Anya brushed her fingertips against the bracken, quickening her pace.
Night crouched on the other side of the valley, shadows swelling towards her as the cold reached further inside her coat.
Shaking hands clutched her loaf of bread tighter. She mustn’t drop it; her feet continued picking their way down the rocky hillside. Branches clawed at her legs and arms, begging her to slow down. Not so fast, Anya — why the hurry? They asked.
Home. Must get home. She thought of the quiet little cottage in the woods, smoke rising from the warm heart of the hearth, moss covering the cedar shingles outside, people waiting within… she must get home before the dark really set in. Anya knew the creatures that came out at night — they were much more skilled at maneuvering around trees and boulders in the dark than she was. They were hungry, too, just as she hungered to stop and eat the bread she carried.
She marched on. No stopping, not unless she wanted to never make it home.
Peter and Ivan must be practicing carving wood soldiers and horses in front of the fire. Hopefully, Sasha had finished tanning the pelts today to take to town next week; he had better not have forgotten to stir the pot of stew over the fire!
Anya let her mind drift to happy thoughts of life when life was not such a struggle. Peter and Ivan when they were three, and life was nothing more than play. Her first years of being married to Sasha, carefree and young — wrinkles and tedious responsibilities far in the future for both of them. Life before the War had impoverished the land, and destroyed so many families she knew. Thank God, that Sasha had not been called to serve on the Western front, like every other able-bodied man under forty had been. But that was only because Sasha was no longer able-bodied after his fall from the cliffs five years ago. He survived, but his ability to walk easily was gone forever. Peter and Ivan were a much needed help now with checking the traps and loading the horses. Eight years old, and already behaving like little men.
The wind picked up, bringing with it the chill of night and the smell of rain. Just the encouragement she needed to walk faster!
Anya thought about the house she had left just a little while ago to head back home. Perhaps she should have stayed the night with Alex and Nadia. They had offered, after all. Too late now. She could barely see the path anymore. Breathing in hurt because she was so cold. Nadia’s baby girl was healthy and doing well after the difficult time they had bringing her into the world. Her red hair was almost equal in color to her red, scrunched up face! New life always gave Anya joy to see it.
A sudden, small sound made Anya stop and listen. Her mind sensed movement in front of her. She hoped it was just a skittish deer making way for her on the path. If not… she dared not wrap her mind around other possibilities. She plunged her left hand into her coat pocket and grasped the small knife there. It wasn’t much, but it was something. She no longer heard any noise other than the wind shifting in the treetops. Cautious, she crept forward, taking her knife out of the sheath and holding if by her side. The darkness still didn’t feel right. It was uncommon that people were robbed on this path, but it could happen, especially to a woman all alone.
Suddenly, Anya’s mouth tasted like dirt and blood, and her ears were filled with loud ringing. Her loaf of bread, given to her by Alex and Nadia, was gone, lost on the dark path. Her right arm felt heavy, then a bright pain burst on her mind. Sharp teeth bit down harder, going all the way through her wool coat. Anya’s scream came out so high-pitched she could barely hear it. Her arm was being shaken like a rabbit in the mouth of a dog. Hot blood flicked her face. Anya’s mind lagged as her body moved faster than she knew. Time after time after time, her free hand rose and fell, searching for a target, anything. The massive head and bright yellow eyes glowered down on her, her right hand still crushed between its jaws. Then her knife met resistance, and she pushed down with all her might. A howl rose through the trees, echoing off the mountainside, and sinking deep into Anya’s soul. Her arm dropped, and Anya’s gasp of relief caught in her throat where it mingled with a scream of pain. She waited, tense, as her body anticipated another bite.
Instead, sharp claws clipped her in the stomach as her attacker jumped over her and loped away into the dark.
Fur and blood clotted in her good hand, as the other one simply pulsed, her blood dripping out on the ground. Anya knew that her knife had lodged deeply in the wolf’s throat, and hoped it did not live much longer to come back again.
Stumbling to her feet, she fell back down again, waves of pain and dizziness overwhelming her. She could see nothing now in the dark, and she was only able to imagine the damage the wolf had done to her arm. If she did not make it home she’d die out here, food for the wild animals. Sasha would never even find her body!
She held her other hand out in the dark, feeling for branches and tree trunks, her feet trying to just go straight ahead.
Time dragged on… Her head grew heavier and heavier to hold up. Her eyes began winking, blinking. She could not tell the difference between the night and the dark behind her eyelids. Sleep would be so sweet. There wasn’t any pain in sleep.
Anya slipped to her knees. Deep in her mind she knew she shouldn’t, but she no longer cared. Her body took over what she would have rationally ignored had the blood flowing down her arm not slowed a trickle. She sank her head into the forest moss — it was the softest of pillows she had ever felt.
When Anya awoke, she almost couldn’t stand the brightness of the morning sun. Mist rose from the ground as the sun summoned life to rise once more. She looked down. Where was her wound? She held up her arm, fingers flexing, working again. Had it all been a dream? She must have slipped in the dark, hitting her head, and dreaming about things that did not happen. That would explain why she was in the woods instead of at home.
She set off running, her feet carrying her faster than ever before. Home was soon in sight; woodsmoke was rising from the chimney. Sasha must have been worried with her gone all night. Hopefully, he hadn’t gone looking for her yet. Anya ran through her yard, past the geese and the horse corral.
She stopped in the doorway, joy filling her to see Sasha, Peter, and Ivan inside; she opened her mouth, ready to greet them with happy words.
Then the sheepdog barked outside. Ivan jumped up, his eyes bright as he ran through the doorway, stopping to look around the yard.
Disappointment clouded his face as he turned around.
“Mother still isn’t home.” He said, as he walked back through doorway. Sitting down, he picked up his toy soldier and began whittling again.