John swung David onto a large black horse, then mounted behind him.
“Go ahead,” Samantha said. Her horse was smaller, and brown, but bulky. Samantha pointed to a large rock, and told Laura to stand on it, then swing a leg over.
“Won’t I hurt it?” Laura asked. She had only been on a pony before. Their groom had helped her mount it and led her around in a circle. Plus, women were not supposed to ride astride like men.
Perhaps Samantha knew all of this, but she didn’t seem to care. Laura was already beginning to think that women behaved very differently in the future than they did in her time.
“No,” Samantha said, emphatically. “It’s a she, and she’s very strong. You’re tall, but you’re skinny. Between the two of us, we weigh less than John.”
Laura closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and threw her leg up in the air. She had never done such an unladylike move before in her life, or at least not since she’d been younger than David. Her leg caught in her skirts, and she fell.
Samantha laughed. “Oh, dear,” she said. “I forgot entirely about all of the layers women wear in this time.”
They went back down the path, out of sight of the men, and fiddled with Laura’s clothing until they came up with a solution. Laura would wear only her outer dress, which hung loosely on her frame, allowing her legs to spread wide enough. She would fold her shift underneath her bottom for protection against the rough blanket.
It took a few tries for Laura to coordinate the leg swing, but she finally made it onto the horse’s back. Samantha hauled herself up behind her, and the four of them began riding.
At first, Laura quaked. It all felt so strange and so forbidden. She couldn’t recall ever being this close to a grown woman. However, she gradually got used to the rocking motion and Samantha’s body pressed against hers.
The trail was wider than before, but it still wound between thick undergrowth. Every once in a while, Samantha slowed and made liquid motions with her hands. “Reading the web,” she explained. “Checking that your uncle still doesn’t know you’re gone.”
The path widened and began climbing. The undergrowth gradually fell away. The trees grew shorter and the path more rocky. Long shadows formed as the day lengthened. It would be dark soon.
By now, Laura’s legs were raw from rubbing against her shift and her muscles ached. She worried about David, but every once in a while she heard his tinkling laughter, telling her he was not only okay, but having a fine time.
The trail suddenly grew steeper. She shivered as the air turned cold. They climbed a little more. She could barely see anything as night came on. Finally, John stopped his horse and dismounted. He threw his reins over the horse’s head. Samantha leaped off and did the same with her reins. John lifted David to the ground, then came back and helped Laura.
“I know you’re tired, but we’re almost there. We can’t take the horses any further.”
Samantha stood still as a statue all of a sudden. She sniffed the air. “He knows,” she said. “He’s found the thread from when Mary Agnes and Beatrice proved their witchhood to you.”
“Will he hurt them?”
“Oh, no. Don’t worry. He needs them too badly. They provide cover for him. Besides, they’re really pretty much what you thought: kindly women of the church and village. They have little power.”
“But they helped us escape,” Laura protested.
“And did so gladly. Now, stop worrying about them. I’ve examined their fate, and they will die years from now of natural causes.”
Laura rolled her eyes. How could you know someone’s fate? She would never feel right until she knew for sure that her uncle hadn’t hurt her friends.
Samantha frowned. “I’m more worried that he will soon trace me to the spot where I changed back into my own form.”
They climbed for a while, then took a sharp turn along the side of the hill. Despite the near darkness, the trail was easy to follow because the rock under their feet was white. It wasn’t long before John pushed some bushes aside to reveal an opening in the cliff face. “Go in,” he said. “I’ve got to see to the horses.”
David squealed excitedly and jumped through the narrow hole. Laura slithered inward until she held onto the edge with just her arms. David told her to let go and drop. She stilled her fear, and did so, landing on the ground after only a couple of feet. Samantha landed after her, then pulled some kind of fire-making device out of her clothes and lit up the cave.
“Is that magic?” David asked, pointing at Samantha’s hand.
“No, it’s a flashlight. It’s a wonderful invention. Come, we need to find our way deeper into the hill.”
She pointed her torch and led the way. It was rough going at first, but then the floor smoothed out. The walls gradually opened up, then narrowed before disappearing. Laura noticed a breeze. Samantha moved the light around so that they could see that they were in a large cavern. Then she went over to a fire already laid in the center of the space. She struck something which flared brightly. She touched it to the dried grass in the bottom of the pile, and soon they had a nice blaze. It threw light on the walls of the room, which were covered in line drawings.
“We’ll prepare here for our journey,” Samantha announced. “Your uncle doesn’t know about this cave. It wasn’t used by witches until two centuries from now.”
“What are the drawings?”
“They’re from an ancient people. They seem to spell out a kind of primitive magic used to catch animals. A few of my friends have tried to guess how to use them, but no one has been successful.”
John clattered in. “The horses are hidden in another cave. I’ve made sure they have plenty of food and water.” Once again, he set a basket in front of them, and they ate and drank their fill.
Laura and David curled up together after the meal and fell asleep immediately. Laura woke at some point to the sound of voices. She strained to hear what they were saying.
“I’m worried,” John said. “What if the dogs can follow our scent this far? We didn’t take any detours. Or what if Thomas Stonebridge can follow your threads to London and from there to this place? You’ll be here for two weeks until Laura turns sixteen. That’s too much time. What if he finds you before you go to the twenty-first century?”
“That’s too many what-ifs, John. He can’t feel magic done in this cave. No one can. That’s why I traveled from the future in here. I’ve used very little magic since I left this cave. I rode a horse to London and took a carriage to Northumberland. I know exactly who Thomas is and what he’s capable of.“
Laura shivered. She had hated her uncle for years. He’d thrown her and David out of the manor house the moment the village swept down on her parents. He had insisted that she watch her parents’ trial and burning, and then he had left her and David penniless to fend for themselves. She wondered if he had been the one who set the priests against her mother and father. If so, she would find out and she would ensure his fate matched theirs, if it took the rest of her life. She stared into the darkness a very long time before she fell back to sleep.