The Challenge

“Quiet, ladies, please.” The buzz of anticipation that had accompanied her into the hall fell silent; although the chairman spoke softly she never needed to repeat herself. She placed her papers on the podium, brushed a speck of dust from the lapel of her well-tailored charcoal business suit, put on a pair of tortoiseshell spectacles and examined the crowd of women in front of her. As requested, everyone was here – even the gang of black-clad girls who loitered in a sullen mass at the back of the room. She smiled to herself.

“Old Magic in a New Age will be the theme of the National Conference next month,” she stated. “You've read the briefing papers – we're asked to put forward ideas that will raise our profile and increase our influence on international affairs. The floor is open for suggestions. Yes, Mavis.”

A small, wrinkled, mousey-haired woman dressed in a tweed skirt and a cardigan as red as her face stood up.

“I don't have any ideas, Madam Chairman. We don't need any.” A murmur of agreement rumbled around the hall. “Raise our profile, they say. Whatever for? This whole thing will only lead to trouble. Look at the wizards.”

“The wizards? What have our respected colleagues done now?”

“Well might you ask! A new group's been formed – the Brotherhood of Sorcerers, Sages, Magi and Necromancers – and it's planning TV adverts to tell the world how wonderful they are, so our Gerald says. He was invited to join but of course he said no. Our family would never dream of...”

“Yes, thank-you Mavis. Brotherhood of... Bossman? The name is new to me but I had heard that something was in the air. The younger gentlemen do get carried away but I don't think we should pay too much attention. We wouldn't wish to encourage them.”

“Well I think it's a great idea.” Two of the girls slouched to the front of the hall where they glared defiance at the chairman. The one who spoke was beanpole-thin but with a clear complexion and brilliant green eyes. Her partner, although shorter, was more solidly built and marked by a small eruption of acne. Both had long, straight hair dyed an unnatural glossy black.

“Most of the wizards are just as behind-the-times as most of us," the girl continued. "They need shaking up. The Brotherhood is proud of what they are. We shouldn't be ashamed either. I'm fed up of pretending. We have the power. It's time to stand up and show the world what we can do.”

The few ragged cheers that rose from the rest of her group were silenced by an icy look from the chairman.

“That's a very interesting suggestion, Ethel.”

“It's not Ethel. I've taken a new name for a new beginning. You can address me as Ethereana.”

“A beautiful name. And what's the name of your organisation?”

“How do you know we've got one? Who told you? Have you been spying on us?”

“Of course you have an organisation, and a whole set of aims and rules that go with it, I'd imagine.”

“What if we do? Anyway, since you ask, it's called the Collective of Witches.”

“Another fine name, although I'd suggest that you work a little on your acronym.”

Ethereana glowered at the chairman then turned to face the rest of the witches. Only those dressed in black were not smiling; the meeting was shaping up to be more entertaining than they had expected.

“That's right. Laugh. The world's in a mess – recession, over-population, global warming – but who cares? Well, we do. The Collective do. We live in this world too, remember, and we have the power to change it for the better. It's time we did that, then took our proper place in society. No more hiding.”

The black-robed girls – some now wearing the pointed hats that had been out-moded for decades – shouted their approval; the rest of the coven watched with caution, their smiles gone. The witches aged less than eighty had never seen a leadership battle. The older ones had; they knew how ugly it could get.

“And you, no doubt, would lead the group that leads this new world order.”

“Why not?” Ethereana turned back to scowl at the chairman. “None of the Collective is over sixty. We have youth, vitality, fresh ideas. The world needs change before things get even worse. We have the power. We should use it.”

“You're remarkably fond of that word, Ethel. Perhaps you've overlooked the fact that many of the – how can I put this? – many of the more grown-up members of the coven hold very powerful positions in society. We are nurses, midwives, teachers, scientists, journalists. We guide, we inspire, we suggest. We don't order, threaten or rule.”

“That's not real power!”

The chairman looked down at the second girl with a faint air of puzzlement.

“I wondered when you would find your tongue, Sheila. It is still Sheila, I presume?”

“Stormdancer,” the witch muttered.

“Stormdancer,” the chairman echoed. “My, my.”

The girl glared at her. “We have magic. At least, we used to have. How many of you stick-in-the-muds can remember how to use it? Magic could improve the world overnight. No more war, no more hunger, just people living in harmony.”

“You're certain you could do that? I'm impressed. I know I couldn't.”

“We've been studying. We're in the library every night, all of us – there's not a book we've not been through. Every day we practise. We're ready.”

“You may be but the world is not.” The chairman brushed a troublesome wisp of blonde hair from her cheek before readdressing the witch. “Magic's not the way to solve human problems. It never has been. People don't like it. It leads to bonfires, cruelty to cats and the Witchfinder General.” Several older members of the assembly nodded in agreement. “None of us here have seen those days but my grandmother told stories that made me determined they'd never return.”

“You might be scared but we're not!” Ethereana shouted. “We're witches! Witches! That should mean something. We've got the right to be what we are.”

“And the responsibility too.” The chairman's voice remained steady. “Our powers were a gift to be used wisely, for good, not to prove how strong we are.”

“The wizards are doing it.”

“The wizards.” She shook her perfectly coiffured head. “Boys will be boys. However, I'm certain that wiser counsel will prevail. We've seen it before and we'll see it again.”

“But it's different this time. The world's in crisis. It needs leaders who are prepared to act or in a hundred years there'll be nothing left. That's why the Collective must take charge of this coven. Where one coven leads the way, others will follow!”

Ethereana took a step back, stared determinedly at the chairman, pulled a wand from the sleeve of her robe and chanted while Stormdancer scattered herbs, bones and blossom at her feet. The chairman watched them, bemused.

“What on earth do you think you're doing, child?”

Ethereana's chant reached a climax. She raised both hands.

“You won't remember. It's called magic. There's no time left for resolutions and votes. It's time to act. I will take your place and... ribbet.”

One of the Collective collapsed with a scream. After that the only sound to be heard in the hall was the croaking of the frog that struggled to emerge from beneath the weight of the black robes that enveloped it.

The chairman sighed. “I apologise, ladies. I hope you'll believe how ashamed I am that I had to do such a thing.”

Stormdancer stared at her in horror. “But you... what... how did you do that?”

“You don't need pentagrams, incantations and all the other fripperies. Leave all that hocus pocus to the wizards – they do it best. You don't even need a wand. It's just a matter of focus. You can tell that to Ethel when she recovers.”

The chairman collected her papers from the podium and slipped them back inside her briefcase.

“There's nothing more we can do here today. This meeting is adjourned. We'll reconvene  tomorrow when passions have cooled and perhaps we'll find some sensible proposals to send to National Conference. Good day, ladies.”

She strode the length of the hall past the gawking witches and left through the rear door; the members of the Collective crept out of a side exit, their leader carried in her pointed hat. Gammer Batty, the coven's oldest member and self-appointed chief crone, nudged her neighbour, gave her a toothless grin and cackled. It was a good cackle, honed by years of practice.

“What did I say, Mavis? I told you there'd be fireworks.”

“You did, Ruby. You did.”

“I've seen this coming a long time and it's not over yet. Not by a long chalk. That Ethel – she's the spit of her ma at that age, and not just in looks. Vera knows it too – she's going to have her hands full while she's chairman.”

“She is. Mums and daughters, eh? Mums and daughters.”

The two friends cackled, buttoned up their coats and joined the rest of the witches who streamed out of the hall and into the night.

The End

April 2009

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