Candlemaiden: The Stranger Shore

Fifth Chapter: Banishment

The order to leave the school came as abruptly as the summons. Iris’s hair had grown long, past her shoulders. The three mice had grown fat and sleek, longer than her hand and lazier by the day. The sun had been sharper than usual that summer, and it was a chilly autumn.

The morning they left was dank and blustery. All the girls but Iris wore leggings under their dresses, but now as they left the suffocating influence of the Kaerent school, some hitched the blue uniforms up into tunics. A few laughed at being able to finally dress as an adult. Most were silent. The wind was cruel to her dew-soaked ankles as Iris trudged to the wagon, a heel of bread weighing down one pocket and two lavender candles rolling in the other. It was too early for her to feel anything but sick from the dregs of curtailed sleep.

Sellie, sitting across from Iris in one of the crowded rickety wagons, offered a shy smile that Iris reflexively returned. The girl, older now but still slight, was in reverent awe of Iris, who had no idea how to respond. The casual camaraderie she had gained in the last year still ruffled her. She was accustomed to wary glances and whispers, not smiles and nods and kind conversations. Always knowing the mice would be company enough, she had never imagined what it would be like to have friends her own age.

And she was still too scared to find out, so she looked away after her smile and watched the old mill and manor house hide behind rows of trees and a final hill. Skantos had given her a package wrapped in oilskin that now sat snugly in her bag, under her old cloak and a book she had won as a math prize that she only kept because the mice loved nibbling the soft pages. He had been subdued ever since the banishment in the infirmary, and Iris wondered at times if he regretted coming to Erinlin or being a part of this cruel endeavor.

It was a day’s travel to Ramos, if they were lucky. Excited chatter, though somewhat muted by the early morning, buzzed in each wagon. More than a few girls were crying, faces glinting in the sun. Iris could, if she tilted her head and opened her senses, feel their spirits bubbling at the surface. Some spoke of home and their families that had grown and fought and laughed without them. One fretted about her needlework skills and laughed nervously when she predicted her mother wouldn’t let her embroider cloaks when she got home. In the next wagon over, two girls were singing a Full Harvest song while the wagon driver whistled along. Amalind and Terry were having a mock fight about whose sweet potato pies were better.

Iris felt detached from it all. She didn’t have a family to wonder about, nor a friend to promise to visit. Already people were reminiscing about their school days, laughing fondly about classes and teachers they had hated at the time, but Iris had no such rose-tinted recollections. She was, in a wagon of girls she had lived with for the past three years, alone.

A faint squeak from inside her bag offered an indignant rebuke and teased a smile to her face. Not alone, then. Never alone.


The city was bleaker than she remembered it. The gaily painted houses were sparser, it seemed, and more ragged, worn wood showing through the paint like stains. Perhaps it was that the sky was overcast, but from cloth and from wood and from glass the color seemed drained away. Trash was trapped between the cobblestones and from the alleyways gleamed the hungry eyes of strays.

When Iris had first visited Ramos, the people had been cheerful, chatting to their companions and nodding to passersby. There had been the merry susurrus of conversation, whistling, and horseshoes on cobbles clopping in the air.

Now the people seemed fearful, clutching cloaks around them though it wasn’t too cold, huddling together with silent companions as they scuttered across the streets. Perhaps they could sense what Iris felt deep in her bones: the bitter presence and restless thrumming of uneasy spirits.

Yet despite the city’s defeated malaise, people had still begun preparing for the Hallowed Moon festival. Purple ribbons dangled from door frames, red roses real or hand-made stood vigil in windows with small yellow candles, and on almost every street carved pumpkins peppered doorsteps. Some pumpkins had wicked faces with snarling fangs, the better to scare off evil spirits. Others were painted with the traditional wheat and sickle as a token of gratitude for the harvest. A few remarkable pumpkins had stained glass insets, whose dancing colors made Iris smile.

One pumpkin had an odd symbol carved into it that Iris stopped to peer down at. It was familiar, yet she couldn’t quite place it.

“It’s not a symbol Mother Hall taught me,” Iris said softly to the three mice as they sniffed at the pumpkin, “nor something from the foreign alphabet we learned at school.” She stared at it a bit longer as the ghostly mice began to tease a cat in the nearby alley, whose swiping paws passed right through her intended prey. Iris felt much the same, sifting through her memory for the answer but unable to pin it down. She stood there, head tilted in thought, until the cold air biting at her ankles became unbearable. With a disgruntled sigh, she set off to walking again. A snap of her fingers brought the mice back to her, and they crawled onto her shoulders to rest as she headed to the Red Sand Inn.

Erin had invited the girls traveling through the city to stay at her family’s inn, and though Iris had been surprised at her inclusion, she knew better than to refuse. The school had given them each five of Kaerentia’s queer copper pennies for their travels, which, even if people accepted them, would hardly be enough.

But people did accept the foreign currency. While the other girls had settled at in the inn, Iris had set off to roving around Ramos. She had left with no particular intent, perhaps only to escape the continued stifling amiability, but she was returning weighted and distracted by what she had learned. Not only did the oblong coppers and starred silvers of Kaerentia change hands as easily as Erinlin’s own pennies, but Iris was just as likely to hear the guttural clattering of the Kaerent tongue as the rattle of their coins.

And people dressed strangely, in weird cuts and colors, sometimes subtly off and others egregiously wrong. As many women wore dresses as tunics, and Iris had been self-conscious of her outfit, not because it marked her as a Candlemaiden, but because she was afraid that people would not know that it did. They might look at her bare feet and think her careless or penniless for not wearing shoes. They would look with disdain at the clumsy pockets Iris had sewn on, not knowing they were an integral part of a true robe’s pattern. Iris had always been an outsider, eliciting stares and whispers as a member of an ancient and sacred order. But now she would be victim to judgements without the protection of context, her sacred observances given vulgar meaning by unknowing eyes.

It was a sad and lonely truth, and Iris grieved for the days she had never known, when Candlemaidens traveled freely and were welcome wherever they passed. When spiritcraft wasn’t regarded with suspicion, nor its priestesses with disdain-tinted fear. As she walked the streets of a city burying its history, she grieved for the Erinlin of old.

The Red Sand Inn, at least, spoke of days gone by. From where Iris had settled at one of the only empty tables, she could see a sea-glass mural depicting a traditional spring festival, with animals made of hay and willow waiting for the blue-flamed brands to kiss them. Lovely carved river barks amidst reeds and herons adorned Iris’s tabletop, and she ran finger over a river spirit peeking up at a boat. The Hallowed Moon decorations met Iris’s approval too; the ribbons draping the door frame were stained a rich purple, the roses and candles in the windowsill were artfully arranged, and scenes from The Moon and the Rose were carved on the pumpkins that sat squat on the mantel.

Iris idly fed the mice bits of turnip from her stew as she ruminated on Ramos and how far-reaching the Kaerent presence could actually be. Her spoon splashed as it slipped from her fingers. The odd symbol on that pumpkin, the one she couldn’t place earlier, was the Kaerent Navy insignia. Deeply troubled, Iris licked the stew off the handle of her spoon. Was it a benediction, a curse, or warning? Had a child simply liked the design he saw in the harbor, or was its origin something deeper, something darker? Perhaps it was nothing more than an earnest attempt at a local tradition by a stationed officer. Iris still felt sick.

Chittering at her distress, the mice flickered in and out of sight, scrambling over her arms and licking her face in sympathy. Iris grinned weakly in return to calm them down. She tried to focus on her stew.


Iris looked up at the old woman, pleased by the epithet.

“Yes, ma’am?”

The woman sat down next to Iris, and a few people hovering behind her drew closer to the conversation. She drew her hands over Iris’s and smiled.

“It’s been a while since I’ve seen your ilk, child. The city ‘maidens are so watery. They speak words and light candles, but it’s the Kaerent church they serve, not the land. Your mice, may I see them?”

At Iris’s cautious invitation, the spirits became visible. One, more daring than his kin, sniffed the woman’s hand then clambered up her arm. He sniffed her ear as if to gauge if she were trustworthy, then scrambled down and back up to Iris’s shoulder. One mouse sat on Iris’s head, eyes lambent and green. The last stayed on the table between Iris and the rest of the room, his tail curling and uncurling.

More people were gathering around them now, but only the woman spoke. “So it is. For the last three nights, an evil spirit like a wicked wind has ravaged our city. We burn sage and hang wreaths of alder and rowan, but still it tears through streets and shatters windows. My own daughter had her arm ripped open by flying glass, and she’s not the only one. It is near Hallowed Moon, and we fear to venture out at night.”

“A shade?”

The woman’s voice grew darker. “No. I’ve seen two shades in my life, and never would I wish to see another. But this creature is far fouler. It is shaped like a violet flame and knows not the constraints of a shade. Sage smoke is just air to it, and it moves without shadows. I have never seen its like, nor heard tale of such a thing. But perhaps, Candlemaiden, you may know what to do.”

“She’s just a child,” one man said, pushing past his companions. “This is folly.”

“You haven’t seen it,” another said. “She may be the only hope we have.”

Others broke out in arguing as the woman squeezed Iris’s hand. “Can you help us?”

Iris stood, uncertainly. Some foreign memory swam beneath the surface of her thoughts, and she knew she could fight this spirit, if only she could remember how. She tugged at the memory, tasting out its contours, and just when one detail fell into place, the key to its brethren-

Fatigue and nausea rushed into her, so heavy that instead of steadying herself on the table she bruised her outflung hand on its edge in her inexorable fall to the floor. She lay shocked and still, too scared to breathe deeply lest it worsen the swelling sickness within, and felt the rough cloth of her school bed scratching against her feverish skin instead of the inn’s worn-smooth wooden floor. Her head pounded and her heart hurt as it twisted in her chest. She may have cried out, but she could hear only her blood rushing and nothing else. In a few moments that stretched too far, the world returned to her- light through her eyelids, worried voices over muffled roar of waves, wood and sawdust on her skin- and she breathed deeply to scour the last vestiges of muculent lethargy from her flesh.

When she stood, mouthing bland assurances to concerned questions she barely processed, the schematics of a plan were emblazoned in her mind. She turned to the women and said flatly, “I need a ribbon, a bottle, and a full hand of flowers. Also, a dying man, a newborn babe, and a maiden’s first blood.”


The dying man was younger than she thought he would be: a sailor, not past thirty, though his skin was pasty and his eyes dull. Specks of blood peppered his beard. He tried to look at her when she entered, raising his head a few scant inches above his pillow, but a sad wet cough pushed his head back down.

She lit the candles with her hand instead of bothering with matches because his mother had insisted he wasn’t a stranger to the old traditions, the unwritten religion of Erinlin and its Candlemaidens. He never noticed, all his focus on drawing thin air into his closing lungs.

He was already gone, Iris realized, his spirit tethered to his body in only a few final places. The rest of it was fading away into elsewhere. She could follow him, she knew, delve into the veil where his spirit lingered, ready to move on, and bring him back, forcibly seal his spirit into his dying body, but that would be no kindness. Instead she focused on her candles, placing the small white ones throughout the room and lighting them as she went. When those were set, she burnt some dream herbs in her hand and coaxed the smoke to touch each flame.

She had done these rites before; she was no stranger to death. But she was nervous about what came next. Confident as she seemed in front of Hinna, Iris had never made a bottlebell before. And though she knew the steps and rituals, the whole process was entirely new.

The purple candle she lit amidst the smoke, and carefully she drew out the old green bottle. Erin had led her down into the cellar to find it, and as Iris had gauged the necks and color of bottles holding whiskey and rum and even wine until she had found the dusty green bottle, half-filled with gin. Erin had suggested they both take a sip, and though Iris had liked the symbolism, she wasn’t sure if she had liked the foreign warmth in her chest.

The man coughed violently and pathetically, and Iris hated herself for her clinical happiness she felt at hearing the loud rattle. Carefully she pushed the candle snuggly into the bottleneck, and watched the flame dance inside. For a while it flared, then dimmed again. As it sputtered out, Iris lay the ribbon-bound flowers on the bedside table. For a few minutes she watched the sailor’s chest, learned the cadence of his killing cough. Then, before she could overthink it, she yanked the candle out of the bottle, held it to his lips, trapped his death rattle within, and plugged the neck with the ribbon-wrapped flower stems. The bottlebell was complete.


The other steps had been simpler. The newborn had been more or less what she expected: small and squishy and soft-looking. Her mother, rocking the baby gently in her arms, had hushed Iris as she entered. She had placed and lit the stubby white candles cautiously, hyper-aware of the delicate atmosphere.

The baby had woken up briefly while she was setting candles, but her mother had cradled her again until she nodded off. Despite her focus on the ritual, Iris had felt a small smile twitch her lips.

Gathering the baby’s breath amidst the small flowers had been easy, and being so close to the infant’s tiny nose and puffy cheeks had filled Iris with quiet awe. The red-stained ribbon made her feel awkward, but she wrapped it deftly around the stems as soon as she had caught enough breath, and then, unsure how to express her gratitude to the mother, she had simply nodded and left.

And now, her nerves already rubbed raw, the true trial could begin.


Ramos was beautiful at night, Hinna told Iris as the Candlemaiden set and lit candles on the street. There was an hour until sundown, and Iris oscillated violently from thinking that was too long to dreading it was too short. The old woman had shown Iris where the spirit usually materialized and the streets it had ripped apart, and Iris had decided to bait the spirit to an open crossroads, where she’d hopefully have enough room and skill to banish it.

She was terrified, so she listened avidly as Hinna spoke of starry skies over gentle seas, of running children and laughing lovers. She painted a picture of a Ramos Iris had never truly seen, though perhaps she caught a glimpse on her first visit. The city she spoke of was so lovely, and Iris wondered if when Hinna died it would cease to be.

The mice were at the Inn, glutting themselves on a bucket of milk; she needed them at full-strength tonight. Extra candles weighed down her pockets, rolling against each other as she walked. Within the translucent green glass of her bottlebell, a dark smoke pooled, ready to be rung. She was as prepared as she could be.

Except her stomach roiled and her mouth was parched. And if she tried to hold them still, her hands trembled, so Iris kept them constantly engaged, even if it was just by rolling tapers between her fingers.

“My sister was a Candlemaiden.”

Iris looked at Hinna, startled.

“Even so, we were close. She always looked so beautiful, so ethereal in her robes. She used to complain about the strangest things. ‘The juniper berries are too shy this year’ or ‘the rivers are flirting again.’ I loved her, and she loved me, I think.” Hinna was quiet for a while. “She wasn’t lonely. Perhaps alienated is a better word. No one really understood her except her teacher. I used to begrudge her that. Now I realize it’s how it has to be.

“What you do tonight, Iris, none of us could ever do. What we owe you is deeper than gratitude. I remember the way things used to be… before our traditions got lost among all these foreign fashions and customs.” She opened her canvas bag and pulled out an embroidered half cloak. “You’re shivering. I beg you to accept this humble token of our regard.”

It was the most beautiful cloak Iris had ever seen, and she was quiet as she put it on. Soft but sturdy, it was a comforting weight and warmth on her shoulders. She looked at Hinna, for the moment all her fears forgotten, and thanked her as well as she could. The old woman smiled, her eyes bright, but behind her Iris could see the sun sinking into the sea and her guts grew icy cold. She closed her eyes and whistled, and her mice came running. It was time to begin.


Iris stood with golden eyes hidden in the shadows of her hood. Through her mice, she could see the other streets and the long lines of candles she had laid. Their green-blue light cast upon walls and windows turned the streets into underwater avenues. Eyes, fearful and furtive, peered out from inside their homes. Elsewhere in the city, people were dancing. It was the Eve of Hallowed Moon Festival, when the rose gave the moon its final trial and it seemed the two lovers would finally meet. But Iris waited for her foe, not her beloved, and hoped the trial she had set would not be overcome.

So, with errant strains of music and laughter rising into the hungry night, she raised her arms shimmering with flames and waited for her spirit-foe.


The wind started as a whisper, tugging at her hair and tickling her ears. For a moment Iris hoped it might be a wandering breeze from the ocean, but instead of salt it tasted like a summer storm. In seconds the breeze became a whipping wind, one that swirled around her and crackled like lightning. As the spirit began to coalesce in front of Iris, she realized her mistake; it was stronger than she realized, strong enough to materialize where it willed rather than in the candle traps she had set. The spirit’s form flickered, its shape etched in shades of violet.

The spirit was a tall, proud man wearing ancient armor and a three-pronged crown, and his skin rippled like the roiling clouds of a storm. Only his eyes weren’t the purple of a vivid bruise; they were black maelstroms that bored through Iris’s defenses.

Misery,” he hissed, and Iris took a step back. His voice was like wind whipping through trees and the roar of rain. Iris struggled to catch his words, until his eyes met her and he spoke in a rushed loud voice. “Can’t escape. The river… in revolt.” And then he lunged for her, one arm flung out in front of him, his eyes wild.

Iris ran.

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