Down winding roads, past rows of candles, in the sea-soaked air Iris ran. With a gale-force roar and a lightning aura, the spirit followed.
Iris had a plan. Almost. The original plan had been to lure the spirit into the charmed crossroads circle she had set up and then use her bottlebell to beat it into submission until it vanished or the sun rose and it was banished. But the spirit was too strong for the candle circle, and Iris had nowhere else to contain it. So the plan for now was to keep it distracted while she thought of a way to bind it.
But it was hard to think when your feet slammed against stone and your throat burned bloody and raw. Hard to focus when a creature beyond mortal ken kept calling out misery behind you.
Iris whipped around a corner only to see people at the other end of the alley, dressed in oranges and yellows for the moon festival. Protecting them was her first priority, so she skidded to a halt and turned around. Eyes narrowed in concentration, Iris whistled, the note shrill and loud. It was enough to stop the spirit, who gazed at her with a tilted head and midnight eyes. Iris whistled again, three clear notes, and raised her bottlebell, which glowed with a ragged red light. She advanced towards the spirit slowly, who didn’t move as it watched her approach. Her senses were wide open, painfully so, but she focused and tried to block out the murmurs of the crowd behind her and search only for the three small sparks she was waiting for.
After a few seconds, her mice jumped onto her from the roofs, glowing and growing as they fed on her adrenaline and fear. The spirit tensed, as if to attack, and in that moment Iris rang her bottlebell and commanded the first mouse to jump.
The mouse twisted in mid-air, riding the energy from the bottlebell and morphing into something predatory. The spirit cried out in a voice that tore the hood back from Iris’s head and echoed in the alley. Undeterred, Iris took a step forward and sent the second mouse lunging at the spirit. By her third attack, the spirit had become the pursued and Iris the hunter. Her eyes glowing gold and her face twisted in a savage grin, Iris ran.
There was a primal joy to the chase, with an edge of fear turned triumph. Her feet were fast, but so was her mind, racing to find a way to bind the spirit as she and her spirit-mice ran him down. She needed a vessel to bind him to, but she doubted she had time to find the traditional oil lamp or clay-sealed bottle. But what, then, could she use?
The answer was so absurd, that Iris laughed high and hysterically when it occurred to her. She whistled again, and her mice, looking more like hunting hounds, helped her corral the spirit towards a side street where she knew the perfect vessel awaited.
But the thrill of the hunt was dissipating, and Iris could feel exhaustion seeping into her limbs. Each step weighed down her legs more and more, and her bottlebell was becoming unbearably heavy. When she turned the corner and saw the vessel just a few paces away from the spirit, a final dose of frantic energy flared through her. She knew she only had a few minutes and no room for error. This was her first, last, and only chance.
Later, as Iris kneeled down by the river that cleft the city in two, her hands shook and she felt a sudden surge of all the fear she had ignored during her battle with the purple spirit. She shivered, and tears dropped onto the carved pumpkin in her hands. Through the stained glass in every orifice, violet light flickered from the angry spirit writhing within. She could still hear his screams echoing in her head, still feel the lashing winds scoring her face raw and red. The battle was over, and yet she still felt as if she were trapped in unceasing struggle against the spirit, or against some larger malignant force she couldn’t understand. The battle was over, but her heart was thudding as if it had just begun, as if this entire night had been just a prelude.
She was a Candlemaiden. This was her life, and it might not ever get easier. Iris let the pumpkin be torn away from her hands by the river’s currents, then stood up and turned around to see a crowd of city folk staring at her and her ghostly mice with wide eyes. For a moment she saw in their faces the fear and distaste she had accustomed herself to, but then they broke into cheers and rushed towards her, gathering her up in their joy and dragged her towards the center of the city, where the songs and sweet smells of the Hallowed Moon festival filled the air instead of restless spirits.
The sudden rain had pattered itself away, but Iris stayed under the beech tree, head tucked right beneath a low lengthy branch, feet splayed out over the tops of roots. With the squall gone, she could no longer call her shelter a refuge, but so it felt still.
She knew this tree, had climbed it as a girl. It was but an hour’s walk to the church from here. Perhaps that’s why Iris was suddenly so weary. What was the point of traveling if the destination was as exhausting as the journey? What had she left in the little town she called home? Mother Hall was gone, and all responsibilities now fell to Iris’s slight shoulders. She couldn’t just keep the candles; she had to attend all the births and sanctify all the deaths and deal with every spirit and shade and… In her absence, Upton had probably assumed all the non-spirit duties. In most towns, as untraditional as it was, a priest would do such things, and a Candlemaiden was called only if a shade or particularly vexing spirit appeared. It was the wrong way to go about things, of course. A priest could watch a birth, but could he tether the mother’s spirit to her flesh to make sure the child didn’t lose his mother? He could note a death and say his book’s needless words, but could he ease recalcitrant spirits away from haunting their loved ones, unseen but all the more sharply felt?
Her country was changing, she knew. Ramos was proof. But could she change with it? Let priests take over the sacred responsibilities of Candlemaidens? Perhaps she wouldn’t go back. She could become a wandering Candlemaiden, like in days of old. She’d need a divining lamp, though, to tell her where to go, and those were difficult to build.
She knew she would return to her old town, but she didn’t want to make the decision quite yet, so she took out Mother Hall’s carving knife, though truly it was now her own, and a battered turnip and set to whittling a Hallowed Moon festival face.
The rain had cooled down the day, and slowly hints of life were returning. Insects buzzed, and Iris looked up to watch a dragonfly flit indecisively from grass to dandelion and back. In the sky a brilliant blue bird, its tail feathers trailing like pendants, circled and captured sunlight in its plumage.
There was something painfully beautiful in her bittersweet content, a tension to the moment because she knew it must end. Her senses were sharper and her flesh quivered, each scent and sight and sound striking an impossible idyllic harmony. Her breath sparkled in her lungs. Each falling leaf seemed poetic and momentous, each raindrop on grass a diamond. Up above, the bird trilled loud and high and sweet, and the notes resonated so completely in her marrow, that Iris felt a pang of sorrow she could not so sweetly reply.
She sighed, and the angles of her voice recalled her to herself. The world again became mud and dying leaves. The mice, who had scampered up the tree, grumbled to be woken from their sleep. They scurried into Iris’s cloth pack, which she slung on one shoulder as she continued her journey.
The miles were muddy and empty of the restless spirits that now seemed to populate the wide fields of Erinlin. Part of her rejoiced to not slip out her bottlebell, whose constant use had faded its biting rattle to a reprimanding ring weak and mild, but part of her dreaded how fast the miles fled her reluctant feet. The landscape was too familiar to feed her denial, so she thought not of the looming questions of home but of matters ambivalent and trivial, like cutting her heavy hair or sewing pockets on her deep-blue dress.
So she was not prepared when she topped a hill and saw Mother Hall’s cabin tucked away between the church and the forest. Though the day tasted of autumn chill, there was no smoke smudged above the chimney. The garden was overgrown, and specks of orange-brown said not all the pumpkins had been brought in. That their seeds never roasted, their flesh never seasoned with ginger, their gory strands of pulp never stuck under her fingernails…
The cabin was too steeped in memories. A leaf impaled on the weathervane nearly broke Iris’s heart: Mother Hall had been fierce in her custodianship of the roof and its dragon. The closer she grew, the more she saw of the subtle and cruel signs of disuse: a spiderweb under the windowsill, dusty windowpanes that had once shone so clear, a rotted section of fence. Each sneer denying habitation gutted her. The closer she drew, the more she was overwhelmed by nauseating emptiness emanating from the once welcoming place, the more she was burned by the unbearable truth staining the air around it. She felt that, should she reach the door and rest her hand on its old brass knob, she would gag or ignite or both.
So she forced her eyes past it, marched on by with her breath ragged and limbs rigid. She muttered a poem at tenfold speed, focusing on the shapes and sounds at her lips instead of the dread and despair in her chest. It was barely enough, and tears blurred her determined view of the ground. She didn’t know where she was going until she paused at the threshold of the cemetery and gazed upon its contours. Like mushrooms, a new bundle of graves had sprouted up in one corner. A wreath of holly crowned one of the new stones.
But the yew was as it had always been, massive and twisted and strong, though now drops of blood hid among its leaves. Iris smiled softly, and gathered a handful of berries before she settled under the tree. It was the closest to home she would ever be.
She told the yew tree her story in small rushes of memory as she ate the berries and spat out their seeds. She was told in return that the new graves were all townsfolk, including Esa, who had been a village elder for as long as Iris could remember. Father Upton, Iris learned, had been setting elderberry candles at fresh graves. A crude ward, no match for a true shade, but enough to discourage casual flitting among the living. Not the gentlest treatment for the newly dead, nor the easiest candle to make, but perhaps needed; times were harder and deaths were darker, a growing bitter discontent in life birthing and feeding restless spirits. Iris had seen the truth of it in her journey from Ramos, when the music of her bottlebell had become as familiar as her footfalls. Erinlin was on edge. The once peaceful land was becoming dangerous. Iris felt the weight of her heritage, her identity as a keeper of an ancient magic born to protect the land, acutely, and yet just as sharp was her knowledge that she was just one young girl in a country under siege.
Whatever little she could do, she would, Iris decided. Starting by attending to the proper rites for the five new graves, but encompassing everything a Candlemaiden might be called for in these trying times.
Though her feet were still red-sore, she shifted, getting ready to stand. She thought wryly of the mice in her pack, how easy the miles had been for them, and how lucky she was that she need never be alone. They stirred as if her thoughts had woke them, and scampered out of their cloth abode and onto her knees, chittering among themselves. In a strange and touching gesture, they each scurried over her skin and touched their nose to hers. It felt like thank you, but it also tasted of goodbye, and before Iris could stop them, the three mice ran among the graves and disappeared. Disappeared entirely from her senses, their threads of connection severed. In a frigid wave, the grief she had been carefully hiding from rushed over her, knocking her over. She lay, curled up on her side, under the yew tree and mourned violently for Mother Hall, for the mice who had left her, for her years wasted in the Kaerent school, for the slow death of her land and its traditions. She clawed at herself, rough red marks on pale skin, and rocked back and forth faster than her beating heart.
Time passed, but her grief barely did. She rocked herself still, then shivered. Her face was pressed against a root and she could taste dirt on her lips. She let herself lay there as the sky grew dark. At some point she sat up, back against the trunk, to peer out at the stars between leaves. When she felt she had regained control, she stood to go attend the new graves. But standing sent fresh tears down her face, so she returned to the ground. Perhaps she slept.
When she was awake, she plotted out her life. She would have to begin everything anew. No longer an apprentice, but a full-fledged Candlemaiden. She would need to sew new pockets on her three gowns. Eventually, she’d find full-fledged robes. While in the village, she could make new candles, another bottlebell, the rope of a divining lamp. She would need maps and knives and a proper begging basket before she left. In the dark, protected by the yew tree’s arms and urged on by the kindly eyes of the stars, her plan seemed, if not easy, then inevitable. Like an old riverbed, it would be a yielding course to follow. Simple steps, each day, and eventually each simple step would lead to a small victory: a safer stretch of a road, another spirit moved safely on.
If she opened her senses (and she still felt so raw, amputated, without three minds tangent to hers), she could taste the elderberry air around the grey stones. She would start there. Though little-loved in life, Iris was soon dear to spirits. Perhaps it was that she became their only tangible claim on the world they once lived and loved, or maybe it was her ability to simply sit and listen that-
She wasn’t sure, the first time, what she heard. Had the wind whipped through the leaves? Was it the howl of a wolf or the screech of an owl in flight? But as she stood still assessing the sounds past the cricket-songs of the night, skin pricked and ears open, there was no mistaking the child’s second scream.
Running before her thoughts registered, Iris leapt over the graveyard’s low stone wall, feeling a tinge of unease as she violated that delineation of living and dead, and catapulted down the hill, trying to survive and ride the wild momentum.
A girl was drowning, and Iris felt an almost incomprehensible flash of emotions at realizing the river was real. Memories like puzzle pieces twisted sharply to allow for the intruding discovery, and confusion was usurped by a bitter vindication. But then her mind was entirely consumed by the girl with shocking blue eyes being pulled under by the thunderous water, and her own perilous position on the steep bank. There were no branches to offer her, no river guardian to call upon. The little girl, when her skin flashed on the surface, was already pale as death. Reaching for minds that weren’t there, she lost her breath in a ragged puff as she jumped.
The water froze her and scalded her like her fever back at school. Her eyes must have been open, because she could see the girl sinking further, the water distorting her long floating hair into broken black wings. This world was different, one of violent chaos and burning lungs. Iris didn’t know the rules, was victim to the thrashing current and inexorable pull into the darkening depths. For one moment she grasped the child’s ankle, but it must have been mud because it sloughed away under her grip. Her last thought was that she should have known never to touch the river.
Author’s Note: Get excited– the next chapter begins part two of Candlemaiden: The Stranger Shore, which is all about Iris’s adventures in Death! Thanks for reading so far, and I hope you enjoy the second part!