As she took the proffered hand, Laura wondered why she could see the stranger so clearly on this very dark night. Magic at work, she guessed. She looked away immediately, because the woman was indecent. She wore men’s clothes: odd-looking breeches that hung to her feet and a loose shirt.
But Laura couldn’t contain her curiosity. She glanced up and gasped. Instead of a tall, slender young woman, she held the hand of an old, short, round one, wearing a modest outfit identical to that of Mary Agnes. In fact, she looked exactly like Mary Agnes.
“It’s only an hour before dawn,” the witch explained. “In case anyone sees us, they will simply think we’re doing chores. Mary Agnes will wait here until we return, then go home with full buckets of water. Her husband will never know she left hours ago.”
Laura blinked, in case she just had dirt in her eyes, but the woman holding her hand was still Mary Agnes’ twin.
The witch dropped her hand once they reached the village, and headed off to the house Mary Agnes shared with her husband, one of the local woodcarvers. Laura turned towards her own home. David still slept when she reached their tiny hut. She woke him gently. He was used to rising before dawn and made little protest. Already she heard the rustling noise of her neighbors as they began moving about in their own huts. She layered two outer dresses over her shirt, laced up her bodice and put on both her long sleeves and her head-covering. Little David, who got hot easily, wanted to put on his summer outfit, but she insisted that he dress warmly. She decided against carrying shawls, though she wished she could. It was a warm day already. If they met a neighbor any extra clothing or bundles would raise suspicions. She brushed her long wavy black hair, then untangled her brother’s light brown curls.
“We need water,” she pointed to their empty buckets. He took the smaller one. She picked up the yoke, which allowed her to carry a large bucket on either end.
Mary Agnes’ fake twin waited on the forest’s edge. She met them there and walked with them back to the stream, carrying Mary Agnes’ yoke and buckets.
Luckily, no one else had yet arrived. Beatrice had gone home, but the real Mary Agnes was still there. David, confused at seeing two copies of his beloved friend, moved his green eyes back and forth between the two women, then hid his head in Laura’s skirts.
“It’s okay, honey,” she told him. “I’ll explain later. We’re not getting water right now. We’re going with this nice lady instead.”
David, used to following his sister’s orders, nodded and let go.
“I hear footsteps,” the new witch said. “We have to leave. Bring the buckets. We’ll want them later.”
Later, it turned out, meant at a spot not too far into the forest, where they tore pieces of their clothing and scattered them about, along with broken branches and the buckets, to make it look as if she and David had been abducted. The day had begun: they could see clearly to create their scene.
“Why are we bothering with this? No one cares about us enough to follow our trail,” Laura said.
“You’re wrong about that. Your uncle does. He’ll want to make sure you’re dead. This will buy us time.”
“Why would Uncle Thomas want us dead?” David asked in his small boy’s voice. Laura had explained as they walked that they were going to a magical land, far away. He’d laughed as they made their pretend abduction scene, but now his brown eyes grew huge and round.
Laura didn’t know the answer to his question, and the witch didn’t say a word. She just turned and started walking, following a nearly invisible pathway through the thick undergrowth.
They walked until the sun was straight overhead and they arrived at a small clearing. David plopped on the ground and fell asleep immediately. He needed something to eat. They hadn’t had anything since dinner the night before. He was a strong kid, used to working in the fields all day, but Laura always made sure he always ate a good breakfast. She said as much to their guide.
“I know. That’s why we stopped,” the witch explained. “We’re waiting for someone.” She trilled a dove’s cry.
A duplicate sound came from in front of them. A few minutes later a man about forty years old walked down the path, carrying a basket. He was medium height and looked strong. He wore expensive, well-made clothes, which might have scared Laura, except that his short straight nose, twinkly blue eyes, and lopsided grin gave him a kindly air.
“This is John,” the witch introduced him, “and I’m Samantha.”
“Nice to meet you,” Laura said, shyly. She hadn’t met many strangers in her life, and now here stood the second one of the day.
“What do you think, John. Is it safe enough for me to change back to my own form?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“I will wait until your brother wakes up,” Samantha told Laura, “I don’t want to frighten him again.”
John, who explained that he lived in London, uncovered the food. “I knew your father, when we were boys. We studied together.”
Laura didn’t ask what they’d studied. Her father had known Greek and Latin, but he’d also learned witchcraft. No doubt, John knew all three of those and more.
John pulled bread, cheese, apples and beer out of the basket, along with a flask of water. David woke immediately when he smelled the food. He fell onto it, and the rest of them followed.
After everything had vanished, John asked: “have you told them what is going to happen?”
“Not yet. I thought we should get far away first in case her uncle sets the dogs on us.”
“Oh, yes. Thomas is a nasty sort. And awfully powerful to mess with. Let’s move, then.”
“Why don’t you use witchcraft?” Laura asked. “Can’t you just throw a spell and put us far away?”
“Oh, no. Your uncle can see the threads. If he suspects you are with a witch, and he will if he doesn’t already, he’ll start sorting through the webs and quickly find us. That’s one reason why I need to change back into myself.”
“Witches? You’re witches?” David asked. “Like mama and papa?”
“Yes, and you will be one too someday, just like your mama and papa,” John said.
“Oh,” he said. Laura could see the wheels turning in his head, before his face relaxed. He didn’t say anything more, but she knew he had understood the reason for their exodus. He might be six, but he knew all of the village lore, and he had a quick mind.
Samantha knelt so that her face was across from him. “I’m not really Mary Agnes’ double. I’m going to turn back into me now. Okay?”
He nodded. She slowly morphed, shimmering slightly.
“You’re beautiful,” David noted, his voice full of wonder.
“Thank you,” she replied, softly.
He touched her long silky red hair. No one they’d ever known had hair that color or that straight.
“It’s real,” she said. “No magic involved.”
“I brought horses,” John cut into this tabloid. “They’re tethered at the next stream.”
“David doesn’t know how to ride,” Laura said. “I tried it a few times, before – “
“Don’t worry. You’ll each sit in front of one of us.”