Candlemaiden: The Stranger Shore

Seventh Chapter: Death

She opened her eyes to a queer blue bird looking at her with near motherly concern. A sudden caterwauling sent the bird into flight, long indigo tail feathers shimmering in the air as it arced above the trees. In the distance, she saw three mice scampering towards her. Only as they grew closer did she realize they weren’t mice at all, but three little boys in weird oversized robes with odd vestments and long loose sleeves that hid the hands beneath them. Her throat burned and her eyes stung and her back ached, but she struggled to sit up as the boys approached.

“Well,” said one, a little hoarse from shouting.

“You all right?” asked another.

The third looked away from her, arms crossed. “Stupid thing to do, crossing the river.”

“Well I didn’t want to,” Iris snapped, still blinking as she stood up sorely. “There was a girl. Is she okay?

“No girl,” the cross one said.

“Just a bird.” The first boy’s voice was a bit uneasy.

“That flew away.”

“Good timing, too. It could have plucked your eyes out.”

Iris shivered. “Where am I?” She tasted the strange air and eyed the strange landscape. It was familiar and yet eerily altered. “I’m not home anymore.”

“You’re on the other side of the river now. Welcome to the stranger shore.”

On that enigmatic note, the three boys grinned mischievously and darted up the hill, running with the playful abandon of youth and swooping across each other’s paths just for the thrill. Iris followed much more sedately to the lights that crowned the slope where her memories told her graves should be. Though the grass was green and the dirt was loamy just like home, the sky was a dusky mauve and the moon that shone was unrepentantly orange. A stranger shore, indeed.

At the top of a hill was a bustling village somehow squeezed into a small plot. Standing abreast of the village, its proportions seemed skewed and its perspectives odd; the houses seemed like crudely hewed toys of different sets all mixed together and the people like phantasms in warped mirrors. It reminded Iris of a child’s drawing in the dirt; the shapes were familiar enough to communicate the image’s intent, but little heed was paid to size relations or reality’s true make. Or perhaps it was that the buildings all seemed very far away when Iris knew they were close enough for her to reach with a few brisk paces.

Yet as dizzy as it made her to stare at it from without, the layout grew clearer as Iris walked through the town. Each building was small and blurry until one grew nearer, at which point space yawned open to allow it more room and detail, as if proximity gave it priority. The first time this happened startled Iris abominably, as she found herself transposed suddenly from a communal street into a familial scene, with sisters chatting on a porch that only steps ago had seemed too small for a cat- the residences grew exponentially fast. It seemed to Iris as if the telescoping homes should give her a headache, but it made a sideways sort of sense if she didn’t dwell on it. As long as you skirted their spheres of influence, the houses wouldn’t loom too largely at you, so Iris kept to the streets and merely peered at the pocket-places off to the side.

As she wandered the streets, which also stretched queerly as you walked on them, depending on how many others bustled about, she saw glimpses of people she used to know. There was young Sally, who had been thrown off her horse during a thunderstorm, and old Randolph, who would always tell Iris long meandering yarns when she asked for alms. At one corner she even caught sight of Rina with her trusty rooster strutting behind her as she bustled off to the east. The people all seemed cheery, chatting pleasantly if they chanced to meet. Yet if Iris met someone’s eyes, she was usually offered at most a bland smile, and for the most part people paid no notice to her at all.

“The river washed you right clean, it did.”

Iris spun around to see one of the boys from before leaning against a tree in a clearing.

“What do you mean?” Iris was proud of the way her voice sounded calm and collected instead of fearful and frantic.

“It’s like you have no color,” another of the boys mused, as he suddenly appeared out of a house’s sphere. “As if all the flavor of you was drained away.”

“If we hadn’t known you so well to begin with,” the third boy said, ensconced in the tree’s branches, “then I fear we may not have recognized you at all.” He dropped down to stand next to his brothers, looking bashful.

“Where am I?” Iris asked again, not expecting a straightforward answer.

“I expect you already know,” one replied. And then they scattered through the town again, leaving Iris with a lonely tree and increasingly melancholy thoughts.


Iris’s heart and head may have been heavy, the latter so weighed down that her eyes barely left the ground, but her legs were steady as they carried her out of the town. Though the sky and moon seemed to have forgotten their true colors, her legs remembered the way home.

The walk was not arduous, but still her breath was ragged and her face flushed. Her cheeks were hot and her eyes were wet, and to stop herself from crying she kept her fists clenched. As she frantically recited an old poem over and over under her breath in an attempt to stave off the cold slimy fear in her chest and the frantic boiling thoughts in her head, Iris realized she was probably dead. It wasn’t a sudden realization, but one that had started as a sharp pinprick of pain and then had swelled monstrously until it loomed over her and she couldn’t quite ignore it anymore.


She must have died in the river where the water had numbed her bones and burned her throat. All her life she had avoided the silver-gray river, known it was trouble, and then a single careless moment, a solitary lapse in judgment, and she was dead. The sheer injustice was hard for her to comprehend; surely the universe wouldn’t allow the entirety of a person’s life to balance on such a minute fulcrum. There had to be a way for her to go back, to choose a different path. A second chance, a way to reverse it, to return to before, there had to be-

Iris stopped and slowed down her breathing. The air she exhaled quivered, and she returned her focus steadily to her feet. When her breathing became even, she set off walking again, perhaps more slowly than before.

She looked up only when she knew she drew near to the church, but the only thing perched on the top of her child-home hill was a pair of heavy wooden doors closed tight. She examined them with tracing touch and squinting sight, then determined their colors richer and their patterns sharper here than ever she knew them in her land of life. Yet they were the same doors that had always stood guard as she sheared candles of their protruding scars and thus honored each of the villager’s prayers. “The very same doors,” she declared to the empty air. As if that statement had drained her last dregs of strength away, she dropped to the ground hopelessly fatigued, her back against the doors’ dark solidity, and stared out across the realm.

It was like staring at the night sky and witnessing more and more stars coalescing out of the hazy half-light; the longer she looked outward the more she could see. It was almost impossible to hold all the strange sights in her head at once: trees of gold with parchment leaves, a fluorescent ribbon of bubble-bells that flowed in the air as a brook might meander through a glade, a narrow ivory tower that spiraled as it rose, thousands of grave-villages that swelled on sight, a sea of walls that squirmed like snakes, exotic gardens of nothing but wisterias and statuary, the dark river dipping in and out of the ground like a child’s sloppy needlework, and an old fashioned four-towered castle way out in the distance…

She shook her head and all she had seen evanesced from her memory like a fading dream, leaving only the vaguest lingering taste. For a while she just stared at the ground, absentmindedly shredding grass with trembling fingers. It struck her again that she was dead, but this time with less lancing force and more numbing certainty.

Finally, at no particular outward cue, she stood quickly, turned, opened the doors, and strode briskly through.


She was in a dark forest. The air was heavy with the slightest hint of smoke to it. She stood still, a few paces in, and soaked in the almost intoxicating ambience.

Her hair floated around her face in the sudden breath of wind. Spinning, she saw her doors close snug together, surrendering to the the forest’s dusky dim. As she stood, wary of the strange happening, the doors faded away until only murky half-light of the woods remained. A few hesitant steps brought her to where the doors should have been, but only the odd languid air of the environ answered her questioning hand.

With a shrug that could have been irritated or equanimous, Iris accepted the strange occurrence and surveyed her new surroundings. She had deemed the area a forest, but the trees, if so they could be called, were unfamiliar to her. Staggeringly tall, their tops disappeared in the gloom. They were branchless and sleek, somewhere between grey and brown, and riverstone smooth beneath Iris’s curious fingertips. The trees’ bases were darkest, and a rippling line above Iris’s head marked the start of a milder grey. It was not mist, precisely, but an endemic sort of hazy murk that the trees wore as a canopy instead of leaves.

Foreign as the landscape was, there was something familiar in the lilt of the place. The heady air that overfilled her lungs and thickened her blood had to it the wisp of a scent she once knew. Compelled to wander, Iris let her hands trace the tree trunks as she wove between them. Glimpses of color and hints of sounds, all almost too faded to perceive, emanated from the trees when Iris pushed her palms against them.

The sudden sight of movement hammered Iris’s heart. Her gasp was strangely muted among the tall trees, but the creatures had already seen her.

They were guards of some sort. Crested helmets with scarlet half-spheres to protect their eyes, iridescent breast plates that gleamed blue and green, long segmented swords that jutted back from their hips: it took a few seconds for Iris to piece together the outfits, to translate their appearance to another time and place. But when she did, a small half-smile flitted shakily across her face, and though her heart still fluttered in fear and her skin still prickled at the threat, when they shouted at her in a melodic tongue she complied and offered out her wrists.

They lashed her hands together with whipcord and prodded her forward with the pommel of a sword. Up close she could see the glimmering dragonfly wings flat on their back, realize how the swords could be mistaken for tails. For the first time, she marveled at the wonder of the world she found herself in. Then she was pushed roughly forward and landed poorly on her ankle, and her thoughts were only on walking.

Iris could not discern a path among the endless nondescript trees, but the dragonfly-knights marched her forward with certainty. Sometimes when she chanced to glance up from her feet, she caught glimpses of figures behind the trees: women with curly antennae, chubby children with tiny translucent wings and wide eyes, a thin green man with a violin. They all seemed frightened.

Iris did not then know that they were frightened by her, that she was the first to enter the Candlewood since they had closed tight all the doors against the chaos growing in the outside world. It did not occur to her that her lack of wings and other insect trimmings made her seem dangerously odd to the Candlekin. She did not understand the true nature of the place, and perhaps that is why she was so vulnerable to its intoxicating opiate atmosphere.

After what could have been minutes or hours, Iris’s guards threw her roughly to the ground in the middle of the clearing. Behind her was the odd forest, indistinct even at a short distance, and before her was a raised area with two thrones and two vibrantly colored Candlekin. King and queen, Iris decided, though only the female wore a crown.

“An intruder, sire,” one of the dragonfly-knights said. Around the clearing was a rustling sound, and when Iris squinted she caught glimpses of Candlekin watching everything from behind the trees.

The larger of the throned Candlekin struggled to his feet. Though he wore no crown, his beetle wings framed his figure like a cape, and his heavy figure and thick antenna added to his imposing presence. He walked slowly to Iris, at first staring at her straight-on with small dark eyes, and then slowly circling around where she knelt on the ground. As he walked Iris caught a glimpse of his bright wings, which gleamed red and green and gold. Like a crow’s feathers, their color shifted at different angles, and Iris was startled to see the shape of a skull grin for a second as the king turned.

“So, worm,” the king began, almost conversationally. “Thought you’d drop by for a visit? Maybe kidnap some of my citizens?”

Iris began to protest, but she was cut off quickly by the queen.

“Don’t bother,” she said, standing suddenly and striding forward. “We know your kind, and I know you’re up to no good.” Unlike the king, whose palette were cheerful, her coloring was eerie and intimidating. Her yellow and black dress was striped like a wasp and clung to her sharp angles, while her butterfly wing cloak was luminescent green and pale orange, with thick black lines dividing the colored panels. Unlike the rest of the Candlekin, her antenna weren’t organic, but rather jutted out of the circlet she wore. Actually, now that Iris looked closer, it seemed her wings weren’t real either, but rather just intricate cloth.

“Girl,” the queen snapped, and Iris looked back to her face. “All the doors to our kingdom are locked. How dare you break in? We’ve made it clear we want no part in your wars.”

Wars? Iris wasn’t quite sure what she meant by that, but she did know the first part was a lie. “I didn’t break in,” she explained in a rush. “The door wasn’t locked. I didn’t even know where it went. I just opened it and ended up here.”

The queen crinkled her nose. “A likely story. Next you’ll say you mean us no harm and just want to continue on your way.” She huffed, then leaned forward and flicked Iris’s forehead with a tapered finger. “Classic tactics. You spy on us, act innocent, and then escape and report it all to your masters.”

Iris was finding it hard to think. She didn’t mean them harm and she did just want to leave, but she couldn’t say that now. “I’m just looking,” she finally mumbled. “Looking for…” But before Iris could finish, a wave of exhaustion and nausea flooded into her, and she fell sideways onto the ground.

“Pathetic,” the queen said, prodding Iris’s side with her foot. “You’re really not cut out for spy craft. Still, we must know how you entered our kingdom. The doors only open to residents. Who did you bribe or threaten to get in?”

From Iris’s spot on the ground, the queen looked impossibly tall and long of limb. The king, on the other hand, looked round and stout: majestically a blob. Iris blinked, her vision blurring, and recognized him from her hours carving candles. Iris rolled onto her back, breathing deeply.

The king sighed, his hands clasped over his belly. “You heard her. Now what have you got to say for yourself?”

Iris had the vague notion that something in the air was drugging her, because she found it impossible to speak. Instead she hummed, the same haunting tune she used to hum carving candles. She hoped Tummy would recognize it and spare her, but it just seemed to puzzle him and anger the queen.

“Who let you in? How did you get here?”

Iris hardly felt the queen kick her. In fact, she could barely feel anything at all.

“Lenience,” she heard the king say as she drifted away. “She’s one of us now. She’ll never leave.”

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