Laura stepped off the web and blinked. She could hardly believe she was still in the cave. It bustled with activity. Candles lined the walls. A sweet scent wafted into her nostrils. She heard Samantha, arriving with her, let out her breath. “We made it. We’re safe,” she said. Matthew stood, brushing off the dust from the floor.
Padma appeared instantly, with David on her foot. She untied him.
He jumped up and ran to his sister. Laura hugged him tightly. No one in the world was more dear to her. Remembering him in their uncle’s clutches, she cried with relief.
He squirmed out of her arms. “You’re squeezing me to death,” he said, then hopped up and down. “I can’t believe you bested Uncle. Just like that. Pow!”
A grey-haired woman, who reminded Laura of Mary Agnes, detached herself from a group weaving a tapestry and walked over to them. The new witch introduced herself. When they told her their story, she suggested they stay until at least tomorrow.
“That’s a great idea,” Samantha said. “We can bathe and prepare for the last leg. A good night’s sleep will do wonders for us.”
“We’re all witches here,” the older woman said. “But who is this?” she pointed at Matthew and wrinkled her nose.
He pulled himself up to full height, which, of course, wasn’t much, and pushed his chest out. Laura put her arm around him. “Don’t get all huffy,” she told him. “She needs to know.”
He dropped his posturing and explained his role. The witch smiled broadly. “The lover, huh? Who can resist that?Well, we don’t want you to have any problems here, do we?” She clapped her hands loudly.
Everyone grew quiet. The matron introduced the newcomers. Then she sent them with a slip of a girl and a young man to take care of themselves. Candles lit their way to the stream, where the witches had created separate areas for men and women. For the first time in two weeks they took hot baths, in huge tubs fired by a coal burner that vented up the chimney. Laura, who had never taken a bath like this before, was told what to do. She scrubbed layers and layers of dirt off of her skin.
The girl handed her clean clothes through the curtain that walled the bath off from prying eyes. “I think these should fit you,” she said. “Might be a little short, you’re so tall.”
The clothing was very similar to the garments she’d just discarded. Clearly the changes in dress that were so apparent in the holograms hadn’t taken hold yet. The dress and shift hung loosely off her emaciated frame, but she couldn’t care less. She felt so much better after all of that hot water. She smelled better, too. She stepped through the curtain.
The young witch blinked and shook her head. “You’re younger than me,” she said, sounding surprised. “I never would have guessed under all that dirt.”
“My turn,” Samantha said, as she entered the ladies area. “I’m dying.”
“I’ll pour you a clean bath,” their assistant told her, then handed a brush to Laura. “Try to fix your hair,” she said. “There’s a mirror.”
The two ladies entered the bathing area, leaving Laura alone. She examined herself in the glass. She hadn’t seen her reflection since her uncle had tossed her and David out of the manor. Poor children had to work, not admire themselves. She knew that she had grown and changed, but the narrow face that greeted her seemed like a stranger’s. She touched it, turning her head side-to-side to see as much of her profile as possible. It wasn’t a pretty face. Her skin was tanned and freckled from hours of pounding clothing against the stones of the stream. Hollows in her cheeks highlighted her too-long nose. At least it didn’t hook on the bottom, like her mother’s had. She had nice full lips, though they didn’t turn up at the corners like those of the pretty girls in her village that she’d so admired. Her light brown eyes seemed too large for her face, especially the way her thick eyelashes and eyebrows rimmed them.
The young witch came out of the bath area and laughed. “You’ll do,” she said. “We’ll fatten you up and you’ll look a lot better. Now, let’s work on those crazy curls of yours.”
The scent of stew called them back into the main cave. Matthew and David already held full bowls, with delicious-looking chunks of fresh bread slathered in butter. Laura’s nose led her to the pot, over by the entrance. A fat woman handed her a large bowl, telling her it was rabbit stew with turnips, carrots and potatoes, and a chunk of the butter bread. She couldn’t believe her luck. She rarely ate meat, except for the squirrels Matthew or Mary Agnes snuck past the watchful villagers, and she couldn’t recall having butter since her parent’s death. She couldn’t help herself. She took a spoonful standing right there in front of the caldron. It burned her mouth, but she didn’t care. It was delicious. She bit the bread.
The woman laughed at her. “Don’t eat too fast,” she advised. “Go sit with the others.”
An old man brought her a beer after she perched on a tree slice. She ignored it until she had inhaled the food, then guzzled. Finally, she took a deep breath and looked around. Terrence and Bethany sat on the other side of the fire, their mouths moving. They gestured with their beer bottles, engaged in conversation with a couple of other witches. They held empty bowls like her own. They saw her glance up and nodded.
“They can’t stop talking about the way you threw that net over Thomas. Did you see his face?” Yannis sat down next to her.
“No,” she said. “I couldn’t think about anything except keeping him away from David.”
Yannis explained that they didn’t believe her uncle would return for quite a while. He had clearly expended his magic in the chase, or else he would have incinerated that net and prevented her from sending him through space.
Laura couldn’t care less about her uncle at the moment. She wanted another helping. She ate slower this time. As her bowl emptied, her eyes drooped. She didn’t think she could stay awake much longer.
However, Samantha walked up to her and insisted they go outside; she had something important to tell her. Night had descended. The mid-October air chilled Laura, but she followed her mentor.
“Here’s the thing,” she said, once they had left the cave behind. “I want to leave you here with Matthew for a week. Padma and I need to go forward to talk with the council. David will come with us.”
Laura started to protest, but Samantha held up her hand. “Don’t worry; he’ll be fine.”
“What about my uncle?”
“It will take him years to make his way forward in time. We will be ready if he ever does. You will be ready. What you did back there was amazing. None of us could stop him like that.”
Laura started to express her confusion.
Samantha stopped her. She explained that the power had come to her because she loved her brother. “Remember,” she said, “love is a kind of magic.” Laura wouldn’t usually be dealing with imminent danger to her loved ones. Therefore, she needed to learn the tools of the trade. The witches had sent for their best teacher. He would arrive soon.
Laura would learn more from him than she ever could from her rescuers. Samantha would return for her in a week. Matthew would have his own instructor to prepare him for the shock of the future: Bethany.
Except for Bethany, all of the witches who had brought them here were leaving. Yannis would travel to find out as much as he could about her uncle. Terrance and Robert needed to confer with various covens about politics.
Laura yawned. This was too much for a tired teenager to absorb. Samantha led her back inside, where the witches had created a sleeping area. Soon, she was sound asleep, her little brother curled in her arms.