Second Chapter, First Part: Travel

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Too wary to keep in the cottage when Mother Hall had such heavy words to say, Iris skipped out early the next day to collect herbs, leaving her mentor a message that she might stay out a few nights if the weather stayed fair. It was a childish act of cowardice, and Iris knew she was running from shadows, keeping to the paths she knew and need not fear, but it seemed if she stayed out she need not face whatever painful truth Hall had in her breast. Or perhaps at least she could build up her strength to hear it.

So Iris did a tour of her favorite places, spending half a day gathering up chestnuts so she could roast them and offer them to the shy spirit that dwelled in the forest well and the playful one that frolicked in their brook and tended to keep under the bridge in the summer as to spout water at the kids who crossed it. After that, she headed towards the hills, following the brook upstream and clambering up the rocks it spilled over so effortlessly.

She spent the night at the edge of the forest, sheltered by its canopy and by the flickering-purple circle of candles she lit around her. The next morning she chased the stiffness from her limbs by plunging into the icy water of the brook and then thawing herself out with hands wreathed in flames, taking extra care to burn away the few ticks that had dug their way into the flesh of her calves. She spent a few hours actually gathering mushrooms and ramson, some betony and basil, and as much yellow dandelion as she could fit in her basket so that she wouldn't return empty-handed.

In the hills, she took a break to gnaw at the stale bread she had brought with her, softening it with her spit as she stared out at the rolling fields beneath her. In the distance she could see a flock of idle sheep, and a dark speck she imagined to be Roland. Perhaps, after visiting the shrine, she would return through the fields and visit the sparse huts and the gruff men that lived in them. After all, they were in her and Hall's apportioned part of the canton, and as their Candlemaiden, she was responsible for their spiritual wellbeing.

The hike to the old shrine was steep and tricky, but Iris knew the way well enough, and was barely out of breath when she reached the crown of the highest hill. The shrine wasn't for any spirit Iris had ever met, and though the glassy contours of its twisted black rocks reminded her of ocean waves, the way the jagged rocks jutted into the sky made her think of mountains and cliffs instead of wells and streams. Mother Hall had only taken her three times before, but Iris had visited several times on her own: some intangible, atmospheric quality of the lonely hilltop shrine called to her.

Though its meaning had been lost to time, Iris liked to believe the shrine was to Allerin, the goddess incarnate of their land, always set upon by the Old Man Sea but never bowing before him. Her image was preserved in a mural of stone in their gathering hall, her skin made of the same sleek black rock, and her hair, eyes, and simple slip made of glittering moon-white quartz. But Mother Hall dismissed the old legends of Allerin and the Sea along with the tales of the Moon and the Rose, the Juniper Tree, and the Seven Ravens.

"Fables deal with human mentality," she espoused. "They endure because so do our follies. Candlemaidens deal with spirits, concrete and comprehensible beings. Leave the messy business of people and their gods to themselves."

Oddly, that was much of what the Kaerent church sought to do. It spoke of one god, the hand behind the cosmos, but taught that believing in him wasn't necessary as long as one believed in his mandates: Truth, Order, and Justice. The way Father Upton spoke of it, it was fine to keep offering to river spirits and to commune with the dead, as long as that didn't interfere with the execution of the Divine Three. Iris thought it rather obscure how exactly one executed Justice and Order, but apparently that was what the priests were for.

Iris liked Father Upton, but a lot of what he said confused her. He called Candlemaidens priestesses with a weight that made it seem as if he believed what they did was part of a religion, but spiritcraft had nothing to do with beliefs or gods or doctrines. It was simply a reaction to reality, the logic of life. If one didn't keep the dead down, they'd rise up and hassle those in town. If one didn't appease the river spirits, they'd cause mischief. Perhaps there was a sense of mystic destiny to Candlemaidens; they were born able to see spirits, and so they were chosen for a life apart. But even to Iris that seemed more a matter of practicality than spirituality.

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