalena’s belly was full, and the fire was getting low.
“Thank you,” she said, hoping that Tree-aum would get the impression of what she was trying to convey. “You probably saved my life.” Dalena looked for more wood to put on the fire, but it had all been used up, and she didn’t want to go wandering around in the dark, at least not by herself. Dalena pointed at the fire.
“Do you know where we can find more wood?”
Tree-aum pointed in the direction of the trees. Dalena shivered. It was so dark out there.
Tree-aum held out her empty hand to Dalena. With the other she gestured at the fire.
“Tah’geyn, too’teen,” Tree-aum muttered. Suddenly the flames were licking up Tree-aum’s hand, but she seemed completely unhurt. The flames coalesced into a ball atop Tree-aum’s palm and the fire in the pit had gone out. Dalena stared at Tree-aum’s hand.
Fairy or not, Tree-aum was some kind of magician. Dalena wondered what Cerny and Lubor would say if she told them, but she knew they would never believe it. She took Tree-aum’s hand, no longer afraid. The two of them strode into the darkness, using the fire in Tree-aum’s hand to illuminate the forest path.
Dalena hoped that they weren’t heading in the direction of her village.