The Witches’ Parliament
~ Jordan Taylor
“England is governed not by logic but by parliament.”
~ Benjamin Disraeli
In a dark, secret wood stood a dark, secret house. The house was made of wood shingles and good English stone, with many rounded towers and cupolas and dull silver windows, and a wide, wrap-around porch on which no one would ever take lemonade. There was no garden, no drive, nor even a narrow path, its stone foundations rising from the dirt and the moss and the twisted roots as if it were a mushroom grown from the forest floor. On the peeling front door hung a knocker in the shape of an owl with dull citrine eyes, holding a twisted branch in its hooked beak.
The knotted trunks of oak and ash and thorn trees pressed close round the house on all sides, their branches overhanging the peaked eaves. No bit of sky showed its face in that wood. A chill wind rattled the branches and sent brown leaves dancing across the wide, bare porch. In England it was May. In the wood, it was whatever month the witches felt it should be.
A candle flared to life in the window of an upper story.
Owls swooped in and out of the house’s rounded attic windows, circling the towers and perching on branches to await their turn to enter: small tawny owls and little gray owls with ruffled feathers, great horned owls with fierce hooked beaks, and even a few snowy owls with dark markings on their chests and wings, like the curling paper bark of a birch tree.
The owls disappeared into the dark, secret house in an endless stream, a great flock of owls, which is not called a flock at all, but a parliament.
In the downstairs of the house, a great many lights were lit all at once.
The inside of the house was full of light, now, and of witches, and owls. As each owl alighted on the upper landing of the grand, sweeping staircase it shivered into the form of witch—a woman young, or old, or somewhere in-between; beautiful, or ugly, or plain; fat or slim, dark or fair, sweet-tempered or passionate—so many women it seemed impossible that such a house, filled as it already was with patterned wallpaper and rich carpets and carved mantlepieces and over-stuffed furniture and candles and teacups and trinkets, could hold them all. Perhaps the house was larger inside than out, or perhaps the women-who-were-owls and the owls-who-were-women were actually very small, no bigger than the owls they’d been.
In any case, all were gathered in the front parlor now, talking over one another and shouting across their raised cups of tea. A fire crackled merrily in the hearth. A few younger witches shoved one another in a corner over who should get the last comfortable seat. The Lady Zenobia arched her white eyebrows and tapped her silver teaspoon against her bone china cup.
The room went quite as a grave.
“My sisters,” the Lady Zenobia said, “You all know why our Parliament has gathered. We have been tracking this development for the better part of a year. I will open the debate.” She paused to draw in a breath. “Should we interfere yet again?”
In most parliaments, speeches are punctuated by the warm and rousing call of “My brothers!” In the witches’ parliament, one said “My sisters!” instead.
The Lady Zenobia raised her teacup to her lips as the room erupted into chaos around her. Though her long, thick hair was as white as bleached bone, her face was firm and unlined, her body beneath her rustling silk dress still that of a strong young woman.
“How dare he!”
“They think they can just take, and take, that their ambitions count for everything and ours for nothing—”
“After all our work! Wives made barren!”
“Princesses and uncles killed!”
“And one assassination diverted already!”
“She is ours!” a fierce witch proclaimed, and the cry was taken up round the room. “Ours, ours!”
“And so we will interfere on her behalf again,” a decisive young witch spoke up. Her dark eyes flashed. “Or set our kind back another hundred years!”
“No more! This has gone far enough!” an old crone shrieked from the back. “We have broken our first rule! The first vow that we swore! Do. Not. Interfere!”
The Lady Zenobia cleared her throat.
The din subsided.
“Do not interfere’ is our second vow, Lady Anne,” a round, middle-aged witch said tartly in the ensuing silence. “The first is ‘Do no evil.”
Lady Anne snorted and waved her hand in front of her face.
“We will take a vote, then,” the Lady Zenobia said when the two had finished. “Those who would go back to the old ways, those who would watch, and wait?”
“And those opposed?”
“Then we will need to be closer than this.” The Lady Zenobia waved her hand. “Green Park, I think.”
In the depths of night, when even the theaters were closed, when the only traffic in London’s streets were the most well-heeled gentlemen and ladies passing through on their way home from parties, and the most down-at-the-heels men and women passing through on their way to a penny-worth of coffee and bread from a stall before the workday began, Young England gathered in Simpson’s cigar divan.
Simpson’s was a typical lounge for wealthy gentlemen—a comfortable drawing room all of leather couches and polished wood and green-shaded gas lamps, above the cigar shop of the same name, on the Strand. Pop your head in on this night, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Young England was a being made of cigar smoke and fog.
But there were three beings moving within that obscuring smoke, that secret fog, three beings in impeccable eveningwear with their hats set on their knees, cigars held languidly in their long fingers, cups of coffee on tables and trays. They had been through many cups of coffee, and their cigars had almost burnt down to stubs.
On a low, round table, in the center of the room, lay a brace of pistols, their barrels and stocks chased with silver scrolls. They shone wickedly in the light of the flickering fire in the hearth. None of the beings looked at them.
The pistols had been procured from a pawnbroker and moneylender in Covent Garden. This was meant to make them untraceable. None of the fashionable beings had thought to choose a more utilitarian pair.
“What England needs is a hero,” the being with the mustache was saying. He stubbed his cigar out on the nearest tabletop, a horrid display of bad manners. “A King Arthur, to guide us through this Industrial mess, to lead and inspire the populace. Instead we’re given a weak puppet, first of that philandering Whig,” grunts heard round the room, “And then of a blasted German!”
“Yes,” a dark being in the corner drawled from the depths of a leather armchair. His eyes flared from the midst of the cloud of cigar smoke which obscured his face. “Because the last Arthur we had did so well. After his disastrous run as Prime Minister, Lord Wellington is still cowering behind iron curtains in the depths of Apsley House.” He slurped at his coffee with disgust.
“Peace, John, Dizzy,” an elegant being with dark muttonchops spoke. “We are all in agreement here. Though I beg you, Dizzy, before you go any further, to remember the first attempt.”
Had the beings not been gentlemen, they might have shuddered. The first man to attempt what they now spoke of had not only mysteriously failed, but been sent to Bedlam in perpetuity.
“Good god, George, must you bring that up again? The first attempt failed, so what?” the being called John blustered. “We are better men.” He raised his eyebrows meaningfully.
Dizzy rolled his eyes as he puffed on his cigar. He was young, with the piercing eyes of a satirist. “I have told you both: I have seen the future that awaits England if we do not act. It is of this that I am afraid, not of our task. That I will gladly shoulder on my own, and leave the two of you out of it.”
The other men waited as Dizzy took a small notebook out of his breast pocket to scribble the lines down: I have seen the future . . . That I will gladly shoulder . . .
“Seriously, Dizzy,” George flung down his coffee cup in exasperation as the notebook and pencil were replaced, “No one knows what you mean when you speak like that—”
But John pounded his fist on the table, drowning George out. “Well said! If a man wants a thing done properly, then he must do it himself.”
“I never heard you volunteer,” Dizzy drawled, though his eyes were hard. He wrinkled his nose and gave a droll curl of his lip. “I suppose the action will necessitate some sort of uncouth disguise. I will have to visit Petticoat Lane tomorrow. What an adventure.” He flicked a speck of ash from his trouser leg, rearranged the fabric so that the seam was a perfect straight line down his calf.
George gave him a stricken look. “I beg of you, for the last time, reconsider. Let John and I draw upon our fathers’ funds, or use some of Mary Anne’s—your debts are considerable, I know, but surely with her income you needn’t do this yourself—”
“No,” Dizzy’s eyes flared. “I will not have her—or you—involved.”
John folded his hands and said nothing.
“Think of your place in Parliament,” George pleaded, the delicate lines of his face drawn tight. “You are the greatest influence we have. If caught, you will be arrested and tried. You will ruin your reputation, your ambitions, your dreams…”
Dizzy laughed, a quick bark of a sound. “My reputation is ruined already. And as for my dreams –“
“When you see the future,” George tried, “Do you see no role for yourself?”
Dizzy rose from his chair, his face set. He stubbed out his cigar in a glass ashtray and flipped his silk hat onto his head before shrugging on his overcoat. He picked the pistols up from the table, testing their weight, and suddenly the two other beings could not look at him.
“Ambition’s debt must be paid,” he said, and he plunged the pistols deep into his overcoat pockets.
In the bright, secret house in the dark, secret wood, somewhere in Green Park, a witch turned over a card. She wore black velvet, tightly corseted, and a diamond brooch sparkled on her right shoulder. Curls of dark hair, touched with gray, spilled over the left. She was called Lady Grace.
Her lace cuffs trailed across the tarot spread, her long fingernails tapping the densely patterned backs of the cards. She sat at the head of the house’s enormous dining table, the Lady Zenobia at her side. The other witches crowded around wherever they could fit, leaning into the heat of the candelabras which lined the polished tabletop. This was made easier by the fact that a small number of them were now missing.
“Seven of swords,” Lady Grace said solemnly.
“Secrets,” the witches all murmured. “Occult knowledge?”
“No, no,” one scoffed. “It’s the weapons in his pockets.”
Lady Grace set the card aside with a flick of her wrist, and turned over the one which had been hidden behind it. The witches all gasped.
Dizzy walked out of Simpson’s and into the London night, his head still swimming with cigar smoke and dreams. Though it was early May, there was a damp chill to the air, and the fog clung to the cobbled streets. The air stank of factory smoke and sewage and the sea, even here. He passed down the brightly-lit Strand and through vast, empty Trafalgar Square, his feet unconsciously directing him towards home and Mayfair.
His plan had been set for weeks; he’d only been waiting for John to procure the pistols and shot. Tomorrow afternoon, during her weekly Sunday drive along Pall-Mall in her open carriage, he would be waiting in the crowd, in disguise. As she passed him, he would step forward, and then—
He shook his head, dodging across the intersection with Haymarket Street. Then all he had foreseen would be averted.
It had been Dizzy’s grandfather, for whom he was named, whom had introduced him to the Kabbalah. Though Dizzy’s own father had baptized his entire family when Dizzy was twelve—had gone so far as to change their last name—his grandfather had wished to ensure that some wisdom, some traditions of their ancestors, survived.
Often Dizzy wished he had chosen someone else.
Unbidden came the image of his laughing Mary Anne: her chestnut curls, her pert mouth, her mirth-filled eyes.
But no, there was no reason for him to hesitate, none at all; his dreams had come to naught—his novels read by the masses but discounted by the critics and upper classes, his first speech to Parliament disastrous. Even Mary Anne—she well knew that his reasons in marrying her were mercenary. How, then, could she love him now?
The pistols in his pockets seemed to weigh more than they should, and he shuffled to a stop in the center of the street, his hands pressed to his eyes. Carriages and carts clattered around him. Drivers called out.
He would remain on the Back Bench his entire life, until he died, a creature of contempt.
“Hath not a Jew eyes?” he murmured to himself.
In the bright, secret house, the witches whispered amongst themselves, eyeing the overturned card.
“It is reversed,” the Lady Zenobia said, unperturbed, and the fearful whispers changed to surprise.
Lady Grace turned over the next card, and this time the witches nodded. “There he is.”
“The Hierophant. The high priest.”
“Also reversed,” one pointed out.
“Under different circumstances . . .” Lady Grace tapped the card.
“From what we have learned, he could be useful, no doubt,” Lady Anne said.
In the witch’s deck, the Hierophant was represented by a raven captured mid-flight, a rod held in his beak.
The young witch who’d been so set on their interference, who was called Lady Flora, reached out to touch the image on the card with one finger. “I’ve always wondered what the rod is meant to be,” she laughed. “Lately it’s looked almost like a nib pen!”
“Shush,” Lady Anne said, and Lady Grace turned over the next card in her spread.
“The Queen of Wands.” The witches exchanged knowing looks.
And, “The Two of Swords.”
“A clash between two great powers,” the Lady Zenobia said.
Dizzy stood on the gently-lit path through Green Park, gulping breaths of the fresher cool air. He could not quite remember how he had gotten there—the park was not technically on his way home—though he did remember a wish to delay his homecoming, to clear his mind. A gentle breeze sent flower petals and leaves and scraps of rubbish dancing towards him.
His friends had spoken in terms of party affiliation, of puppets and leaders of men; while in his head churned the factories that splintered England’s landscape and dined on the peasantry, the flies swarming the silent huts of India, the rooms of drugged sleepers in China.
And crouching at the center of England’s destruction, like a dark, squat spider: the widow queen, her clinging web ensnaring the world.
He slipped his hands into his overcoat pockets, curled his fingers around the triggers of his pistols.
Soon he was stumbling in the darkness beneath the park’s eaves, cursing the Select Committee for Urban Planning. Somewhere on the path behind him the widely-spaced gas lamps had run out, but he was no longer exactly sure where.
The path, too, had dwindled under his feet, to no more than a dirt foot-path. He could recall nowhere like this in Green Park.
A rush of air, past his left ear. He turned, drawing a gun and swinging it round. A glint of moonlight caught the silver-chased barrel, reflected from a pair of round, glowing eyes in the branches above him.
Dizzy lowered his arm, his body trembling.
It was only an owl.
“The Nine of Swords,” Lady Grace said. The light of the candelabras flickered over her still face.
“Dark dreams. Fear.”
“The Two of Wands.”
“He thinks he has made up his mind.” The witches laughed.
“The Eight of Swords.” Lady Grace smiled. “At last.”
“He’s entered our wood.”
Dizzy crashed through piles of dead leaves, dodged around the ancient trunks of oak and ash and thorn trees, tripping over their twisted roots. The path through the dark wood—for Green Park this no longer was, could not be—had long since run out.
It should be May, he knew it was May, and yet the branches of the trees were all bare, a cold autumn wind shaking them. Owls swooped through the spaces between them, their eyes points of fire in the night, their calls climbing up his spine.
There was some magic at work here, the feeling of it set his teeth on edge—a magic that was not his.
An owl dived at him, knocking his hat from his head.
Panting, he ran on.
In the witches’ House of Parliament, Lady Grace turned over the ninth card.
A Grecian woman, a blindfold around her eyes, held a pair of scales in one hand. Lady Grace’s face lit with triumph. She reached for the final card in her spread.
“Shhh!” the Lady Zenobia hissed. “Did you hear that?”
The witches froze, Lady Grace’s fingers hovering over the last unturned card.
Three loud raps, from the owl-shaped knocker on their house’s front door.
The dining room was full of women.
After Dizzy’s mad dash through the woods, it was brilliantly lit and suffocatingly hot, the walls papered in an absurdly feminine rose chintz. There were cards scattered across the vast tabletop, candelabras dripping wax, chairs crowded into every spare space. A needlepoint sampler hung on one wall.
“Pay Your Debts,” it read, in an intricate gothic script.
Dizzy lingered in the doorway, his heart pounding under what seemed to be one hundred frank and unwavering gazes. He could feel his perfectly starched linen shirt sticking to his skin with sweat. The Lady Zenobia smiled at him as she swept through the maze of chairs to the head of the table.
It had been she whom had responded to his pounding fist on the front door. Three owls had swept into the impossible house behind him, carried on a gust of wind and a flurry of dead leaves. They’d alighted on the parquet floor, preening their ruffled feathers with tiny hooked beaks, while Dizzy struggled to catch his breath.
There had been acorns and insects and spiders’ webs in his tousled hair and overcoat. Mud caked his buffed shoes and trouser cuffs. He looked up as the Lady Zenobia shut the door, running his hands through his hair and shaking out his clothes, and his grunt of disgust caught in his throat.
Where the three owls had been stood three young women, their hands folded demurely in front of their skirts.
“Welcome, Mr. D’Israeli,” the Lady Zenobia said. She was dressed as a wealthy gentlewoman, and yet, as she turned towards him, her long hair swung loose behind her back like a child’s.
Dizzy winced at the mispronunciation. “Disraeli,” Dizzy had corrected her, “Please. Mr. Benjamin Disraeli, madam.”
“I beg your pardon,” he’d called as she led him from the hall, “But how do you know me? Why have you brought me here? And who—Where—“ He’d faltered, and she’d paused before the set of glass doors which led to the dining room and turned back to him with a smile, the sort of smile a man could break himself on.
“We have been watching you, Mr. Benjamin Disraeli,” she’d said. “We know all about you. Your family history, your deepest desires, your motives . . .”
Dizzy’s breath hitched, and the two pistols pressed into his ribcage. “My motives?” he asked. And, in a hoarse gasp: “You work for Her Majesty?” His head spun with the implications.
The woman laughed at him, a deep sound like a funeral bell. “Of course not, Mr. Disraeli. We work for ourselves. I am called the Lady Zenobia,” she turned and shoved open the pair of glass doors, “And this is my Parliament.”
It was then that he had frozen under the intent gaze of a hundred pairs of eyes.
Her voice, from behind him, was teasing. “We are witches, Mr. Disraeli.”
The Lady Zenobia’s seat at the head of the table was like a throne, higher than those around her, the back carved into three spiraling points.
As she sat, Dizzy’s perception of the room shifted subtly to reflect a judge and jury, with himself standing in the place of the accused. He reached for his hat, found it gone, and stuffed his hands into his overcoat pockets.
“I hope I am not expected to make a speech,” he quipped. “If this parliament has any concourse with mine, you’ll know that I am hopeless in that regard.” The room remained stonily silent, save for the collective breathing of one hundred or more women.
The Lady Zenobia arched her eyebrows. “Turn out your pockets, Mr. Disraeli.”
Dizzy squared his shoulders, his dark eyes flashing defiantly. He laid the pair of pistols on the table, amongst the cards, where they gleamed smugly in the brilliant light. His skin went cold as he took note of the image of blind Justice, her scales held high in one hand. The women exchanged glances, murmuring and shifting in their seats.
“Benjamin Disraeli,” the Lady Zenobia said, her eyes hard, “You stand accused of plotting to commit high treason to kill the queen, Alexandrina Victoria I, God save her. How do you plead?”
“You have not seen what I have seen!” Dizzy thundered, and his anguished face swept back and forth across the room. “Swaths of dead—here, round the world—the loss of England’s very way of life!”
The Lady Zenobia’s eyes glinted. “And for this you would commit murder? The murder of your queen?”
Dizzy paused. The fire swept from his eyes, so that he seemed to shrink before the women’s faces. “No,” he admitted, pressing his palms to his eyes. “From the moment I took up the pistols, I’ve known that I could not.” He shook his bowed head. “The thought of it was driving me mad.”
“A convenient end,” the Lady Zenobia mused, “Saving England from its fate,” and Dizzy looked up at her in surprise.
She shook her head. “You say that England’s way of life will be lost.” Her voice rose, and she spread her arms wide. “I say, let England lose it! The world of men is passing—let it pass!” The women surrounding her shouted out in agreement.
“You say that you can see the future,” the witch who sat at the Lady Zenobia’s side spoke up. “Have you seen this?” She leaned towards him, over the table, and a diamond flashed on her shoulder. “Two decades from now, when her husband dies, Victoria will mourn for the better part of a century, but she will never marry again. Do you understand? She will reign solo for the rest of her life!”
“The widow queen.” Dizzy stared at her. “But she will plunge the world into darkness.”
“In all darkness,” the Lady Zenobia said, “Is a glimmer of light.” She seemed to have grown taller, her eyes sharp and bright as jewels, her voice filling the room, and Dizzy took a surprised step back, hitting the cooler glass of the door.
A young witch with dark eyes stood up. “A decade from now, a woman will write that women have been excluded from every aspect of government but the highest, the regal, at which Victoria succeeds.”
Women around the room murmured in agreement. “She is the starting point, the lynch-pin,” their voices echoed. “You would take that away from us?”
Dizzy stretched his hands out to them. “If you have seen all this, then you must understand! The Kabbalah has shown me these things for a reason—a great war which will cover the world in yellow clouds of gas.” The witches were shaking their heads, “Trenches that split the countryside like arteries of black blood.” He stepped forward, trembling, willing them to understand. “And all because of her! I see it constantly, awake and in my dreams. If I am not strong enough to stop it, you must be!”
“And all because of her,” the Lady Zenobia repeated thoughtfully. She shook her head, and Dizzy’s heart sank. “We will not be silenced. We will not give her up. But she will make mistakes, yes. Bad decisions. War. Mankind will tear itself apart,” her eyes glittered. “That is what mankind does.”
“She will need to be balanced,” the witch in the diamond brooch said.
“A Prime Minister from the opposing party, perhaps?” the young witch spoke up. “A man.”
“Her opposite,” another said, “Creative and empathetic, with a quick wit.”
“Someone far-seeing.” The Lady Zenobia smiled wryly.
“Someone to check her.”
“As she will check him.”
Dizzy clutched the edge of the tabletop, a howling wind sweeping through his mind. He must have missed something. Surely, they could not mean . . .Would such a solution even work?
The Lady Zenobia stood up from her place at the head of the table and came towards him. “We will not let you wriggle out of your destiny so easily, you see?” She held out her hand, and one of the younger girls put a branch of willow in her palm.
“You will leave the pistols here,” she said, as she paused to stand before him. “If you agree to this, I must take the memories and the knowledge from you as well. And from your friends.” She raised the willow wand, her long fingers loose. “The Kabbalah may show you other things, but it will never again show you this.”
Dizzy looked into her eyes, a blue as cold and remote as the stars. He suddenly felt wrung out, exhausted, his horror and his anguish gone. Impossibly, hope was rising in his breast. This was what he had dreamt of, a dream kept secret from all, even Mary Anne.
No middle-class Jew had ever been made Prime Minister.
The Lady Zenobia smiled as if reading his thoughts. “It will be no small task. But you will not shoulder it alone. We can promise you that.” The witches nodded behind her.
“Yes,” Dizzy said, and he bowed his head and knelt.
“You will find friends in life,” the Lady Zenobia spoke, and her voice once again filled the room as she tapped each of his shoulders with the willow wand. “And they will be women.”
Behind them, from her seat at the table, Lady Flora nudged the pair of pistols aside to surreptitiously turn over the final tarot card.
It was The Empress.
Dizzy stood in the middle of the Queen’s Walk beneath the eaves of Green Park’s rustling trees. The gas lamps shown around him, and overhead, the night sky was lightening to gray. He thrust his hands into his overcoat pockets against the chill in the wind, and for a moment he was surprised to find them empty.
He was sure he’d been carrying something—something heavy—but what?
He riffled through his other pockets, pulling out his notebook. He flipped to the latest page.
“It is not the task itself I fear, for I will not shoulder it alone,” he read.
Where had he heard that? He shrugged and replaced the notebook.
There was no hat on his head. He must have misplaced it somewhere in the course of the night, but where?
Where had he been?
The only thing he could remember was a brass doorknocker, shaped like an owl, a willow branch held in its beak. Which of his friends’ houses could that be?
He shook his head in confusion. He must have been very, very drunk.
He pushed his hands deeper into his pockets and set out for Mayfair, whistling one of his favorite drinking songs. Perhaps it was not too early to come across a flower seller in the streets. Mary Anne would be waiting for him, and she would be worried.
Jordan Taylor’s short fiction has recently appeared in Uncanny and The Deadlands, and was nominated for a 2021 World Fantasy Award. Though she’s lived in cities across the US, she’s finally settled in North Carolina in a little cottage full of books.
You can follow her online at jordantaylorwrites.com, or on Twitter @JordanRTaylor13.