Fourth Chapter: Schooling

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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?"

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