It was with mild trepidation that Lady Jonathan Forster entered her confinement. This was only to be expected, as it was her fourth time since turning twenty and only her seven-year-old daughter Miss Elinor Forster yet lived. Still, the pregnancy itself had been far easier than the first three to reach term and she had the advantage of the services of the village midwife, a witch universally called Nanny Winston, though she was barely older than Lady Forster herself. Since taking the position of village witch last spring, the whole county had benefited from her talents, bringing an unprecedented amount of successful births, an ease of common maladies, and far fewer cases of mortal illness.
Nanny’s greatest contribution to birthings was to disabuse the public of many practices that she considered detrimental to the health and safety of both mother and infant. So rather than being enclosed in a dark room made sweltering by a blazing fire and sealed windows, Lady Forster’s room was filled with sunlight and fresh air. She was made to bathe every day in hot water, as was her lady’s maid (the only person besides Nanny herself permitted into the room). In only one circumstance was she in conflict with Lady Forster.
Nanny insists that I need not wear the iron bracelets, not even during the ordeal itself. She claims that she has borne the process with women of all manner of gifts, yet I cannot imagine any of them had a condition as severe as mine. I cannot risk my child or the estate on the hope that a woman’s protective instinct will prove stronger than my affliction.
So when Lady Forster entered her confinement, it was the blacksmith who welcomed her with two bands of iron an inch wide and one-quarter of an inch thick, the seams of which were carefully welded together once they encircled the lady’s thin wrists. She tested their strength and made sure that no amount of contortion could slide them passed her delicate hands. Nanny looked on with disapproval, but said nothing. There could be no harm in this tradition except its perpetuating the innate destructive nature of a woman’s power. Lord Forster was assured that his wife and child were in the best hands and then firmly dismissed from the room.
After a week, Nanny began to note an increasing degree of agitation in her patient. The lady paced as much as she could, being unwilling or unable to sit still for any of the restful activities Nanny suggested. No book could hold her attention and embroidery was swiftly abandoned as well. At night, the lady could find no rest, spending the whole of it shifting about as though the mattress was full of itchy hay. Nanny also noted that the lady’s hands were in constant contact with the bracelets, spinning and twisting the bands until they left her wrists positively raw. Nanny would have liked to pack the soft skin with a soothing poultice but the iron was to close to leave room for such a remedy and the lady refused any binding that would cover the iron seeming positively alarmed to have the iron thus bound tight to her arms.
Lady Forster was barely aware of her outward behavior and certainly took no note of Nanny’s concern. All she knew was that the child must come soon. From the moment the iron had touched her skin she had felt its effect, drawing her affliction into itself. The sensation was abhorrent, like the onset of a wasting sickness, though she knew the necessity. Her condition had been under her control since she was a young child, but it could be brought out by severe physical or emotional duress. At the age of twelve, she had learned this to her horror when bandits had set upon her family’s carriage in town and her father had been shot. Very little of the bandits had been recovered for burial and it was only through the intervention of her uncle that she was left unbanded* as the law would normally require for girls with such strong gifts.
However, accepting the necessity of the bracelets made them no less easy to bear.
Each day that passes takes me further from myself. I feel cut off from the earth, caged in my own flesh. I begin to imagine the iron no longer draws my power so much as it invades my temple. What once was a mere irritations now burns. I see the hellish glow of the bands when my eyes close and feel the poison seep into my skin.
By the second week, it was clear to Nanny that Lady Forster was not, as she had been made to believe, the secondary strength of the estate. The lady was the Seat of Power and true heir. Her husband was heir in name only, a distant cousin chosen for convenience to act as figurehead. Lady Forster’s uncle, who had been chosen as Seat over his elder brother because he had inherited the family gifts, would have named his niece heir if the law had permitted, but was forced instead to name his cousin John on the condition that he marry his niece. Lady Forster was a vessel of terrible power and as such bore a greater sensitivity to iron than Nanny had ever witnessed. Her pacing was an expression of her natural desire to flee the iron as a threat. While her body was weakened daily by continued contact her mind worked ceaselessly to fight the attack against her.
Nanny wanted very much to insist on the removal of the bands, yet for the first time, she was unsure of herself. Her gift gave her a natural affinity for the health of her patients. Before her was a gentlewoman of no small ability and the knowledge of her strength made Nanny nervous. Though she had often argued that a gifted woman would be incapable of destructive outbursts during labor, seeing Lady Forster’s increasingly agitated state made her wonder. And no amount of subtle arguments against the bands could make the lady waver on her belief that the bands were all that could keep everyone safe from her power. After a particularly bad night where the lady had left bloody gouges in her wrists from her unconscious scratching, Nanny made sure to trim her nails short and eventually insisted the lady wear gloves to bed.
Nanny looks grimly on my bracelets. As if she could possibly comprehend how dangerous I would be without them. Her hearth skills are nothing but a shadow of what I am. My body hates the poison upon my wrists, yet my mind knows that without them I could kill them all. Even my sweet Elinor. This is no gift, as she calls it. It is my affliction which I live with as is my duty in the hopes that I may pass it on to a son who may be strong enough to wield it.
Three weeks into her confinement, the flowers in the room died all at once. This decided Nanny against removing the bracelets. Here was a clear sign that the lady still had unconscious access to her abilities, which had either been keeping the flowers fresh or had killed them out of spite. Lady Forster no longer spent all her time pacing, though she still had no concentration for any diversions. She would lounge on the chaise for hours, staring at nothing with her fingers feverishly spun the bands on her raw wrists.
I have insisted that the windows be closed against the fresh air, which has become a torment to me. It no longer sings as it once did, sweet melodies at ease with my soul. The melody is wrong, jarring, grating against me because I am separated from it. The iron turns sweet music into screams of agony. When I dream, it is of shrieking children locked in iron cages. Iron thickens my blood so I cannot move for the lethargy in my veins. Send for the leechman that he may draw the iron from my heart and serve it to the blacksmith for nails.
In the fourth week, the grounds about the house began to sicken as though fall had come half a year too soon. Even the sheep, pigs, and horses who resided on the grounds took ill. Nanny insisted that the house be emptied of all living creatures, even the servants. This was done with alacrity, the entire household packed off for town while the field hands transported the livestock and domestics to nearby farms for the time being. Only Lord Forster and his daughter were permitted to remain with Nanny. When the time came, against all tradition, Lord Forster acted as aid to the midwife while Elinor was instructed to play at the pianoforte which had been moved to the hall directly outside the birthing room. Lady Forster, whose distress had increased exponentially since the pains had started, begged for the music as the only cure for her nerves. As soon as Elinor began her exercises, the lady had calmed considerably.
It was only when Nanny began her physical examinations of her patient that she realized how badly she had misjudged the situation. Lady Forster’s skin was hot and dry, her breathing unsteady, her heart fluttering, and her eyes saw little. Nanny’s gift to naturally sense and ease the duress of her patients was actively being blocked by the iron. She was no better than a mundane midwife. There was a spike of fear at being so robbed of the power she had come to rely upon, but she was a witch. It is not power the that makes a good witch. It is strength of will and mind. It was too late to remove the bands, certainly too late to save Lady Forster, but the child would survive.
It was only a short time from when the pains started that a baby girl was born to only mild disappointment. Though she was eminently healthy, a boy was always preferred. Moments later to the astonishment of even the midwife, a rather small spindly boy was born. It took some minutes of work, but Nanny convinced him to breathe on his own and pronounced him healthy. As she turned to help Lady Forster finish, it became apparent that the lady would need no further care except to close her eyes.
The blacksmith was the first to be summoned to remove the iron bands. The rest of the household was quick to return and nursemaids were easily attained from the village. It was with a somber air that Lady Forster was laid to rest that evening. The procession followed a well-tended though little used path into the forest, past trees that bore no crude carvings and forest creatures with no fear of man. Once under the verdant canopy, the air took on the brisk freshness of the first frost. Faerie lights twinkled on either side of the path, but no one was foolish enough to follow them. Lord Forster led the procession, marking his steps with a weathered staff of smooth wood, blackened by generations of hands. Nanny brought up the rear with a basket of protective herbs.
The clearing was only large enough for the grieving family to stand around the edges, so the village stood about under the trees. The Milky Way was a thick ribbon arching over the little clearing so uncounted stars witnessed Lady Forster’s return to the earth. In silence, Lord Forster and the blacksmith dug the grave, gently lay the silk-wrapped body in the dark earth, and covered her again. Lord Forster took Miss Forster’s hand and pressed it to the fresh dirt, then did the same with each of the twins so that each left a definite print mere feet above their mother’s face. Nanny spread the flowers and herbs from her basket around the grave and without any outward cue the entire procession left. Before the forest was long empty of the people, a strong sapling had grown up from grave with three knolls on the bark which looked very like the hand prints of three small children.
*When a person was deemed to have abilities too strong to control or has used said abilities to commit a serious crime, the person is banded (given permanent bands of iron which encircle the wrists and ankles). This procedure was often done on females once their abilities presented because it was believed women were physically incapable of ever gaining control.