When the sun rose on Iris’s last day in town, she did not cry. She packed her bag with her extra dress, as many candles as she could fit, and three chittering mice. The Kaerents, in off-beat Erillen, had told them not to bring much, as proper clothing and approved possessions would be provided for them at their school, but Iris knew each girl had their secret treasures stashed away on them: promise ribbons, carved walnut shells, metal thimbles and sheep bone needles. For Iris, it was the carving knife given to her by Mother Hall that she kept close, tucked into an inner pocket by her thigh.
Iris would have thought it cruel, the way the Kaerents herded the girls quickly into wagons and away from their parents, but she was grateful for the clean break. If she had been left to linger by Mother Hall, she would have brought back up her accusations and been unable to keep down her hard-swallowed resolve. Given room to spread, the pain and sense of betrayal seeded in her would have bloomed like an infection. Then perhaps their curt parting was suitably surgical.
Iris wondered how many of the boys would try to run away before wagons came for them in a few weeks. Somehow their fate, not yet realized, seemed worse; she grieved more for Roland and his dwindling freedom than she did for the girl sobbing next to her.
What, then, is there to say? For the next few weeks, Iris was in the strange space between purposes and defining environs. No longer her town’s Candlemaiden, not yet a student in a Kaerent school, she ate when she was given food and slept when it was time to sleep. The rest of the girls talked to each other and devised games with acorns and sticks, but Iris kept herself at a distance, as she always had. It helped that her new mice friends were always willing to play with her, and that she was able to send an impression of herself after them as they ran through the fields. Iris always referred to this skill of hers as “stepping out,” but Mother Hall had called it projection and cautioned her to be careful with it. Well, Iris was careful. She never stayed out of her body so long that her limbs were afterwards too stiff to flex about.
It never occurred to her that her periods of rigid posture and glazed eyes unnerved the other girls. And so each day unfurled, much like the day before, and Iris watched it all with a measure of objectivity. Little of note happened as they crossed the countryside, except for one incident, four days before they reached the capital city of Ramos, involving Sellie and a river spirit.
Iris knew most of the girls in the wagon passing well. They had, after all, grown up in the same town. Names for the most part escaped her, but she had a general impression of each one’s character. Which is why the Kaerents’ treatment towards Sellie confused her. Sellie was a sweet girl, a bit quiet, who had always offered Iris and Hall reeds and seaweed and other water plants that she liked to gather. Many candles and wards called for such things, and when Sellie’s younger brother had died of an autumn fever two years past, Iris had been grateful to be able to repay Sellie’s fine offerings by letting the two talk to each other one last time.
Sellie was sweet, but the Kaerents treated her with distrust and hints of revulsion. When they handed out evening rations, they were brusque with her, taking extra care not to accidentally touch her. They tended not to look at her face when they addressed her but were fine staring when her back was turned. Truthfully, Iris wouldn’t have noticed any of this had one of her mice not mentioned it in passing, bumping his nose against hers and sending her the message in tumbling images.
But once pointed out, it was hard to ignore, and Iris couldn’t help but wonder what the poor girl had done to provoke the Kaerents’ ire. It was also a bit strange to Iris to see someone else treated as other, as an outsider, when she herself had grown so accustomed to the role.
The answer came to Iris accidentally, after a disastrous stop at a river.
The river was a bit rough and not a stop Iris would normally choose, but at the time a wash for the girls had been overdue and even the Kaerents had that reedy-thin feel of exhaustion to them. Nobody protested when they stopped the wagons for the day and gestured for the girls to go bathe downstream. Iris had learned from her mice that the Kaerents would be eating the good cheese and cured meat while the girls were gone, and she had asked her three spirit friends to snag a bite for her if they could manage it without being seen.
Now, river spirits aren’t as wild as they used to be, but still, no one with good sense approaches a foreign river without caution. It pleased Iris that most of the girls looked to her before approaching the river, and only entered when she gave them a nod. The river’s spirit wasn’t nearby, and from the traces of itself left in the water, it didn’t seem to be one of particular malice. Still, as Mother Hall had succinctly phrased it, better over-cautious than dead, so Iris did little more than scrub her skin clean at shore and then stand, or rather sit, guard at the edge of the river, a spherical candle mottled blue and brown- called an anchor candle and both time-consuming and tricky to craft- heavy in her hand.
When Sellie came to sit by Iris in her vigil, the Candlemaiden was a bit confused, until Sellie explained, in a soft voice, that she had a fair sense of and a good hand with water spirits, and that she would keep guard with Iris. Iris tilted her head at this and acquiesced; Sellie was, after all, one of Erinlin’s Drowned, with lighter skin that had permanent blue-green splotches like bruises blooming beneath it. The Drowned, though they had no skill at seeing the dead or setting candles, were often able to see and treat with river spirits even when they were incorporeal. It was probably, Iris mused, what made Sellie so good at gathering water plants.
So there the two girls sat as the others splashed in the shallows and took a chance at levity by jumping from stone to stone. They didn’t talk as the others laughed and played, but it was a peaceful quiet that they shared.
Iris wasn’t sure which of them noticed the tendril of awareness first, but both sat up straighter as the sleepy river spirit quested towards the unfamiliar girls.
Friends, Sellie assured the spirit, and Iris added, just passing through.
Offering? The spirit’s voice, if so it could be called, was sleepy and ponderous.
Company, Sellie said, with a soft smile, and music, if you bring me a reed.
The spirit turned its awareness towards Iris, who had been conversing with her distant mice. Iris let her consciousness slip towards the river spirit. Would you like to try some cheese?
By the time the mice had brought Iris their purloined cheese and skittered away to steal more, Sellie had added a small length of river-spirit-cut reed to a set of staggered shepherd’s pipes and begun to play, her whistling music sounding like water over pebbles and summer rain. The other girls, not fully aware of the spirit but somewhat wary, had mostly moved all towards the river banks, loitering on the wide flat rocks while pulling on their pants and frocks or taking a comb to their tangled hair.
Iris fed the river spirit the cheese in crumbles, and the aqueous form it manifested for the offering was a creature somewhere between a flat-headed salamander and a sea lion, with a wide mouth and deep whirling eyes. Iris still wasn’t sure how river spirits ate their offerings; sometimes the food seemed to sit in their translucent bellies, and sometimes it disappeared after their mouth. Mother Hall had spoken of secret coves in a realm apart where river spirits kept all their treasures, and Iris supposed it was possible that’s where some of the offerings went, to be feasted on later in private.
Lost in thought, Iris didn’t hear the Kaerents approaching, though by a stroke of luck the stolen cheese was gone by then. They came with their usual general shouting to hurry up and stop lollygagging, accompanied by the refrain of didn’t they know how fortunate they were to be chosen for a proper Kaerent schooling and couldn’t they show their appreciation by promptly following orders? All this was more or less harmless, until one said you too, freak and grabbed Sellie by the back of her tunic, yanking her away from the water’s edge and jarring her reed music to an abrupt halt.
There was a second in which the river spirit, lulled into a dreamy placidness by the food and song, only blinked at the interruption. But then it saw Sellie sprawled on the ground, her reed pipes flung to the side, and raged, the water around it roiling and swelling, its intent to grab and drown the Kaerent soldiers rushing over Iris and staggering her.
The soldiers, stupid and gaping, just stared at the river, one saying something about sulfur as the river began to hiss and the currents started to swirl, fleeting vortices baring small patches of the stony riverbed to the sun.
“Run!” Iris shouted, and though the girls were already escaping through the sparse trees to the wagon, she had to push at the soldiers to get them to move. “Do you want to get killed?”
They shot her annoyed and condescending looks, but something in her face must have convinced them there was a real threat, because, grumbling and ever-too-slow, they headed away, one jogging to catch up with the frantic fleeing girls. Part of Iris wanted to join their headlong rush to safety, but another part of her knew that she alone had the power to calm the angry spirit before it caused more chaos. Besides, Sellie was still sprawled on the ground, dazed from her fall, and Iris would protect her.
Rubbing one hand over her heavy candle, Iris took a few steps back from the angry river. There was an old Erillen saying Mother Hall had cautioned Iris with whenever Iris grew upset and melodramatic: don’t make a decision when the river is in revolt. That is, wait until you are calm before deciding anything important, don’t let your emotions sweep you away. It was a fitting phrase for Mother Hall, who had prided herself on following reason and logic and treated strong emotions like a head cold, a debilitation to be managed and contained.
Like most idioms, the words held for Iris only its second sense, but now she was beginning to understand the physicality behind the phrase “a river in revolt.” The spirits at home had never caused such chaos; here, there was no longer any current, just an expanse of swirling, bubbling water that whipped around in dozens of small whirlpools. Iris could no longer see the riverbed beneath, and instead there was the sense of interminable depth. The spirit itself was swelling, growing, its wide mouth sprouting sharp teeth and its skin taking on a more opaque hue. Iris had never herself seen a river spirit on a rampage, but she knew from the stories Hall told that she wouldn’t be strong enough to stop it. So, before the spirit became too tangible, before its skin gained too much solidity, Iris pressed her fingers tight against the anchor candle’s wick, and, as soon as it was lit and before she could worry too much or over-think it, she lobbed the candle straight into the spirit.
It didn’t work. The weight that should have dragged the spirit down into its cove, the watery pocket realm it had opened, instead caused the spirit to shrink and solidify more rapidly, so that suddenly Iris was faced with a sharp-toothed scuttling creature of green and blue charging towards her.
Her first instinct was to jump out of the way, and her second was to tackle the spirit so it couldn’t get to the girls at the wagon. What she ended up doing was freezing in terror as the spirit-creature- long-tailed and low to the ground- bared its teeth at her.
At the last moment, Iris found herself knocked to the ground by a sweep of the creature’s tail as it turned to face a new threat: three screeching mice grown to the size of kittens who darted to and fro around the confused spirit, keeping it twisting and turning, its heavy tail lashing at the ground. Iris scrambled away, her hand falling upon Sellie’s reed pipes, and with a start she looked around for the girl herself, and found her hiding behind a tree.
It was a long shot, but Iris didn’t have much else to go on, so she tossed the pipes to Sellie, wincing a bit when they landed a bit short and bounced off a root. But Sellie snatched them up quickly enough and began to play a fiercer more urgent tune than before. The song itched beneath Iris’s skin, and she felt as if there were bugs crawling through her ams and legs. Her mice felt it too, and scurried to Iris for comfort she struggled to give. And somehow the river spirit was paralyzed, a low buzzing in its throat and its limbs shaking, its eyes spinning quickly and darting from side to side. Slowly, Sellie approached the spirit, her tune growing slower and softer, and the whirring of the spirit’s eyes slowed too, until it was calm again and sensible. Iris couldn’t discern exactly what the two were saying to each other, but she felt a psychic pressure in the air that conveyed that they were speaking. Mostly, however, she felt very weary and disoriented. Her mind was too abuzz for her to sleep, but her limbs were too heavy for her to move, so she compromised and sat there, stunned, as Sellie led the spirit back to the water and the river settled down, its current returning and the froth dissipating. Good, Iris thought, all is well.
But then she heard the Kaerents shouting and rustling through the trees and she remembered she was still being carted away from her home by the decree of some mad king, and that, of the whole ordeal, made her want to cry the most. But then the soldiers were upon them, and she had no time for tears or weariness.
“You frog-skinned brat,” the rough one from earlier said, grabbing a subdued Sellie by the arm and dragging her out of the woods. “Get back to the wagon. You too, girl,” he added to Iris, who was dazed on the ground. “The earthquake might have let some toxic gasses up with the sulfur. Best we clear out.”
Two things occurred to Iris at once. First, the Kaerent soldiers disliked Sellie just because of her skin, as if that had any bearing on who she was as a person. And second, just because they didn’t have the eyes to see spirits, they decided they couldn’t exist. Iris had trouble reconciling these two attitudes with any rational creature. Could they really not know that the world was more than just its fickle surface appearance? It struck Iris as strange that they were to learn from men who didn’t even know as basic a thing as that.
But there was also much that Iris didn’t know, or didn’t quite remember, and much she was to learn about spiritcraft, despite the Kaerent King’s goals, while trapped in the wretched Kaerent school.