First Chapter, First Part: Home

9.3K 471 120
                                    

The tawny young girl, kneeling on the stone church floor, carved the candles smooth. The sheared-off drops fell to her lap, trapped in the furrow of rough cloth. As her knife skimmed along the candle's edge, she hummed. And as she hummed, she talked to the odd little creatures that lived in what they called the Candlewood.

Some were as small as ladybugs and others as large as bumblebees. The brave ones climbed up Iris's knees and snatched away tallow beads to eat. The shy ones flickered in and out of view like the flames that crowned their candle-trees. As they moved, they often sang in high tremulous voices that Iris could only understand if she peered at the world through her eyelids as if in a dream.

Today they talked about the weather, how the damp was wilting their wings, and about the three purple candles on the third highest tier. They tasted weird, like honey and clover and tears, sang a group of colorful Candlekin with double wings and shiny skin. Sighing, Iris chastised the group of iridescent dragonfly-like youths. The new votives were vigils for the Sandalmur boys who were born with their eyes closed and tiny hands cold. Lady Sandalmur herself had set and lit the candlesticks, pale and trembling and out of bed despite Doctor Frederick's order that she rest. Iris promised to the purple candle trio that she would light candles at the cemetery as an apology; the Candlekin weren't supposed to lick the votives now that they ate the scraped-off tidbits.

Iris lifted her head to a trilled-out greeting from the top of the candle rack. A Candlekin she affectionately called Tummy fluttered down to the pile of tallow drops and plopped onto Iris's lap.

"How do?" he hummed.

"Fair well," she replied, though if any townsfolk were there they would only have heard her purr and trill.

"Rain today," he noted.

"Rain most days," she replied, for it was budding summer and often wet.

Tummy grumbled, then gnawed on a ball of tallow as big as his head. Iris smiled and went back to scraping the candles clean. Rain drumming on the roof, slowly sculpting tallow smooth, Candlekin fluttering and sprightly moving: these were the simple sounds and rhythms of existence that filled Iris's eyes with soft distance and made the hours fly by.

A sudden knock at the church door and the Candlekin flickered away like dying flames, filling Iris's mind with music no more. Setting down her candles and sighing, Iris gathered the shorn pieces into her hands, the tallow pale against her brown skin, then placed them in a bowl. Setting her tools aside, she rose to greet the church's patron in her role as Candlemaiden- tender of prayers, keeper of vigils, and voice for the dead.

***

Lady Sandalmur had not chosen names before their birth- she had considered it bad luck- so their grave markers were blank but for the date of their death. Three little white stones huddled together in the damp and cold, unable to scamper away to a warm burrow-hole. Iris lit three candles stubby and short with a wave of her hand, her knees nestled down in the grave dirt as she hummed folk songs to the shiny new gravestones that near glowed in the fog.

When the moon bade her move, Iris stood up slowly. Nodding to the guardian yew, she stepped lightly through the graveyard until she came to the low stone wall at the back of the plot. Mice and moles and squirrels were tucked in their homes around the wall, though only on the side that looked down a sloping hill. At the foot of the hill was a low wide field where the children of the town often played, but, as usual, Iris's eyes caught only the sight of a rushing river of silver and gray. The river twisted and churned, writhed almost as if it were alive, and whenever Iris saw it, its image burned coolly in her mind. The river called her and repelled her, and when the children in town used to ask her to play in the field with them she had always lied and said that she didn't know how to swim.

Candlemaiden: The Stranger ShoreWhere stories live. Discover now