Laura Stonebridge woke with a start. A hand pressed tight against her mouth. “Shhh, don’t say anything,” someone whispered.
She reached under her mat for her knife.
A hand grabbed her wrist. “Don’t. We’re here to help you,” its owner whispered.
Two round shapes emerged as her eyes adjusted to the moonless night. She recognized them: Mary Agnes and Beatrice, her surrogate mothers. She relaxed.
“Come quietly,” Mary Agnes whispered. “Don’t wake David.”
Laura carefully slid away from her six-year old brother. Beatrice handed her a wool shawl to wrap around her shift.
Laura followed them out of the hut. They walked silently through the forest to the clearing by the stream. She wondered at the choice. Although villagers often gathered at this spot in the daytime to collect water, fish, or wash clothing, no one came here this late.
“Sit,” they said, no longer whispering. Light from the stars reflected off the water, illuminating their faces.
She perched with her back to the stream on one of the logs that served as a bench.
“You’re turning sixteen in a few weeks, right, lass?” Beatrice asked, choosing a stump further from the water.
She knew what Beatrice meant, having grown up with the legends. She shivered, even though the shawl was warm enough for the mild October night.
Mary Agnes sat next to her. “Don’t worry. We mean to protect you.”
“It’s time,” Beatrice interrupted. “You’re young, but we know you will choose wisely.”
“What are you talking about?” Laura asked, playing dumb.
“On your birthday, you become a witch,” Beatrice spat.
“But I don’t want to,” Laura protested. Beatrice had just spoken aloud the truth Laura feared the most. “The whole village is watching me, waiting. I’ll be burned at the stake, just like my parents.” The year was 1508. The English countryside was becoming a hostile place for anyone whose behavior hinted at witchcraft. Her parents had learned this to their detriment four years before. Laura had been forced to watch them burn, while holding her baby brother on her hip. She would never forget seeing her mother and father burst into flame.
“That’s why we brought you here,” Mary Agnes said. “If you were someone else, someone with weaker heritage, you could safely learn our ways.”
“Wait. You’re witches?” Laura couldn’t believe it. These two matrons were pillars of the community. They were the most religious women in the valley. However, as she looked from one beloved face to the other, they began glowing a beautiful blue and purple. The light spread, filling the clearing. She heard crackling and smelled smoke. Her mouth dropped open. How had they managed to avoid detection?
She blinked, and the effect disappeared. They again looked like two well-fed craftsman’s wives.
“We’re extremely careful,” Mary Agnes explained. “Your mother and father took too many risks. They openly sold potions and spells.”
“The problem is,” Beatrice continued, “you inherited both of their powers. You’ll have magic shooting out of your fingers on your birthday. You won’t be able to control it. It takes years to learn to manage and hide that much power.”
Laura’s body shook with fear. “And David?” she asked.
“Yes,” they nodded. “Although he is too young to show the signs.”
“If I die, will you save him?” Laura asked. Her voice quivered.
“Quiet. Listen. We can give you an amulet that will block all of your witchcraft. So long as you wear it, you will appear human.”
“The only problem,” Mary Agnes added, “is that, if you should take it off or lose it for any reason, it’ll be as if you just turned sixteen.”
Laura wiggled uncomfortably on the bench. That wasn’t good enough. She wanted complete and permanent protection.
“The other option,” Beatrice said, “is to leave.”
“No! What about my brother? What about Matthew?” She and Matthew had loved each other since they were infants. Even though his parents objected, they planned to marry.
Mary Agnes put her hand over Laura’s. “Hear us out, child,” she said.
Beatrice coughed in a way that indicated Mary Agnes was wasting time. “You can go into the mountains,” she said. “The fairies will take you into their kingdom.”
“Not that,” Laura moaned. She’d heard awful tales of the fairies.
“Or,” Beatrice continued, ignoring her protests, “you can go five hundred years into the future, into a world that no longer fears our kind.”
Laura shook her head to clear it. This couldn’t be happening. Only a few hours ago, she’d held David on her lap, telling him stories until he drooped with sleep. What would he do without her?
“You can’t take your brother with you to the fairies,” Mary Agnes said, her voice gentle, “but you could take him to the future.”
“Tell me about this future,” Laura said. Anything to ensure David’s safety.
“We’ve never been there,” Beatrice said, clearing her throat. “But we’ve heard that it’s very different. Life is easier. Food is plentiful.”
“Some of the more powerful witches go back and forth,” Mary Agnes added. “They say it’s safe enough. People are kind, though you have to get used to the noise and watch out for something called traffic. We think you should go.”
“How do we get there?” Laura asked.
“A witch came from the future to guide you.”
“Alright, then.” Laura thought of Matthew, and sighed.
“You could never marry your young man, anyway!” Beatrice said, her words hitting Laura with a slap.
“Do be quiet,” Mary Agnes snapped at her comrade, dropping any pretense at politeness.
“She deserves to know the truth,” Beatrice said, her mouth a determined line. “She’s royalty. He’s…” Beatrice spit on the ground.
Laura had no idea what they were arguing about. Royalty?
Mary Agnes took her hand again. “Don’t worry, you’ll know soon enough what we’re talking about. It is time to choose.”
“The future,” Laura said. “I have always longed for an adventure.”
A beautiful woman, with long red hair, stepped out of the bushes. “Let’s get your brother,” she said.