Too wary to keep in the cottage when Mother Hall had such heavy words to say, Iris skipped out early the next day to collect herbs, leaving her mentor a message that she might stay out a few nights if the weather stayed fair. It was a childish act of cowardice, and Iris knew she was running from shadows, keeping to the paths she knew and need not fear, but it seemed if she stayed out she need not face whatever painful truth Hall had in her breast. Or perhaps at least she could build up her strength to hear it.
So Iris did a tour of her favorite places, spending half a day gathering up chestnuts so she could roast them and offer them to the shy spirit that dwelled in the forest well and the playful one that frolicked in their brook and tended to keep under the bridge in the summer as to spout water at the kids who crossed it. After that, she headed towards the hills, following the brook upstream and clambering up the rocks it spilled over so effortlessly.
She spent the night at the edge of the forest, sheltered by its canopy and by the flickering-purple circle of candles she lit around her. The next morning she chased the stiffness from her limbs by plunging into the icy water of the brook and then thawing herself out with hands wreathed in flames, taking extra care to burn away the few ticks that had dug their way into the flesh of her calves. She spent a few hours actually gathering mushrooms and ramson, some betony and basil, and as much yellow dandelion as she could fit in her basket so that she wouldn’t return empty-handed.
In the hills, she took a break to gnaw at the stale bread she had brought with her, softening it with her spit as she stared out at the rolling fields beneath her. In the distance she could see a flock of idle sheep, and a dark speck she imagined to be Roland. Perhaps, after visiting the shrine, she would return through the fields and visit the sparse huts and the gruff men that lived in them. After all, they were in her and Hall’s apportioned part of the canton, and as their Candlemaiden, she was responsible for their spiritual wellbeing.
The hike to the old shrine was steep and tricky, but Iris knew the way well enough, and was barely out of breath when she reached the crown of the highest hill. The shrine wasn’t for any spirit Iris had ever met, and though the glassy contours of its twisted black rocks reminded her of ocean waves, the way the jagged rocks jutted into the sky made her think of mountains and cliffs instead of wells and streams. Mother Hall had only taken her three times before, but Iris had visited several times on her own: some intangible, atmospheric quality of the lonely hilltop shrine called to her.
Though its meaning had been lost to time, Iris liked to believe the shrine was to Allerin, the goddess incarnate of their land, always set upon by the Old Man Sea but never bowing before him. Her image was preserved in a mural of stone in their gathering hall, her skin made of the same sleek black rock, and her hair, eyes, and simple slip made of glittering moon-white quartz. But Mother Hall dismissed the old legends of Allerin and the Sea along with the tales of the Moon and the Rose, the Juniper Tree, and the Seven Ravens.
“Fables deal with human mentality,” she espoused. “They endure because so do our follies. Candlemaidens deal with spirits, concrete and comprehensible beings. Leave the messy business of people and their gods to themselves.”
Oddly, that was much of what the Kaerent church sought to do. It spoke of one god, the hand behind the cosmos, but taught that believing in him wasn’t necessary as long as one believed in his mandates: Truth, Order, and Justice. The way Father Upton spoke of it, it was fine to keep offering to river spirits and to commune with the dead, as long as that didn’t interfere with the execution of the Divine Three. Iris thought it rather obscure how exactly one executed Justice and Order, but apparently that was what the priests were for.
Iris liked Father Upton, but a lot of what he said confused her. He called Candlemaidens priestesses with a weight that made it seem as if he believed what they did was part of a religion, but spiritcraft had nothing to do with beliefs or gods or doctrines. It was simply a reaction to reality, the logic of life. If one didn’t keep the dead down, they’d rise up and hassle those in town. If one didn’t appease the river spirits, they’d cause mischief. Perhaps there was a sense of mystic destiny to Candlemaidens; they were born able to see spirits, and so they were chosen for a life apart. But even to Iris that seemed more a matter of practicality than spirituality.
It was easy to think up by the shrine, with cool fresh air and the pleasant almost-silence of the wild grasses’ susurration. Iris sat cross-legged by the obsidian shrine, her feet warm in the sunlight and her hair fluttering behind her in the wind. She didn’t have an offering besides her presence and remembrance; there was no prescribed course of action for a deity long ago forgotten.
At some point in the passing hours, Iris’s mind forgot to skim around the root of her worries, and she found herself, pleasantly detached, wondering what Mother Hall would say to her, how she should respond. She toyed with scenarios of death and reassignment, of grave secrets and mortal regrets. It was easy, far away from society, to let these heavy possibilities float through her head like leaves on the breeze, catching her eye but flitting away before she could reach out and register their reality.
When it grew too dusky and too cool, Iris bowed to the shrine and left, seeking a hollow among the hills that would shelter her from the chill winds starting to whisk across the grass. That night, staring up at the stars and tasting approaching autumn in the air, Iris settled into a resolved peace. In the morning she would take the roundabout way home, survive whatever news Mother Hall had, and continue on with her life as a Candlemaiden. That, at least, was certain. Iris reached into her dress’s pocket and rolled a candle through her fingers, sensing in it the essence of bay leaves and juniper berries and the perceptive power they invoked. No matter what times are changing portended, Iris was a Candlemaiden, and her domain would ever be the spirits and spirit of Erinlin.
But Iris’s fate was not her own, and across the sea in walls of stone schemed a greedy king with a wide-armed throne. With his eyes set on Erinlin and the voice of misery whispering in his ear, he planned to reshape the peaceful kingdom into a land entirely subservient to his own.
In what he called an act of benevolence, he decreed that all children not in a respectable apprenticeship be sent to the schools he would build. So farmers-to-be were taken from their plows, those who would weave left their looms, pottery wheels were not spun by small feet, ripe fruits were not picked by small hands, and Iris, relic of a religion the King called superstitious, was taken away from Mother Hall, the Candlekin, and the only way of life she had ever known.
“I’m not leaving,” Iris said, not a note of petulance or rebellion in her voice. For her, it was a simple statement of fact.
Mother Hall looked at her from across the table, her weathered face stern but not harsh. “It’s not up to you. There are Kaerent soldiers in town, and you are on their list. And before you get in your head to fight them or frighten them off, remember they are doing their king’s work.”
“Well, he’s not our king! Erinlin doesn’t have a king. So why should I let him make me do anything?”
Mother Hall sighed. “The politics of it are complicated, Iris.” At a narrowed-eyed glare from her apprentice, she added, “In short, Erinlin is beholden to Karentia, and to resist this request would mean war.”
“Well, no one’s going to start a war over me,” Iris replied, as if that settled everything. “So I’m not letting them take me. I’m staying here.”
Mother Hall slammed her hand down on the table, rattling the chestnuts in their blue-stained bowl. “No you’re not, child. The world is changing, and having a Candlemaiden versed in Kaerent ways may be what we need to survive.”
“This town won’t survive without me.”
“This is about more than our town.”
“So you don’t deny it?”
“Father Upton and I are more than capable of serving this town while you’re away.”
“Ah yes. Father Upton.” Iris leaned back in her chair, arms crossed.
Hall gave Iris a sharp look. “Father Upton is a good man.”
“Aye,” Iris agreed with a tilt of her head, remembering his kindly smile and the candles she had taught him to make. “He is. But that doesn’t mean he can’t do bad things.” Iris’s voice got a bit shrill. “Such as giving my name to the soldiers coming to rip me from my place in the universe!”
“The census was ages ago, and he knew not how it would be used. You are too harsh, Iris.” Mother Hall coughed, hand against her chest, and then pushed her heavy gray hair away from her face. “And you will not win this fight. It is my will that you go with these soldiers, and as my apprentice you must obey. As much as it pains me, past this night, you will not be allowed shelter in my house.”
There was a finality in her voice that bludgeoned Iris’s heart, and suddenly the shelf of fine glass bowls, the drawers of neatly sorted candles, the strings of garlic draped over the wooden crossbeam, all of it, all the things Iris had grown up with and built her world around, seemed foreign and filled her mouth with the taste of ashes. Shoving herself away from the table, her chair screeching against the floor, Iris ran out the door before Mother Hall could see her tears and sought solace in the one place untouched by the world’s sudden bout of a madness.
Beneath the yew tree, Iris hugged her knees to her chest. The back of her throat ached in a twisted knot, and the skin under her eyes was fever-flushed. She was sick of crying, but every time she tried to still her tears, she remembered she was leaving and another wave of pain swelled in her.
“I don’t want to go,” she mumbled, wondering if the yew was listening. “I can’t leave the village alone. Mother Hall can barely leave her house. I- I can’t leave her!”
Iris stared at the ground for a while and wiggled her toes. For a while she prodded at the pebbles and sticks with her feet, not daring to look at the traitorous blue sky, which was clear and bright and bound to bring her to tears.
“I don’t want to be alone,” she said after a while. “I’m already so alone. If I lose Mother Hall, who will I have left besides myself?” Iris knew she wouldn’t get along with the other children. She was different, and as such was best kept apart from them. Iris was no longer bitter about this; it was the way things must be. She lived her life half in death and was company fit more for spirits than people.
Overhead, the branches of the yew tree creaked and swayed, the leaves rustling without the wind. Iris looked up, hopeful.
The yew tree sent out a wave of warmth that washed through Iris, erasing the pain in her throat and chest. With it came a message of comfort: all will be well, child.
Another wave of intention rushed out past Iris into the graveyard and through the veil to Death. Like a stone thrown into a pond, what occurred beneath the surface, in Death, was lost to Iris; she could only sense the ripples visible in life, which spread out from a patch of young graves.
Iris watched as sunlight caught on what seemed like patches of dew near the grave, reflecting and gleaming and suddenly solidifying, so that what had been light became mist, mist that twisted and thickened and coalesced into the spirit-flesh of three scampering-towards-her mice.
Iris’s laughter sounded like a shriek as the spirit-mice clambered onto her and raced up and down her arms and neck. They didn’t speak, but sent their thoughts into her head, expressing their joy at meeting her. She sent back to them her happiness and hope of lasting companionship. She could already sense in them a child-like love of frolic and mischief. One of them, perhaps more sedate than the others, licked at the tear-tracts on her cheeks.
All will be well, Iris thought. Maybe.
Beneath the yew tree, surrounded by new friends, Iris had hope that shone like the moon in the night. But she would have many trials ahead of her before all would be well again.