The position of village witch, while certainly out of fashion in town, was still of some considerable importance in the country, especially in proximity of those estates still ruled by the traditions which gave authority to those with gifts. When men were first placed above their fellows to act as protectors and custodians of the land, they were chosen based on the strength of their gifts as well as their character and loyalty. All the great families, therefore, had at their Seat a person of abilities well beyond those of normal men. As time passed, however, and civil wars gave way to domestic peace, the need for physical prowess became less imperative and most were satisfied that at least the family name still survived in authority. If the male heir was without gifts, it was a simple matter of finding him an afflicted wife (for in men they are gifts while in women they could be naught but a curse on their delicacy). And if no suitable wife could be procured, which seemed more and more the case as the powers bled into the working classes, it was no worry at all. Lords need not fret about defending their lands from Vikings or Romans or Celts as they once were and had no more worry than maintaining the flow of taxes into the estate that might maintain their expected lifestyle.
Many of the great families had abandoned the tradition of the Seat of Power, especially in the cases where a girl was set to take possession as this contradicted the widespread knowledge that women were not suitable vessels for such power. Male heirs were preferable purely for their strength of mind which made them superior to handling the complexities of managing an estate. Women, with their delicate nerves and generally inferior make up, were easy targets for disease in mind and body, and could be counted upon to falter under the types of stresses which men dealt with everyday. It became the fashion for gentle ladies to wear bits of iron jewelry (even when unburdened by any condition affected by iron), to deny and repress their afflictions rather than pretend any equality to men. This to many displayed their perfect agreement that it does not do for a woman to have pretensions of superiority, as it demonstrates a meanness of spirit and a want of proper femininity.
No one, however, no matter their rank or fortune, would dare make any such arguments to a witch. Unfashionable though they may be, witches were still regarded with wary respect and held by most to be above the reproach of any person, excepting the Queen herself. In truth, the only other person held in the same degree of reverence was invariably the blacksmith, who carried no extraordinary ability save the power to work with iron.
It was the witch who was present at every birth of man and beast. She it was who remembered the rituals and traditions of the land and it was she who presided over those sacred ceremonies which accompany the lives of small persons (clerics and acolytes of the Queen stood over those rites for higher personages as was proper). Every spring, it was the dual task of the witch and the blacksmith to perform the Iron Trial for all the children come of age. The iron of the blacksmith would reveal those with gifts, but it was the witch who determined the strength and inclination of those gifts. She further stood as an expert in remedies and was often counted above apothecaries and doctors in the esteem of the village wife. And as she was present for every birth, so must she be for every death.
It is not to be supposed that after the unfortunate circumstances of the twins’ birth, that Nanny should find herself unwelcome in the Forster home. To the contrary, she was a frequent resident from the first day owing to the desperate need Sir John had of her expertise and guidance. Nursemaids were to be acquired, a governess engaged for Elinor, and all manner of attention for little Henry whom it was feared may not have the strength of life necessary to survive. Under her tutelage, all was settled amiably and her personal ministrations to Henry were so successful that he was quickly outstripping his sister in his development. Lord Forster became so accustomed to the convenience of her presence that he insisted on building her a proper cottage on his grounds that she may be ever near should he have need of her. This being a welcome improvement on her current residence, a small rented room in the village with barely dirt enough for her kitchen herbs, she readily acquiesced to the proposed cottage. It was only a matter of ensuring that all her requirements were met as would suit her responsibilities, namely room for a sizable garden and goats, a serviceable road to the village for ease of travel, and a sturdy horse for emergencies.
Very early on, it was apparent that the Forster children had a steady regard for Nanny. Elinor found in her a companion akin to an elder sister, who acted as an adviser and instructor as needed. Though it came as no surprise, it was to Nanny that Elinor turned with the disappointment of her failing the Iron Trial. The twins were very much enamored of the wild-haired woman who trounced about the estate in men’s work boots, chasing after loose goats or riding astride her buckskin mare. Henry was only ever talkative to her, exclaiming over his most recent literary discoveries, while Lily could never be willful while under the scrutiny of the witch’s hazel gaze.
When Lord Forster decided that his children would benefit from his having a new wife, it was from Nanny that he sought recommendations for suitable candidates, and Lady Mary was only approved of after a private interview with the witch. And when Lord Riverton had sought the hand of Elinor, it was Nanny who was consulted before even his daughter.
“He’s a good fellow, I can tell you based on our lengthy acquaintance. Never an unjust word, nor any habit I can find to fault him. His elder brother, I believe, was a bit of a war hero, but John has no violence in his soul. Very like a water-gifted, you know. Easy temper, and not so changeable as those charged with greater waterways. Been nary a flood nor drought since he took the Seat, as far as I can recall.” Sir John continued in his praise for some time. The tenants all loved him, the crops all healthy, his estate wealthy and well-tended, and his children well-behaved. And the gentleman was indeed a few years his senior, but with such a young and jovial countenance, it was Sir John who was most oft deemed the elder.
Nanny stood gazing out of the window of the drawing-room during this exposition, transfixed apparently by the sunset. She was not one for words and found silence a better instrument when dealing with Sir John. His ramblings told her he was uncertain of the match, despite its overwhelming material advantage, otherwise she would not have been summoned for an opinion. When he began to run out praise for the suitor, she turned from the window to observe him. Lady Mary, who was vastly surprised to be included in this discussion, had sat through the whole his oration in utter silence from her seat by the fire, working diligently at the embroidery on her favorite kerchief. Of her opinion, there could be no doubt as to its being completely unnecessary, though she could perceive no reason for any hesitancy in her husband’s agreement to the suit.
“You see, Nanny, it is a most desirable match,” said Sir John after a lengthy reprieve from Lord Riverton’s accolades. The words implied that Nanny had been prepared to argue against him, though the depressed tone gave the lie. Nanny held her tongue, and soon enough it all burst forth. “But he has no inclination for more children. His design, he told me quite plain as his long-time and dearest friend, was to do me this favor of relieving me of a daughter I might otherwise be burdened with. He sees Elinor as a nice girl of a good family who might act as a glorified governess! Is this to be borne? That she may never bear children of her own? That she must live in a marriage bereft of all the physical attentions due a wife from her husband?”
In despair for a daughter’s deferred motherhood, Sir John collapsed into a chair, startling his young wife into pricking her finger. “Now, that is silly, John, that a man could marry a woman without intending to, I mean, really! Whatever his intentions concerning their relations, he certainly can’t think of celibacy, even at his age.” After this pronouncement, Lady Mary was sufficiently embarrassed by the subject and her own audacity in commenting on it, that she immediately set to undoing a dozen stitches which she was certain had been misplaced and determined not to say a word more until she had finished her work.
“But can I deny this match on such a condition? I have little enough to give her. The estate must go to Henry or Lily. With only a thousand pounds from her mother’s bequest, there is nothing but her name and her good character to lure a husband. And without gifts, I’m afraid she will find no gentleman willing to take her.”
Nanny took the seat nearest Sir John and waited a moment to compose her response. She fancied herself better acquainted with the feelings and inclinations of his daughter, having been Elinor’s chief confidant throughout her development. She alone knew how painfully Lady Forster’s death had imprinted on the girl and how much she dreaded her future marital responsibilities. “This is a good match, ’tis true,” she said after a time. “And Lord Riverton is a man known to me by the good word of his tenants. It’s a good man as can tame a river, big or small, and a good friend who seeks to be the benefactor rather than the possessor of a girl so young. Can’t say I could approve of a man looking for more children at his time of life. But one looking for the gentle companionship of a steady gel, like Elinor, who can certainly be a balm on the stresses of life, that’s a man with sense. I suggest you let me present the offer to Miss Forster. Then, if she’s amenable, he can try courting to see if they suit each other.”
Sir John was immediately cheered by this announcement and seemed on the verge of rushing into the night to report the good news to Riverton, but he was stayed by Nanny’s cautious hand on his arm.
“I won’t permit no hand-fasting till she’s eighteen, mind. They need to know each others character before contracting any long-term agreements and she’ll need tutoring on what’s expected in running a household. His estate’s not so grand as this, so she’ll be expected to have more of a hand in its management, I dare say.”
All this was found to be right and proper and awaited only the consultation with Miss Forster to begin. One might expect a violent effusion of emotions from a young girl told she is to wed a man near twenty years her senior, but Elinor was never one for violence where quiet contemplation would better serve (excepting when she dealt with Lily, who was anathema to quiet and could make even the most patient, sedate person become violent in mere moments). The fact that she would be under no obligation to produce an heir, or children at all, readily decided her and she was the only one who saw no rationale to any delay. There could be little purpose in divining the attractiveness of her intended if the marriage would answer all her desires of avoiding the birthing room.
Her only regret was the inevitable removal of her from her long-time home to a place too far distant for easy visitation from her family. Wretched as the twins could be, and Lily may well have been determined to be a constant trial on her nerves, they were her family and she could not countenance any great time spent apart from them. She further worried that without her censure, Henry and especially Lily would be far too indulged by her father and Lady Mary to gain any sort of good understanding or manners.
But she need not worry on that front, because Nanny was newly determined to bring an end to the unruly behaviors so long unchecked by firm authority. It was already becoming apparent that Lily had inherited her mother’s power and each day made it more urgent that the girl learn self-control, else she was bound to be banded, and Nanny had seen how quickly iron had destroyed Lady Forster’s mind. The long-term effects could not be estimated and were to be avoided most fervently. To that end, Nanny set out for the Lady’s Clearing to begin the education of Lily Forster.