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Ina stepped on another jagged fallen branch, tearing what little remained of her stockings farther into shreds.

She had lost her shoes in the lake rescuing Mabel, and she hadn’t even realized it until she started carrying the child home. Although Mabel’s family lived very close by, Ina was starting to feel as if she had been walking forever on scratched and bruised feet. No, it had been only a few minutes, she told herself sternly, and she could manage a few more.

Staggering under the young girl’s weight, Ina flinched when a green snake passed in front of her. She couldn’t see it clearly in the long grass. Most snakes are harmless, Ina told herself as she took another step, repeating the words as if they were a calming mantra in her morning meditations. Still, she was glad when the snake slithered out of sight into a tall stand of cattails.

(Photo credit: Jason Dean)

The storm had blown through quickly, and the humid air of early June felt heavy and warm. Wild roses, thick with blooms, gave the meadow a pleasant fragrance that Ina would have appreciated much more if she hadn’t been so focused on avoiding their thorns. The hem of her sodden dress kept getting caught; she’d torn it in several places already. Just one more step now, she told herself, trudging along with her head down. And another step.

When she looked farther ahead for a moment, the little cabin where Mabel’s family lived was much closer. Perhaps Nellie, looking to see where her daughter had gotten to, would notice Ina struggling under the child’s weight and come running to help. Then she would understand Ina wasn’t evil after all, and whatever grudges she might have held would be set aside.

Having distracted herself with a fantasy in which the villagers all shed their prejudices and lived forever in neighborly peace with the witches of the Wild Forest, Ina didn’t even notice when Nellie stepped out of the cabin. It wasn’t until the woman came rushing toward her, with something held high overhead, that Ina snapped back to reality.

“What are you doing with my daughter, you horrible witch!”

Ina blinked, not quite believing what she saw. Yes, that really was a rolling pin that Nellie was brandishing. It was still white with flour from the apricot scones Mabel had mentioned.

Dropping to her knees, Ina very carefully set the little girl down in the grass. Then she backed away a few steps, taking just as much care to maintain a calm and unthreatening appearance. Once, in the forest, she had come too close to a wolf den and had been delighted to see the tiny cubs at play, until she’d realized her peril a moment later and stepped cautiously away. She’d learned not to frighten wild creatures or to get between them and their young; and sometimes people, she thought, weren’t all that much different.

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