In five more days, they reached their new school— a refurbished mill complex with a stretch of ramshackle roofing— where wagons of girls had already arrived. The less that is said of Iris’s time at schooling, the better, though perhaps there are some things you ought to know.
All the girls slept in one long room with their flimsy beds all in a row. Iris had the bed farthest from the door right beneath a window, where it was cold in the winter and damp in the summer and never entirely pleasant. She kept company with three white mice who sometimes the other girls could see, and when she slept rarely was it her own dreams that she dreamed.
Raised in a church, she already knew her numbers and her letters and even how to put them together, so she often skipped lessons, her body politely in class while her mind travelled through fields of high grass. And she would play all sorts of games with her mice friends, games of tag and chase that she had never played with the town children. Her favorite was hide-and-seek, because even though the mice were blind they could hear and feel and smell very well, so that if she breathed too heavily one might feel his whiskers stir, another might apprehend the sound of her exhale, and the third would catch the scents of breakfast on her.
Lessons rarely held her attention, but she did learn that across the sea there were contraptions called machines that did the work of men and beasts with unfeeling efficiency. She learned another King had claimed their kingdom, and that it was his fault that she was in school instead of with her candles.
She did have one dream that was all her own, and not a borrowed nightmare from the frail little girls that lay in sad beds in a long room in an unfriendly place. She dreamed she was surrounded by rows of candles all around and that she sat across from Mother Hall, who was stitching shoes of canvas and cloth while wearing a gray funeral shawl.
“Now, child,” she had said, “I’ve travelled out of this world and into the next, and it’s a right shame because I have so much left to teach you. I suppose this dream will have to do.”
In the dream, days dragged on as Iris learned far more of her spiritcraft than she imagined there could ever be. She learned dances that corresponded with banishments, a runic alphabet Mother Hall had in life only hinted at, a bleak binding that tied an unwilling spirit to flesh. Things she had always taken for granted- lighting fire with a wave of her hand, leaving her body to let her mind roam free, communicating with the candlekin and the odd creatures who lived in wells and river bends – were mercilessly deconstructed and then expanded on. There were hurried lessons on reading entrails and other auguries, a rushed review of herblore followed by a flood of new properties she had to learn, and an incongruous break where Iris was asked to recite childhood rhymes like “Little Mary all a-Drowned,” “The Three Ladies,” and “Acadia’s Castle.”
By then Iris was bone-weary and over-aware that one could not sleep in dreams. The darkened room she had first been in had changed to a forest, then a bloody field, then a foreign market square, and finally a temperate beach, but the ring of candles around her and Mother Hall had always remained. Now only a few of the candles were lit by flickering flames and the rest had melted and twisted into alien landscapes. Iris felt melted as well, slick with a second skin of sweat. Her limbs felt both empty and heavy while her head was effervescently light.
Mother Hall looked weary as well, and had set aside the shoes she was stitching. There was a moment of quiet as Mother Hall paused to gather her thoughts. In the silence, questions began to bubble out of Iris: “What are the shoes for? How are you communicating with me if you’re dead? Why didn’t you teach me this before? Why are you teaching it to me now? Why did you let them take me to this awful school?” The last inquiry came out more accusatory than Iris intended, but she let it stand.
“Oh, Iris, there is so much I left unsaid, so much I left untaught. The world is changing and I thought you wouldn’t need… But I was wrong, now more than ever you need to know the true heritage of Candlemaidens. It’s dangerous and dark and not for the light of heart, and the last thing I ever wanted to teach you. So the last thing I teach you it shall be. You want to know how I can talk to you?”
Iris gave a sharp nod, then shuddered. Then continued shivering, her tremors becoming more and more violent. Around her the few remaining flames flared blindingly, then crumpled to dim sparks.
“Tarskos,” Hall swore. “Iris don’t let them wake you up. Stay asleep, you need to STA–”
Iris gasped, the air sharp and insufficient. Heavy waves, no hands, were pushing her under again. Her head hit a scratchy pillow and she screamed. Or, she tried to scream, but her voice was raspy and raw and the sudden lack of air in her lungs made the world lurch.
Eventually her rapid wheezing slowed down and she fell into a feverish waking sleep.
Later they would tell her it had been three days, but as she inched her way through there was no measure of time but eternity.
The sweat-damp scratchy wool in the infirmary was her constant companion, along with the black shapes that scuttled along the walls. The sun swam sickeningly in the sky, such that shadows and light were in constant riot. She could feel the mice trying to reach her, their minds reaching towards hers, but there was some immense water that faded their efforts just as it warbled the voices of those tending to her.
Cocooned, she felt at times, swaddled and swallowed by cotton and cobwebs. Or raw and blistering, harsh winds slashing gashes in drought-dried skin. Sometimes she welcomed the water that cooled and smoothed her throat, and others she would hiss and spit at the poison that stung and burned her inside-out. As oft as not, she couldn’t keep it down.
On the morning of the second day, she died. But the river she had to cross was so sickly silver that it turned her stomach and she fled back into life.
On the morning of the third day, she saw a battered girl shivering in a flimsy bed, and she spent a few feverish hours wondering if it was Iris or not-Iris.
With the moon high in a scalding evening sky, her spirit finally made peace with her flesh. She moved her fingers first, because she was fond of them, and though her lips were too cracked to move, she smiled as her fingertips traced patterns in the stiffened sheets.
When starlight made the world soft, Iris whispered. She didn’t know what to say, so she tried the well-worn words of her favorite poem and found them sweet on her lips.
Then she slept.
When she awoke she felt still asleep, her limbs so tiny and so weak. She looked and saw one of the teachers, a pale and sick-looking sort named Skantos, who offered her water that was just water. She sipped it slowly and carefully as she examined her crucible. The windows were tall and wide, though they looked skinny with their height. The walls were all creamy white where they weren’t wood, and the wood was a pleasing reddish brown. There was a closed chest in a corner of the room, carved with leaves and berries and small ivy flowers, and the door was likewise embellished. The whole room was both airy and earthy, a gentle balance crafted well.
Iris hated it. She struggled to leave her bed, but though she had control of her limbs, the sheets were too heavy for her to lift, and Skantos stopped her anyway and told her to sleep and that there would be soup later for her to eat. It was disconcerting to be rebirthed into the world and hear first the harsh gutturals of Kaerent, but that was her life now. She laid back down, noticing as she did what a toll sitting and sipping water had taken, and looked at Sellie in the next bed, whose hair was dark with sweat and stuck to her head as she laboriously breathed. Her spirit was perfectly fine, if curled up and sleeping, so Iris didn’t worry about her, just watched her chest move slowly and shakily steady. For a bit, Iris pondered how weird it was that people breathed. Then she stared out the window and waited for her soup.
Which was surprisingly good, with turnips and carrots and barley. It was hot too, almost too hot, but Iris liked the warmth it pushed through her veins. The wool was still scratchy, but it warmed her as well as she slipped into sleep.
When next she woke, she reached sleepily for her spirits, and though she could sense them, they skittered and squeaked and didn’t dare enter the nursery. Iris questioned their unease, until she opened her mind and quested into the room and felt the dark presence embedded in the walls and realized she had been lucky it hadn’t preyed on her already.
Then, in a sharp moment of horror and guilt that jolted her overly awake and aware, she realized her fevered waves of sickness had probably fed the shade, stirred it from its dormancy. When a Candlemaiden falls ill, ill luck to those around her, the old saying went. Iris turned to look at Sellie, slick with sweat and slack with sleep.
By the look of the bright sun out the window, it was high morning, nearing noon. But it was dark and muted inside sickroom, sticky shadows in the corner growing inky and darker. Iris swallowed, her mouth suddenly bitter. She reckoned there were mere minutes until the shade appeared. Was she too weak to face it down? There had to be a candle, somewhere. She struggled out of bed.
Sellie didn’t wake when she was shaken, nor did she wake to her name. Even the wild wind beginning to whip around the room didn’t raise her from sleep. Iris knew each second was precious and that standing frozen-still couldn’t help, but she didn’t have any candles. What was she supposed to do without candles? She caught the glint of an answer deep under her thoughts, but as she reached for it the shade coalesced in a vicious burst of wind and hate and Iris collapsed.
Iris heard the howling of wind and clawed herself out of unconsciousness. Sellie was awake, huddled against the headboard. Skantos was in front of her, a cloth bag heavy in his hand. The shade was in the center of the room, roiling and dark, a whirlwind of shadows and hatred.
Iris screamed, putting as much banishment into it as she could. Sound, the least efficient medium for spirit-dealings, but all she had for the moment. A dark pulse at the shade’s core revealed it had at least recoiled from her curse. It wasn’t much, but it would have to do. Iris stood, preparing to scream again when Skantos, apparently with a death wish, threw a handful of salt at the shade.
Its roar slammed them against the wall and they lost their sight in the sudden sea of shadows.
“Stay down,” Iris shouted at Skantos. Standing unsteadily on her feet in the rushing shadows, she cast out her fingers into the heaving darkness. She called forth flames to lick her fingertips, dispelling the unnatural shadows around her hands. She ignored Sellie’s whimpering, discarded her anger at Skantos, and focused entirely on the live fire breathing on her hands. Grow, she coaxed it, spread.
The shadows swarmed in currents, manifestations, Iris knew, of the shade’s own turbulent emotions: anger and hatred and pain, swirling and cycling, gaining momentum and growing. Disrupt these currents, fight against them, and you only fed its turmoil. So, as blue-green flames circled her arms, Iris danced.
It was not the shrapnel, splinters of wood and crushed pottery, that whipped breakneck around the room, nor the raging winds and sickly-smothering shadows that were cruelest to Iris, the hardest to ignore as she slipped through the room, unspinning violent spirals with flame-sheathed limbs. As she caught the shade’s currents and untwirled its rage, it was the wispy gleams of memories that nearly staggered her. One moment her whole world was her phantom arms and the dissipating shadows spooled about them, and the next she saw the room through a stranger’s eyes in another time, pale children on a red and blue rug playing dice. Or she’d catch a glimpse of the windows, each pane as pretty as a painting, and remember waiting by them for a tall man in a grey-green coat. In those moments, tasting the sweet memories that sharpened the shade’s grief, she was almost undone.
Skantos watched Iris wide-eyed as she swept her will-o-wisp arms into shadows and spun them into nothingness. The whole tableau was incomprehensible to him, and he felt his grasp on reality rapidly readjusting. As the shadows faded he could see, monstrous in the middle of the room, a dark figure with serpentine shadows, vaguely female and menacing, its head thrown back and a jagged slash of a mouth open in agony. His bones ached at her soundless scream.
It was his first time at the precipice between life and death, and he realized he didn’t fear what gaped in front of him as much as he regretted what lay behind. So he clambered to his feet, his soul aching, within and without assaulted by grief, and he shielded the sick girl, Sellie, as best he could as the Erinlin priestess melted shadows with dancing flames.
The end, when it came, was to Iris something between a surprise and an inevitability. One moment, she was spinning among caustic anger and malice, and the next, with the last knot of the shade’s ill will undone, all the waves and snaking tendrils of hate and pain fell still then fell to the ground, dissipating like smoke. For a moment Iris was suspended in the shade’s memory, and looking past the faded walls and slapdash cots of the room she searched for the family that wasn’t there. But then the shade sighed and the whole world around Iris shivered, and suddenly the air was empty and thin and it was only her and two candle-dim spirits in casings of clay.
Iris shook her head, trying to return to the human plane, to skew the world back into its arbitrary normalcy. And then her heart twitched, and she was back to herself, because Sellie was on the floor, her arm bent at an odd angle and swollen. She was twitching and whimpering, not quite conscious but awake enough to be in pain. Like milk melting away into tea, the particulars of Iris’s dream were fading, but she remembered enough to be able to sweep her hand over Sellie’s forehead and send her into a deeper, safer sleep.
Then she turned to Skantos, eyes flashing and limbs still electric from adrenalin. “How stupid ARE you?! Salt! Were you TRYING to get us all killed?”
“I… thought that ghosts didn’t like salt.” He looked so bewildered and hurt that Iris softened her tone, though her fists remained clenched.
“Of course they don’t. Shades- and that was a shade, not a ghost or whatever you Kaerents say- are a wound in the world. They are all the pain and hate and vitriol that chain spirits to this world. And like wounds, they fester. The longer they are left untended, the more those poisons spread and multiply until you get a shade like that one, all hatred and grief and violence. Have you ever felt salt in a wound? It hurts. Now multiply that by ten. Pain fuels these creatures.”
“Oh, lords. I didn’t know. I… I’m so…”
“Of course you didn’t know.” Iris snapped. “That’s the damn problem. You don’t know anything about this land or its people and you think you have some right to come in and take charge anyway. And when you do that, this, this is what’s going to happen, over and over again. My town has no Candlemaiden because I’m stuck at this wretched school. If a shade shows up there, what are they going to do? Oh, they’ll light the right candles and hang the right plants from the door, because unlike you, they understand this land, they were born with it in their blood, but without me there they’ll still get hurt.” Iris looked over at Sellie, curled up on the floor. “People will die. Without me there, there is no one to banish shades or tend to their prayers or speak for their dead.” Iris took a deep breath, trying to swallow her rage and fear and hate. “You Kaerents have cut this land deeply, and I hope by the Ladies that the wound doesn’t fester.”
Far away from Iris and Skantos, a wound between the worlds grew and a slim figure with bone-white skin and bright red eyes slipped into the throne room of a greedy ruler, lies and pain and madness ready to spill from her thin lips into the ready ears of the Kaerent king.
Author’s Note: I hope you’re enjoying Candlemaiden so far, despite Iris’s travails and turmoil. If you like what you’re reading, leave a comment or vote and let me know! I love hearing from readers 😀