First Chapter, Second Part: Home

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La-di-da! Iris jumped from rock to mound to rock as she made her way to the town. It was a beautiful day, the deep green of the trees vibrant against the bright blue sky. A slight breeze tugged at her long hair and seemed to fill up her chest, until she was light as air and giddy with the warm sunlight glowing against her skin. Iris enjoyed the rare moment of levity and bubbling energy before slowing down to a sedate pace as she turned a hill and caught sight of the town's sloping roofs. A Candlemaiden should walk with grace and gravity: Mother Hall's words, not Iris's. She wasn't quite sure what it meant to walk with gravity, but she figured walking slowly and steadily was a good bet.

"Morning, Candlemaiden Iris," said a town elder, with a perfunctory bow of the head. "Shall I ring the bell for you?"

Iris doubted that Lani had the strength in her bony arms, and besides, ringing the bell was her favorite part. "I shall handle it myself, Elder Lanica," Iris replied, trying to infuse her voice with gravity and hold back a smile.

Like all old Erinlin towns, the low round gathering hall was near the center of Iris's village. Its outer walls had been painted last spring festival, and though berry juice and ground beetles didn't make for the most enduring paint on long-since-saturated walls, Iris could still sense the protection sigils she had sketched by the door.

Inside the hall, Iris could see a few small children playing with reeds as one of their mothers wove a basket in the dim light, but Iris wasn't going inside. By the door were two tapering stone towers, one on each side. To the left was the torch tower, with steps carved into it so that its basin could be filled with fuel. On the right was the bell tower, with a tri-colored rope snaking down from the old bell. There was old magic here, ancient defenses against hostile spirits, and to Iris it felt like home.

No need for magic today, though. Iris rang the bell three times, two in quick succession and then a louder ring at the end. After a minute of leaning against the stone, she rang the same pattern again. Another few minutes, and she rang it one last time. They were about overdue for an almsgiving, but it was nice to give the villagers a good bit of notice before going door to door.

"Candlemaiden?" a small voice asked, accompanied by a tug on Iris's robe. Iris looked down at a small boy from the hall, who was beaming at her with a gapped-tooth grin. "I have a tithe for you."

The boy held out a crude circle of woven reeds, which Iris fitted onto her wrist with a smile.

"Why, thank you. Your gift is most appreciated."

The boy blushed and ran back into the shady hall, where his mother was watching, squinting at the sunny door. It was a good start to an almsgiving, and though Iris believed little in auguries, she hoped that perhaps this time people would be warm with her instead of distant.

But most of the villagers stuck to the formal wording as they offered milk and bread and cheese to Iris, and even those that diverged only did so with anxious words: I hope this is enough honey, I'll have cloth for you in a month's time, tell Hall she can send in her knife for sharpening if need be.

Iris ended up resting in the shade by Lady Sandalmur's house midafternoon, her basket on the ground beside her so her arms could recover from its weight. She had only the eggs left to get now, down at the edge of town from Rina's daughters. Though the air wasn't too warm, the ground was hot against her feet after a lazy day of soaking in sun, and Iris was grateful for the refuge of shadows.

With her back against the house's stone wall, Iris could hear the murmuring of conversation inside. It sounded like the Lady's native tongue, Kaerintian, all sharp consonants and guttural vowels. Iris had heard her speak it before with Father Upton. Upton was back at the Church though, so Iris figured she must be chatting with Frederick, the only other Kaerent in town.

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