La-di-da! Iris jumped from rock to mound to rock as she made her way to the town. It was a beautiful day, the deep green of the trees vibrant against the bright blue sky. A slight breeze tugged at her long hair and seemed to fill up her chest, until she was light as air and giddy with the warm sunlight glowing against her skin. Iris enjoyed the rare moment of levity and bubbling energy before slowing down to a sedate pace as she turned a hill and caught sight of the town’s sloping roofs. A Candlemaiden should walk with grace and gravity: Mother Hall’s words, not Iris’s. She wasn’t quite sure what it meant to walk with gravity, but she figured walking slowly and steadily was a good bet.
“Morning, Candlemaiden Iris,” said a town elder, with a perfunctory bow of the head. “Shall I ring the bell for you?”
Iris doubted that Lani had the strength in her bony arms, and besides, ringing the bell was her favorite part. “I shall handle it myself, Elder Lanica,” Iris replied, trying to infuse her voice with gravity and hold back a smile.
Like all old Erinlin towns, the low round gathering hall was near the center of Iris’s village. Its outer walls had been painted last spring festival, and though berry juice and ground beetles didn’t make for the most enduring paint on long-since-saturated walls, Iris could still sense the protection sigils she had sketched by the door.
Inside the hall, Iris could see a few small children playing with reeds as one of their mothers wove a basket in the dim light, but Iris wasn’t going inside. By the door were two tapering stone towers, one on each side. To the left was the torch tower, with steps carved into it so that its basin could be filled with fuel. On the right was the bell tower, with a tri-colored rope snaking down from the old bell. There was old magic here, ancient defenses against hostile spirits, and to Iris it felt like home.
No need for magic today, though. Iris rang the bell three times, two in quick succession and then a louder ring at the end. After a minute of leaning against the stone, she rang the same pattern again. Another few minutes, and she rang it one last time. They were about overdue for an almsgiving, but it was nice to give the villagers a good bit of notice before going door to door.
“Candlemaiden?” a small voice asked, accompanied by a tug on Iris’s robe. Iris looked down at a small boy from the hall, who was beaming at her with a gapped-tooth grin. “I have a tithe for you.”
The boy held out a crude circle of woven reeds, which Iris fitted onto her wrist with a smile.
“Why, thank you. Your gift is most appreciated.”
The boy blushed and ran back into the shady hall, where his mother was watching, squinting at the sunny door. It was a good start to an almsgiving, and though Iris believed little in auguries, she hoped that perhaps this time people would be warm with her instead of distant.
But most of the villagers stuck to the formal wording as they offered milk and bread and cheese to Iris, and even those that diverged only did so with anxious words: I hope this is enough honey, I’ll have cloth for you in a month’s time, tell Hall she can send in her knife for sharpening if need be.
Iris ended up resting in the shade by Lady Sandalmur’s house midafternoon, her basket on the ground beside her so her arms could recover from its weight. She had only the eggs left to get now, down at the edge of town from Rina’s daughters. Though the air wasn’t too warm, the ground was hot against her feet after a lazy day of soaking in sun, and Iris was grateful for the refuge of shadows.
With her back against the house’s stone wall, Iris could hear the murmuring of conversation inside. It sounded like the Lady’s native tongue, Kaerintian, all sharp consonants and guttural vowels. Iris had heard her speak it before with Father Upton. Upton was back at the Church though, so Iris figured she must be chatting with Frederick, the only other Kaerent in town.
Lady Sandalmur’s story was a sad one. Her husband had arrived a year or so before her to fix up the drafty remains of an old clans-house, endearing himself to the town with his earnest attitude, stellar mutton stew and ginger cake recipes, and willingness to overpay the local children for help with basic tasks. But then he had died only a few weeks after Lady Sandalmur had arrived, leaving her alone in a land whose language her tongue still fumbled and whose people she held little in common with. She had worn mourning black for most of her torturous pregnancy, only to don it again after that last fruitless remnant of her husband had nearly killed her.
Still, Iris liked her, in a strange way. She was also alone and different, and wore dresses like her weird culture dictated. They didn’t speak much, but Iris thought they understood each other. And, Iris thought as she scooped up her basket and rolled her shoulders, there was little need to disturb Lady Sandalmur for alms if she had company, especially since she didn’t grasp the custom too well. Last almsgiving the lady had given Iris a beautiful ruby necklace, which, though touching, was pointless, since it was too fine to wear and impossible to sell. Mother Hall had blanched at the sight of it, before tucking it away in one of her jars. Iris wondered if one day she would accidentally stumble upon it while searching for arrowroot.
The walk to Rina’s old house wasn’t long, but Iris was already worn out from town, stiff from smiling at people whose eyes had no warmth. Bluebells, bickering, and the rooster- Iris ran through what she had to report to Rina’s daughters as she shifted the offerings already in her basket, forming little dimples in which the eggs could rest.
“Morning, Iris!” a chipper voice said from the garden, and Iris was startled to see Roland digging up potatoes, his face smeared with dirt.
“It’s almost evening,” Iris replied, disoriented. Roland was rarely in town.
“I suppose it is, but I like saying ‘morning’ better.” Roland dropped another tuber into the basket next to him. “Makes me think anything could still happen.”
“I suppose so. Why are you digging potatoes?”
“Lita said I could have extra eggs if I dug out her potatoes. Almost got ’em all, I think.”
There was at least another hour’s worth of potatoes to dig up, but Roland had always been overly energetic and cheerful. From the few times she had played with the other children, Iris knew that Roland was terrible at hide and seek, never able to keep still or silent for more than a minute or two, but excellent at tag. Iris thought his disposition at odds with shepherding, which she pictured as pensive and patient job, but his uncle apparently found him tolerable enough to apprentice.
“Candlemaiden,” Lita called from the door of her cottage. “I have your eggs.”
Nodding a goodbye to Roland, Iris headed to Lita- bluebells, bickering, rooster- and accepted each egg carefully, nestling them into safe spots in the basket.
“Rina sends you greetings,” Iris started, after Lita handed over the last egg. “And she wants you to know that you should stop bickering over her rooster, since he’ll be joining her soon.”
Lita stiffened and tried to smooth over a pained expression. “Is that all?”
“She would also like you and your sister to bring some bluebells to her grave. She says it’s getting dull.”
Lita let out a strangled sound before thanking Iris quickly and closing the door, leaving the Candlemaiden to wonder why people were so awkward about the dead.
“You’re back late,” Mother Hall observed from where she kneeled in the garden.
“Rina was chatty,” Iris replied, dropping off the basket inside before going to help Mother Hall to her feet. In the last few years she had seemed to age a decade, and now she rarely ventured farther than the garden walls. Iris knew it pained her to be so frail, and it pained Iris too to see the vibrant priestess of her childhood now mete out her energy so carefully.
“Frederick was here,” Hall said, as Iris raised an eyebrow at the tea set on the table. “He had some news for us.”
“Us?” Iris asked, tucking away the honeypot and putting away the eggs. She noticed, as she reached into the basket for the bread, that at some point her bracelet must have frayed and fallen off. She blinked away the tears that bloomed in her eyes and decided she was overdue for sleep.
“Times are changing, Iris,” Mother Hall said, and Iris felt another wave of exhaustion, because she was not ready to have this conversation, not ready to hear her mentor confess her own mortality. “Our land is no longer entirely our own, and our customs, even as they seem to fade, may be more vital than ever. There is a lot you don’t know, a lot I failed to teach you, a lot I never told you.” Hall stared at Iris, her eyes as shrewd as always. For a moment Iris thought Hall would continue, but instead the priestess just sighed. “But you are weary and it is late. There will be time on the morrow for us to talk.”
But that talk never came, at least not while Mother Hall still breathed.