Once upon a time, right in the middle of the vast forest known as Silverwood, there was a tree.
But this was no ordinary tree. This tree was a very special tree.
For a start, it was very, very old – older, in fact, than anyone could possibly remember. Secondly, of course, it was a magic tree. How exactly the tree had become a magic tree, nobody knew (and probably, few cared). But magic it was, and this made the tree very important to a certain group of people. Indeed, it could even be said to be famous, in its own way, though few people knew exactly where to find it. The tree did not even have a name: it was simply known as the source of all the witches’ broomsticks in the world.
Now, this tree was looked after by a singular fellow named George. A George had always cared for the tree, as long as anybody could remember: the task was handed from father to son – each George took the name of his father before him.
Every year, the new broomsticks would be harvested by two woodcutters.? This was known as “coppicing” – new branches would be cut off the tree, leaving a lumpy growth which would push forth new branches the following year. Of the harvested branches, the biggest to be cut were used as the broomsticks themselves, while smaller ones would be used to complete the brooms. Medium-sized branches would be left, hopefully to become broomsticks the following year.
When the time came to harvest the broomsticks, the two woodcutters arrived to complete the task. One woodcutter was called Tom, and he came from the Acme broomstick factory, whose manager was renowned for his kindness and wisdom. The other woodcutter, known as Grunt (on account of the strange noises he made), came from the Sinistra factory. The manager of the Sinistra factory had an altogether less pleasant reputation, though nobody could remember exactly why. Together, the two woodcutters would select the largest branches, those suitable for broomstick handles, and would cut a selection of the smaller branches to complete the broomsticks. They would then fairly divide the branches, each taking half to their own factories. Not that the two were without competition: each factory, and woodcutter for that matter, were convinced that they made the best broomsticks in the world.
This particular year, things had not gone very well for the tree and its branches. The spring had been too frosty. The summer was too wet and now, in the autumn, everything was too cold.? So it was that, on their arrival, both woodcutters were shocked to find that only two branches of the tree had reached anything like the standard required for broomsticks. Despite this shock there was little that each could do but cut the branches (including a suitable number of smaller ones), and prepare them for the return to the factory.
Grunt was horrified. Not only was he worried about the quantity of broomsticks he would be taking home – the previous year he had carried home at least twenty five. But also he was sick with fear about the roasting he would get when he got home, by his master, the factory manager Mr. Stoat. He thought of running, but he knew it would do no good – Mr Stoat had spies everywhere, and if he was caught his punishment would be all the worse. Instead, he collected his load and trudged the few miles back to the Sinistra Broomstick Factory.
Grunt entered Mr Stoat’s office. His shoulders were stooped – he would rather have been any place but that place, at that moment. “Master, I have returned,” he said. “The news is not good. We have only one broomstick to make this season. I …”
But he did not finish his sentence.
“One broomstick!” shrieked Mr Stoat. “What happened? If you tell me that that Acme factory has double crossed me, I’ll…”
“No, Sir,” said Grunt, “It was the tree. That was all the branches it produced.”
“That tree … I will not let that blasted tree make a fool out of me!!” screamed Mr Stoat. “I shall show that tree that the Sinistra Broomstick Factory does not take kindly to this kind of … insult! I shall have my revenge on that tree!”
Mr Stoat continued, getting into the spirit of this now. “Bring me my most evil goblins and the nastiest of the wood elves! Together we shall formulate the most distasteful, pungent and wicked magic. I shall make sure we construct the most odious, contemptible broomstick that has ever flown!”
But we are forgetting the other woodcutter, whose name was Tom. While Grunt was facing his master’s wrath, so too had Tom gathered the tree’s best efforts for that year, and had taken them back to his own factory – the Acme factory. How different was Tom’s return, compared to that of Grunt! For the master of the Acme factory gathered his staff before him, and announced:
“Here, in my hand I hold the one branch that the tree could spare us this year. All its efforts went into producing two branches, of which this is one. We have the honour to receive this branch. We can now concentrate all our efforts to make the best magic broomstick that this factory has ever made!”
And so it was, that the two factories set about making the broomsticks.
It was several months before that year’s shipment of broomsticks arrived at the shop. You can imagine the sort of shop it was – decked to the ceiling with cases and packets of all shapes and sizes, goodness only knows what was in them. And there, on the counter, were two large boxes. One was marked “Special delivery – Acme factory – handle with care”. On the other box was a label: “Warning! Only to be opened by experienced personnel.”
Into the shop that day, came two young initiates in the arts of magic and witchcraft. An initiate is somebody who has just qualified, and our two friends were just that – they had both graduated from university, and now faced their sabbatical year. Each had been set a task, at the completion of which (should they be successful), they would become fully fledged witches. Their names were Victor and Henrietta: Victor’s assigned task was to find the Wise Woman of the Woods, while Henrietta had been ordered into the desert wastes, to find the Oracle of the sands.
Together they had agreed that, on the day of graduation, they would go together to buy the equipment and provisions they needed for their tasks. So here they were, in the shop.
The shopkeeper was a tall, well-built man who seemed to move through the piles of clutter and goods like they weren’t even there. He took the shopping lists from the young initiates and, despite his bulk, danced around the shelves picking up things as he went. Finally his eyes alighted on the last entry on each list. It was, of course, a broomstick. He looked up at Victor and Henrietta, his eyes gleaming.
“Just the thing, just the thing,” said the shopkeeper. “In today, gone today, no doubt. I’ll have you know that I have just taken delivery of what are said to be the finest broomsticks ever made. Take a look at these beauties!” As he spoke, he opened the two boxes on the counter and with that, his customers stood back with awe.
In one box, gleaming with a polished sheen, lay a broomstick so black that it was as if it drained all colours from the area around it. Every inch of the handle, every filament of the broom was stained black as ebony, black as the darkest night. Meanwhile, the other box held a broomstick so bright white that it glowed. As the two looked closely it seemed to shimmer, and they realised that it was not plain white but made up of all the colours under the rainbow. Both knew that, through luck, fate or something else, they were being given the opportunity to buy something the like as had never been seen.
But who should have which? After a brief discussion, Victor and Henrietta agreed. The shopkeeper would toss a coin: if it came down heads, Victor would have the black broomstick, and Henrietta would have the white one. If tails, it would be Henrietta that bought the black broomstick, and Victor would go away with the white.
The coin was tossed, spinning several times in the air before, finally, it landed on the large hand of the shopkeeper. He flicked the coin over onto the back of his other hand, and slowly revealed it to the excited onlookers. It was heads, and so it was decided. The ebony black broomstick was added to Victor’s pile of equipment, and the gleaming white broomstick was given to Henrietta. The two friends paid up, collected their goods and went their separate ways, agreeing to meet at the end of the year, to see how each had got on with their tasks. Little did they know that they would be meeting before then, in circumstances that neither could have guessed.
Henrietta’s task took her deep into the desert. She travelled many, many miles, watching for signs as she went: where she could move by horse, she did; where she could not, she walked; and when she could no longer walk, she used her white broomstick to fly. Finally she came to a cave, hidden from view so that nobody could see it apart from those people who knew exactly where to find it.
Henrietta entered the cave with fear and trepidation. It was very, very dark, and she stumbled a couple of times before her eyes became accustomed to the gloom. Finally she found she could just make out an altar-like table made of stone, next to which she saw what looked to be a mis-shapen pile of rags. Then, to her astonishment, the rag-pile spoke.
“Come closer, girl, where I can see you.” Henrietta moved past the table, and then recoiled sharply as the shapeless mass reached out and touched her. “Give me your hand, girl. You need not be afraid.”
Henrietta found herself doing as the Oracle (for she assumed it was him) asked. As he took her hand, he sighed a long sigh. “Ahhhhh ….. ah!” His expression, difficult as it was to see, changed from one of understanding to one of astonishment, then fear. “You must go!” said the Oracle, pushing at her to leave. “Your place is not here, but in Silverwood! Your friend is in danger – you must help him! Go! Look for the Tree!” And with that, he shoved Henrietta out of his cave, pushing her in the direction she had come. As she glanced back in confusion, she noticed that the Oracle was completely blind. “Go!” he yelled, but Henrietta needed no more encouragement. She leapt on her broomstick and set off for Silverwood at high speed.
Meanwhile, Victor had gone into the wood to fulfil his own task, to find the Wise Woman of the Woods. But his journey was markedly different to that of his friend. He, too, looked for signs and indications of the Wise Woman’s whereabouts. But at every turn, the young witch kept getting distracted from his task. Every time he saw a stick, he would pick it up until he had a bundle, sometimes almost too big for him to carry. What was more, he found he was going round in circles – frequently he found himself back at the foot of a tree that seemed larger than the rest, though he gave it little thought. It was, however, such a useful place to leave the piles of sticks he kept picking up. Victor started to get just a little worried, as he was aware that the days were ticking away and soon he would need to complete his task. He tried using his magic broomstick, but each time it, too, would bring him back to the foot of the enormous, old tree.
One day, Victor woke again at the foot of the tree. As he glanced around, he noticed what a huge pile of branches, large and small, he had managed to pile up at its base. A tiny voice in the back of his head seemed to be trying to tell him something was wrong, but he ignored it. He was far too busy trying to work something out – what was it – yes! How to make fire! He wandered into the woods to find suitable materials. Of course, he was nearly a witch, so he knew plenty of spells to make fire with, but first of all he needed a torch to light.
It so happened that this was the day when George, the keeper of the Tree, came to do his rounds. Imagine his surprise when he found his beloved Tree, surrounded by brushwood and looking for all the world like somebody would like to light a bonfire underneath it!? Just then, he heard a crashing through the trees behind him. A man was coming towards him with a large, lit torch. The purpose of the firebrand was all too obvious for poor George, who rushed towards the man and tried to wrench the burning torch away from him. This was not, however, the wisest course of action. The two tumbled into the undergrowth, kicking, punching and wrestling as they went. As they rolled, the torch set fire to the dry leaves and twigs around them. Soon the flames had reached the trees nearby, including of course the Tree.
As soon as the fire began licking around the base of the one, great Tree, Victor came to as if he had been in a dream. “What’s going on? Who are you?”
“What do you mean, who am I?? retorted George. I am the guardian of this part of the forest and in particular this one Tree here. “More to the point, who on earth are you and what on earth are you dong, setting fire to the Tree?”
Just then, Victor realised what he had done, as the events of the last few days came rushing back into focus like memories of a bad dream. At the same instant, he realised what had happened – somehow the black broomstick had infected his mind with thoughts of the destruction of this magnificent, old tree before him. There was no time to dwell on these thoughts, however. Victor looked around him and was stricken with fear at the damage the fire had already done. Flames were starting to lick at the branches of the Tree, not to mention the trees all around it.
The spell broken, Victor grabbed his broomstick and started to use it to beat down the flames. At the same time, his other hand clawed at the piles of sticks, pulling them away from the fire and burning himself in the process. George saw what he was doing and realised that Victor must have been speaking the truth – he, too, set himself to doing his best to quell the flames. The two quickly realised that even their best efforts would be to no avail.
Just when Victor and George thought all was lost, they heard a cry. “We’re coming!” came a voice, then another, and suddenly tens of people were rushing around them, stamping and beating out the flames with boots, brooms, sticks and sackcloth. Before Victor or George got the chance to wonder how this had come about, Henrietta the fledgling witch and Tom, woodcutter for the Acme factory, came bursting into the woods. Even with the vastly increased numbers, it still took some time to bring the flames under control but, eventually, they were put out altogether.
It was as they sat in the charred remains of what was a copse, contemplating the close call that had just been, that Henrietta explained what had happened. She was heading towards Silverwood when she started to see wisps of smoke appear around the tallest tree in the forest. As she struggled to get closer, somehow she lost control of her broomstick, but she managed to hang on as it changed direction and headed to the edge of the forest, towards what she now knew to be the Acme factory. The broomstick set her down outside and refused to move again, whereupon she met the owner of the factory and explained what had happened He sent Tom, with a team of factory workers, to do what they could to help.
Victor explained his side of the story and the two began to understand how their recent lives had been affected by the two broomsticks. Then, remembering his task, he set off with Henrietta, George and Tom to find the Wise Woman of the Woods. By now he had most of the information he needed to find her, so with the others’ help within a couple of days they came across a clearing, in the centre of which was a tent made out of branches and animal hides. Outside a small fire was burning, next to which sat a sweet old lady.
“Come, I have been expecting you,” said the old lady. “Congratulations – thanks to you all the Tree is saved! And well done, Victor, your task is now complete. I have one more thing to say, but it must wait a while, until you have eaten with me. Come – sit down.”
The group sat and shared a meal with the old, wise woman, all the time wondering what was to come next. Finally, at the end of the meal, she went into her tent and returned with a scroll.
She addressed herself to the group. “It was I who put the first George in charge of the Tree, and now it would appear that his task is complete.” George looked devastated – after all, it had been in his family for generations. “But, Ma’am…” he spluttered … “Wait, I have not finished!” continued the oldest of old ladies. “There is another task, which must be accepted freely if it is to happen. The Tree will face new dangers in the future, and will need more than a Guardian to look after it. The Tree needs a protector, to set a constant vigil against such dangers. George, will you be Protector of the Tree, and will you pass this task to your first born son, such that the protection may continue through the generations?” Of course, George readily agreed.
“There is one more thing,” said the Wise Woman of the Woods. “Tom, you must take this scroll to your factory manager. With its actions, the Sinistra factory has forfeited its right to broomsticks from the Tree. This scroll gives the Acme factory exclusive rights to branches from the Tree, for as long as it shall stand.” Tom accepted the scroll gratefully.
“Last of all, I turn to you, Victor and Henrietta! You have completed your tasks and may now take up the mantle of being fully fledged witches. Victor, you are absolved of any responsibility for what happened in the woods, as you were under the spell of the Sinistra factory. Your broomstick, too, is now released from its spell and will guide you to the light, even as it searches for the light itself. Henrietta, you can have no greater prize than knowing that your, white broomstick will forewarn you of danger, whatever it may be.”
Victor and Henrietta looked at each other in awe. They knew that they had already taken part in an adventure that few could dream of, and that there would be many more adventures still to come.