“It’s too far for them to make in one go,” Yannis said. His gritty growl woke Laura.
“We don’t have a choice.” Laura recognized Bethany’s sweeter voice.
Laura stretched and rolled onto her side to watch the argument.
“We don’t know who or what used the cave between now and about 1870.”
“We have to take breaks,” Yannis said. He sat, gesticulating with his hands, on the other side of the fire from Laura. “What could go wrong? I go first, with Bethany, and clear the way.”
“Stopping adds complications,” Samantha said. “Bandits lived here at one point. Also wild dogs.”
“I don’t care. Laura has no experience. We expect her to climb five hundred years all at once? And Matthew and David: they cannot possibly hold on that long.”
“I agree,” Terrence said, coming into the cave. “We have to break the trip into reasonable segments. Even I could not go the distance with someone holding on to me.”
Laura sat up and yawned. “We are stronger than all of you. We work from dawn to dusk every day but Sunday. Matthew shapes iron, I scrub floors and wash clothes, and David works in the fields. We can make it.”
“Physically, perhaps,” Yannis said, “but mentally, no. I will not take part in such foolishness.”
Samantha sighed heavily. “Laura, wash up and eat something. We prepared breakfast outside. Find your brother and Matthew. We leave soon.”
Robert turned in a circle, sniffing the air. “The binding spell on your uncle is losing its grip,” he announced. “You must go fast. Terrence and I will hold the barrier until you have left, then follow.”
Yannis and Bethany had already headed through time. After much arguing, they had agreed to go fifty years for their first leg.
Padma took a deep breath. David lay on the floor and grabbed her ankle. Terrence wrapped a strip of cloth around David’s hands and tied it to Padma’s leg to help him hold on. She reached up and they vanished.
“Go!” Robert shouted. “Now!”
Laura took a deep breath. Matthew gripped her foot tightly. She nodded at Samantha, and they stepped onto the web in unison. A spell shot past them. She barely had time to sidestep it, before another spell appeared. She tried to move back to find Samantha’s hand, but another spell shot through, forcing her to the right again. She counted knots carefully, hoping against hope that she hadn’t missed any during her uncle’s barrage. They had waited too long to leave.
She moved a few knots to the left along a silver thread, but didn’t bump into Samantha. She hoped that she hadn’t inadvertently left the cave. She could be moving to the future inside the ground. She had no way to tell until she left the web. Crushed by rock, it would be too late to save herself and her passenger. Her heart raced. Her armpits grew damp with sweat, but she kept climbing, trying her best to continue the rhythm and count.
Thirty, Thirty-one, Thirty-two. Still no Samantha, but at least Matthew held tight. Her guide must be somewhere nearby. She inched left again. No luck. Sweat trickled into her eyes. She took a deep breath and kept going.
Finally, she felt Samantha touch her hand. They pulled to the rhythm of the song they’d agreed upon. Fifty. She stepped out of the web, Samantha beside her, Matthew on the ground at her feet. The others clapped. Matthew let go and stood up. He hugged her. “You did it,” he said, proudly.
Robert and Terrence appeared. “What year did Thomas and his brother visit when we tried to save them?” Robert asked.
“Maybe 1920?” Samantha said. “I know it was between the two World Wars.”
“It appears that he took a stone back in time with him. He’s climbing the web.”
“Damn. He will look for someone to take him further once he arrives in 1920, but it won’t be easy.”
“Are you kidding? There are plenty of dark witches who will do his bidding. They love Thomas.”
“Yes, but it will take him weeks or months to hook up with them.”
“I sure hope so.”
“If you feel good,” Padma turned to their charges. “let’s go again.”
They nodded. Again, Yannis and Bethany went first. The next fifty years fell away easily, so on they went. However, when Samantha and Laura stepped off the web this time, they were met by a bloody scene. A pack of wild dogs had backed Yannis and Bethany into a corner. They hissed and snarled. Bethany had a bite on her cheek.
“Oh, good lord,” Samantha said, sounding annoyed. The dogs turned at the sound. Samantha snapped her arm towards them, like she was pitching a ball. The animals lay down and looked at her with adoring eyes. “Remember,” she said to the other witches, “you have to stay calm and breathe.”
“I don’t know any spells for wild dogs,” Yannis admitted.
“Me either,” Bethany said. She touched her hand to her cheek. It came away bloody.
“Let me see that bite,” Padma said. “Thomas still can’t feel spells cast in here?” she asked.
“Not while we are stopped,” Samantha assured her.
Padma waved her hand over the wound. It slowly cleared.
Robert and Terrence appeared. After hearing the story, they said: “Let us go first this time: give Bethany and Yannis a break.”
“I don’t know if bringing up the rear is better,” Bethany said. “What if Thomas catches us?”
“He doesn’t know we’re taking breaks,” Samantha said.
“He’s a master web reader. He might be able to find our threads.”
Laura shivered. What if her uncle came upon them while they were stopped?
“Bah,” Padma said. “You are so scaring the little ones. They do not look tired to me. We should continue.”
“Padma, you know darn well that bandits moved into this cave between now and our next stop. They will have arms and possibly a very large group. We cannot risk going any less than one hundred and fifty years this time,” Samantha said.
“Who can count that high reliably?” Yannis growled. “Robert and Terrance will have to handle the bandits.”
“Let’s go seventy-five years, then, so we only have to deal with them once,” Samantha said.
“Fine,” Yannis said, capitulating.
By now, Laura felt at home on the web. She could easily climb that far in one go, so she kept silent. She worried more about Matthew or her brother losing their grips, but they were strong boys.
“Let me go to the entrance and check things while the rest of you have some water and food,” Terrence said.
“I will go with him. None of us should ever go alone with Thomas on our tail,” Yannis said.
“Okay, but come right back. We can’t get separated,” Samantha commanded.