Eirene quietly waited in circle with her fellow class members, all of whom, like her, were setting out on their paths to becoming priestesses and priests of the Eistr Mariskh. Now that she had reached her tenth year, Eldwin felt she was ready to take the next steps towards becoming a priestess, which was learning magic. She had been taking lessons with Eldwin now for six years, as unbelievable to her as that was. It felt strange that she had only been four when she began her studies to become a priestess. It hadn’t been an easy journey either, especially since her last run in with Eldwin about her father. She had done her level best to keep her head down and away from trouble, yet the last two years made that a difficult task for a young girl learning the ways of the world.
She wasn’t a resident troublemaker like some of the other boys and girls on the Isles of Astrum, whose antics would have the priests and priestesses shaking their heads in despair. But her temper was another story. Eirene bit her lip, thinking about the last time she had raged against some older girls who were making fun of the way she had woven flowers into her hair, a couple of weeks before. One of them went as far as to say it looked like a haystack, that no man or boy in their mind would find her a suitable mate if that was how she chose to dress. But like her mother had advised her before, Eirene did her best to ignore it and continued to work on her scrolls that Eldwin had assigned her.
“Such childish things.” The girl snickered to her friends, who all nodded and grinned at Eirene nastily. “The priests and priestesses here are royal prigs, mind you, so it only fits that she would act like she is better than anyone else outside of these holy walls. Ain’t that right, little girl?”
The girls were from the nearby village of Juyrr, a place for fisherman and sailors, and were just passing through that day, completely unaware that the girl they had just insulted was known for having perhaps the most vicious temper that the Eistr Mariskh had seen in many years.
Enraged at her pride having been prodded so openly, that her privacy had been invaded so brutally, that they presumed she would place herself above them when they knew her not at all, Eirene acted with vengeance. Using her ability to speak with nature, she commanded a large flock of gulls and songbirds to attack the girls, beak and talons permitted. The girls ran away screaming, which caught the attention of both her mother and Eldwin. Most of the time before then, Eirene would be contrite for her actions. But both Maridi and Eldwin found her to be stony and unbending as they scolded her.
“They were guests to the Easter Mariskh, Eirene. It is our duty to conduct ourselves and set a good example. How could you act like this?” Maridi had exclaimed, whipping her daughter severely with a piece of cloth and then clipping her around the ear. “Now the villagers would think we behave like beasts.”
“Begging your pardon, mother, but it was they who provoked me and disturbed me from my studies.” Eirene replied coldly at first, though her feelings were completely otherwise. The coil of rage in her chest was still burning and now that she was being scolded, that burning went from anger to resentment.
Maridi groaned out loud and flung her arms out in despair. “And what could they possibly have said that would warrant summoning an attack of birds?”
Eldwin, although not as expressive as Maridi and had remained silent so far, was equally furious. Eirene always knew when he was getting close to losing his own temper; his eyebrows would furrow in, and his lips would get thinner as they pursed together, as though it was taking all of his patience to control himself.
“Perhaps you should ask them, seeing as their opinion is of such value to you.” Eirene snapped. She then began gathering her scrolls, not wanting to hear what else the two adults had to say. But before she could leave, a firm hand gripped her forearm, squeezing sufficiently enough that she could not struggle out of it.
“I have warned you about abusing your mother and anyone else in the temple before, and I have punished you before for that behaviour.” Eldwin hissed as he pulled Eirene away from Maridi and began guiding her into the temple.“You will learn to quell that temper, Eirene, even if it is the very last thing I teach you.”
Eirene understood that she had crossed a boundary, for Eldwin rarely had to take her by force to demonstrate his point. But still, she would not apologise for what happened. She could be just as stubborn as he could when expecting what is right or dutiful of her. Eldwin then opened the door to Maridi and Eirene’s quarters and thrust her not too roughly into it.
“Your mother and I will discuss the appropriate punishment. But for now, you will stay here and think of ways to watch your tongue, young lady. We have high standards here at the Eistr Mariskh and whilst I have no doubt you will make a fine priestess here, that place must be earned.” Eldwin said severely, shutting the door without another word and leaving Eirene to let out a cry of frustration, crumpling to the floor in anguish.
In the present, Eirene shook her head from that memory. She had regretted that day since then, but her relationship between her mother and Eldwin remained strained. They watched her, she could tell, with caution, as though she might act so again on temper. Perhaps they were wise too, she thought. She may not have had another episode for a while, but that didn’t mean the anger wasn’t there still. What made the gap between her mother and her teacher worse, however, was that Eirene found she was lonely. The other children in the temple gave her a wide berth most days. It wasn’t that they didn’t like her, she perceived, but rather they didn’t understand her. She wasn’t calm and approachable like her mother, nor did she have an interest in things that most girls on the Isles of Astrum tended to prefer, such as wanting to wear pretty robes and dancing at festivals as flower maids.
No, Eirene preferred her studies and the outdoors, where she could find peace of mind and muddle her life on her own terms, away from the crowds that judged her for her quirkiness, judged her for the fact that she was the daughter of Maridi Nielaa, who had borne her child out of wedlock and without telling who was Eirene’s father.
But this day, however, Eirene wanted to make an effort, to show Eldwin that she was learning and that she was worthy of becoming a priestess of the Eistr Mariskh.
This day, Eirene and the other children were to be taught simple conjuring magic, such as fire and water. Wearing her pale green robes that her mother had spent labouring to make for her, she began to admire the it glimmered in the spring sun. For only a few moments, Eldwin’s voice and the presence of the class left her consciousness as she then gazed out to the ocean. She wondered, could she ever have command of the most terrifying yet beautiful force in the world? Then her wonderings expanded.
What else, other than the eleven kingdoms, was out there beyond those waters? She thought of the strange looking people she had sometimes seen visiting the Isles of Astrum, their mannerisms and clothes so different, purporting to be from lands such as Kalida, Paxima, Iokim and more. She thought of the great creatures she could talk to: creatures that were common, creatures of legend that she may never see on Astrum. Mammoths from Maco, elder owls of Elbira, dragons of Iokim, all of which gave her a strange ache to think of. Surely if she was destined to become a priestess, she would not feel sad to miss what was beyond the ocean?
Then she remembered what Eldwin said.
We have high standards here at the Eistr Mariskh and whilst I have no doubt you will make a fine priestess here, that place must be earned.
Eirene thought that maybe if she never made it to be a priestess, she could become a traveller of some kind, venture off of the Isles of Astrum and simply wander. At that thought, she smiled.
All of these thoughts Eirene would have pondered on all day, no doubt, were it not for Eldwin suddenly snapping at her, “Do we have your attention, Mistress Nielaa? Or perhaps the ocean can volunteer answers for you.”
Blushing at having been caught, Eirene turned her head to Eldwin’s irritated gaze and bowed her head.
“My apologies, Master Ritvii.” She mumbled.
Satisfied that she meant her apology, Eldwin resumed the lesson by saying, “The key to any conjuration is concentration. You must not only think it, but feel it in your being. Make the energy your own and harness it like clay. So if I wanted to summon fire…”
He paused and thought deeply for a second. There was a crackle in the air before a ball of flame suddenly sprouted on his open palm. The children’s reactions were a mixture of squeals and ’ohhhh’s.
Eirene’s mouth opened a little in awe. She had always loved looking at fire, at the way the flames flickered and danced in shades of orange, yellow or sometimes blue. Then as quickly as the flame had appeared, Eldwin closed his hand and the flame was no more.
“So you see, children, that is how we practice the basics of conjuration. Concentration, concentration, concentration.” Eldwin reasserted with an encouraging smile, standing to his feet and gesturing for his class to follow his lead. “Now, begin your practice. Summon for me a flame.”
Immediately the children leapt to the task all of them excited to test their new skills. Most of the children worked together with their friends; only Eirene and one other boy - Ynys, she vaguely remembered -remained alone. He was a handsome boy of ten years, if one cared to look, with a kind face and character to match. Ynys tried to catch Eirene’s eye and send what appeared to be a nervous smile at her. But she did not notice too much, for she was sinking into her own world again.
Concentration, Eldwin said. Eirene imagined that her mind was like the rivers flowing through Astrum, one direction, narrowed, channeled…and then she thought of fire, imagining the searing heat, the brightness of it…
She heard a familiar crackle and she opened her eyes to see, like Eldwin had done before, a ball of fire in her hand.
“Excellent, Mistress Nielaa!” Eldwin exclaimed, so impressed at how quickly Eirene had all but mastered basic conjuration. Soon she would be able to summon the elements at her whim, channel their power. He looked at Eirene’s surprised eyes and smiled at her. She was a defiant little thing, for sure, but when she was smiling and performing under his tutelage, he couldn’t help loving her and wanting her to succeed.
“Now this, my children, is exactly what -”
Suddenly, the fire ball spluttered out of control and then exploded with a bang. All of the children yelped and gasped as Eirene fell to the floor from the force of it. She a blinked a little, her heart sinking in disappointment, wondering why it had all gone wrong.
“Come now, children, there is no need to be frightened! This is our first lesson with conjuration and for what it is worth, Mistress Nielaa’s flame was very decent indeed, for a first.” Eldwin protested at the children was they cowered a little. He took Eirene gently by the arms and raised her to her feet. Feeling a little humiliated, she allowed him to help her but she did not give him thanks, for threat of tears falling in front of everyone if she dared open her mouth.
“It is a surprise that the explosion did not get all of us, we all know what her temper can be like.” A young girl named Annexa cried out, pointing her finger at Eirene.
“Nonsense. It was an honest mistake that anyone could have made. Now control yourselves, I beg you.” Eldwin quickly retorted, not missing the way Eirene’s face went from looking almost tearful to trying to control a tic in her eyebrow. Her eyes also began to look a little menacing.
“It is true, though, Master Nitvii. Mistress Nielaa could have really injured us.” Another girl, this time named Ovelai, jumped to her friend’s defence.
“You were not even in proximity of Mistress Nielaa, and I will not hear you condemn her for trying to learn just as you are.” Eldwin could now feel his own patience being tested, and he was hoping that Eirene’s was also holding on. But it was already too late.
She had tried and tried to keep it all in, but the jeering and the accusations were too much to bear. For Eirene, the words from the girls and the silent stares of the boys told her everything she needed to know. She wasn’t wanted there. She knew that her temper had gotten the better of her one too many times to warrant it being excused. The fury that coursed inside her was fuelled not only by the way those girls had hurt her, but also by how Eirene, so strongly and so vehemently, hated herself for being so different, for not being able to control herself and simply just fit in.
“Why must Mistress Nielaa always be excused? I suppose it pays to be the daughter of a favourite -”
Before Annexa could finish her sentence, a bright light burst from Eirene’s hands and surged past Eldwin quickly. Slightly stupified by the brightness that had blurred his vision, Eldwin heard the children screaming, with Annexa’s being the loudest of all. He rubbed his eyes and was horrified to see that Annexa’s robes had been set alight; the poor girl started jumping on her feet, desperately waving her arms and legs in an attempt to put out the falmes.
Using his many years of practice and as quick a reflex he could muster, Eldwin conjured up a ball of water and launched it at Annexa, drenching her. Slightly hysterical, she collapsed to the ground sobbing, while her friends tried to comfort her. The rest of the class shifted on their feet, not quite believing what they had just seen: Eirene Nielaa had just set another girl’s robes on fire.
Looking around frantically for Eirene, Eldwin only just spotted her running away up the hill, her green robes glinting brilliantly as she took off, like a wild horse with mane and tail afloat on the wind.
“Eirene!” He roared after her.
Eirene couldn’t stop, she would not stop. Her heart was hammering inside her chest and every emotion she could ever feel was squeezing it so tightly she thought she might faint. She had not meant to cause Annexa harm, no matter how annoying and hurtful she had been. But yet again, her anger had bested her. Even worse, Eldwin would be so, so furious with her now, and it was he who she was trying to impress.
She didn’t know how long she had ran for, or how she had managed to do so, but she finally stopped at the Miha Airea, the sacred shrine of the Isles of Astrum. It was a marble fountain made in the image of the beloved Healer, her robes covering her face. The fountain was then enshrined with a roof above and twelve columns holding the roof aloft.
Collapsing to her knees in front of it, Eirene let her emotions free and sobbed piteously before the Healer. Why couldn’t she control herself? Why couldn’t things just go right for one day?
Then she heard footsteps not far from the shrine and ceased her crying immediately, embarrassed that someone had caught her in such a state. The footsteps reached the shrine and from around the corner, Ynys, of all people, appeared. Eirene sniffed and look warily at the boy.
“You conjured a great fireball, I thought.” Ynys blurted out, shifting on his feet awkwardly.
Eirene stared at him in disbelief. “I suppose it is easy to admire such magic so long as it is not aimed at you.”
“True, but it was only Annexa who provoked you. She does not speak for every one in our class.”
“Not you, at the very least.” Eirene wiped her eyes bitterly, trying to stave the few tears that kept escaping. “But I did prove her right with my temper today.”
“I should think Annexa could be proved right about anyone’s temper, with that mouth of hers.” Ynys grinned, albeit shyly.
“So you do not think I am…strange, or dangerous?” Eirene looked up at Ynys properly, surprised that he was still talking to her.
“Who dictates what is strange and dangerous?” Ynys asked, finally gathering the confidence to sit in front of Eirene. “I happen to admire you. You are bold in what you do, and you do not act like the other girls, who can be so…devious.”
“Oh.” Eirene blushed a little, looking to the ground.
“I think you have been in need of a friend for a little while. You do not tend to mix in with the rest as readily.” Ynys said. Eirene looked back at him and saw in his gaze something rare that the other children did not often bestow on her: compassion.
“Neither do you, I have seen. You are not so confident, I warrant.” She said carefully, wary that she had already upset many of the pupils in her class today. She did not want to scare away another, not when he was being so kind. But Ynys smiled.
“No, not much. But maybe together that day may come for both us, where we can be kinder to ourselves. I warrant I could learn many things from you.”
Finally, Eirene smiled a little. “I think you flatter me much, and there is no need. I would willingly seek a friend in you.”
“Good.” Ynys then looked to distance where he and Eirene had left their class. “But for now, maybe we should return.”
“Yes, we should.” Eirene’s heart sank once more, thinking Eldwin.
Ynys saw Eirene’s expression drop and very shyly, he put a hand on her shoulder to comfort her. “Master Ritvii may take kinder to your actions if you return to him now, and with an apology.”
“Maybe.” Feeling a little better from Ynys’s company, Eirene gathered the energy to rise to her feet. “Let us go.”
The two children walked back together quietly, dreading what Eldwin would say or do when they returned.
Eldwin rubbed his forehead as he approached Maridi, who was sat her quarters reading. When she looked up and saw his face, she frowned.
“Where is she?” Maridi asked quietly.
“I do not know. She ran off.”
“What did she do?”
Sighing, Eldwin took a seat next to her. “She set another student’s robes on fire.”
Groaning, Maridi put her face in her hands. Eldwin went to reach over to touch her hand, got within in hair width of doing so, before retracting his hand to where it came from.
“I do not think she meant to lose control today.” He murmured, wondering desperately whether he could have intervened sooner to get Eirene away from Annexa.
“I would like to believe most of the time that she does not mean to lose control.” Maridi replied, raising her head from her hands. “But to do that to another pupil…she must have meant it somehow. It is…vindictive, in a way.”
“I am not sure that one of the girls fuelling such a fire helped either. They were quite mean spirited to her, in kind.”
“So you think she is being singled out?” Maridi’s eyes narrowed.
“I think her temper gives a reputation that precedes her, but up until today, I have had no indication that the children made mind of it otherwise. If anything, the fireball she conjured seemed to inspire more awe than fear.”
A faint smile relieving her stressed expression a little, Maridi murmured, “I used to be a proficient conjurer.”
“You still are.” Eldwin replied softly, finally giving in and taking her hand. A moment of silence passed as his hand held hers warm and firm. Then Maridi gently released herself from his grip, leaving Eldwin’s hanging in the air.
“I do not know what to do. I never so much as dared to have a temper, for my own mother would have whipped me into nighs coming.” She sighed as she resumed her writings.
“Eirene has always been different, we both know that. Her spirit would be admired if it were tempered properly.”
“Then maybe she should not pursue the path of a priestess.”
Eldwin looked at Maridi in shock.
“After all the training we have been giving her? And her talent - where could she apply it elsewhere? She is only a little girl still. There is time.” He tried to reason. Maridi continued her writings.
“A little girl she may be, and little girls will no doubt change as life gets its claws into her as she grows. But like the ocean, she will just squeeze herself into place, I feel.” She finally confessed what she had sensed for a couple of years now. “I want her to be able to choose.”
Seeing the truth in the matter, Eldwin relented with reluctance to further any attempts to change Maridi’s mind. It was true. If Eirene continued to be as spirited as she was, then she would maybe continue life still frustrated as she is now. At least the other pupils of the Easter Mariskh had chosen to pursue the paths of priesthood; Eirene had been all but destined to since her birth. Everyone had expected her to be just like her mother. But now it would seem a little girl must be allowed to forge her own path, lest the consequences grew more severe until the adults finally saw reason, and then, Eldwin foresaw, it would be too late by then. It was maybe for the best
“Then let us find her and reason with her. She should have the choice.” Eldwin concluded, rising to his feet. Surprised but happy nonetheless that they were in agreement, Maridi rose from her seat and walked with him out of her quarters The pair walked closely side by side towards the grand hall and soon stopped by Eldwin’s Second High Priestess, Jhamy. She was a middle aged woman who served as the chief healer of the Eistr Mariskh; no wound or disease was untreatable by her years of experience. Although she was a stout little woman, she was not to be trifled with, and when she approached with a stern brow, Eldwin dreaded to hear what she might have to say, for her words were often unbridled and to the point.
“My High Priest Ritvii, Lady Nielaa.” She greeted, dipping into a little curtsey that just spared her creaky old knees. “Did you request for the grand hall floors to be polished?”
“No, my Lady Giolha, I did not.” Eldwin replied, his eyebrows furrowing.
“Oh - I see. I thought that maybe it had been you who had made such a request, as Mistress Nielaa has done a fine job of it.” Jhamy said airily, her eyes twinkling a little. “One ought to be proud that such a young thing knows her duty.”
Curtseying her farewell, Jhamy swept past the puzzled pair, hiding a smile, and went to tend to that devious little Annexa. No doubt that the spiteful girl got poor Eirene into trouble, Jhamy thought. She, like many across the temple, was very familiar with Eirene’s somewhat untamed ways. But unlike the many, Jhamy was not interested in stifling that spirit. After many years healing the sick and assisting in the teaching of potential priests and priestesses, it was good to see a child presenting a challenge to the norm.
For another matter, Jhamy was quite sick and tired of the way young girls could be so cruel to one another. At the very least the boys sorted their differences so openly with their fists. Jhamy was more than convinced that a girl like Annexa, talented as she may be in her own right, was jealous of Eirene, pretty little Eirene who was like a little shining gem amongst the pennies, and that Eirene’s mistake today was a good excuse to express that jealousy, but in the most underhanded way possible. It was all too familiar to Jhamy in her years of teaching; it was easy to see why Eldwin would have missed it. Men would never understand the nastiness of women.
Meanwhile, Maridi sped up her walking to the grand hall, with Eldwin following closely behind. When they walked through the doors, they saw Eirene before the great statue of the beloved healer, on her knees and indeed polishing the floors with great effort. Maridi went to go forward but Eldwin held her back and shook his head. Then he went forward, leaving Maridi to wait near the doorway.
As he approached, Eirene stopped her work but did not look up at him. “Master Ritvii.” She mumbled, her voice unusually quiet.
Eldwin sank to his own knees and then used his hand to pull up her chin so that he saw her face. Her eyes were slightly red around the rims and her mouth was downturned sorrowfully.
“You greatly worried me, Eirene.” He said gently, unable to be angry with her. He had no doubt that she was sorry, that she hadn’t meant for things to transpire this way. “Where did you go?”
“To the Miha Airea.” Eirene whispered, trying to stem the tears beginning to brim in her eyes. She didn’t want to cry anymore.
“And then you came back here?” Eldwin asked.
“Why have you chosen to clean the floors?”
Eirene hesitated a little, gulping a lump in her throat. Then she answered, “You said the key to conjuration is concentration.”
Tilting his head a little to the side, Eldwin prompted her to continue.
“When my temper is lost, I am not concentrating. I am lost in this great fog and I cannot find my way out. To conjure that fireball, I imagined it so deeply that it happened. I want to learn to use this concentration somehow, so that when I feel the anger, I can focus on something else that will make the fog disappear. I want to learn to be better.”
Silenced and awed by her insightfulness, Eldwin took her hands with one of his own and used the other to motion for Maridi to come forward. Maridi, who had watched the exchange in perfect silence, was smiling as she came forward and knelt down on the floor next to Eldwin.
“My girl.” She murmured to Eirene, tucking a curl of hair away on her daughter’s head. “What you have done is a serious offence. But returned and have reconciled your wrong doings. For that, I am pleased with you.”
Embarrassed and still trying to stave her tears, Eirene looked away, but allowed Eldwin to still hold her there.
“Your mother speaks the truth, sweet one. It is reasonable to make mistakes if you are going to learn from them, and I believe you have made the first step today.” Eldwin reasoned gently still, trying to get Eirene to look at him again. He hated more than anything when she would shut everything out. She should be allowed to be vulnerable before him and her mother, to let people see she needed help.
For her part, Eirene calmed herself down and said in the most measured voice she could manage, “So you will not stop my lessons and send me away? You will let me continue to become a priestess?”
“Of course you may, Eirene, but only if you wish it.” Maridi replied, aghast to hear that Eirene would ever think that she, her mother, would ever let her go from her, and in such a way.
“And why would I not wish to become a priestess?”
“Your mother and I feel that maybe we have…pushed you onto a path that you may not have wished for, had you been given the choice.” Eldwin explained. When Eirene brought her gaze back to him, he saw the same familiar expression on her face whenever she was posed with a challenge: resilience.
“But if I were to stop now, that would be giving up a path I do not know if I can achieve yet. What would be the point, when there is still much to learn?”
Maridi and Eldwin looked to each other simultaneously and smiled at each other, then they returned their gazes to Eirene’s steely one.
“I suppose we should be grateful that you do not let sufferings of any kind overcome you.” Maridi spoke ruefully, with Eldwin nodding in agreement. “If that is what you truly wish, Eirene, then we will let you continue your studies. But you must be prepared for your lessons to get more difficult and thus, your frustrations to get even greater. Not everything is meant to be learnt first time, not the least you controlling your temper. You must be patient, not just with yourself, but with your fellow pupils and your teachers. They do not deserve to be treated unkindly by your outbursts.”
“I understand, Mama. I will use as much concentration as I can to overcome my temper. And thank you, my High Priest Eldwin, being so forgiving.” Eirene replied both sincerely and humbly. She picked up her cloth and stood to her feet. “Is Annexa with High Priestess Giolha?”
“I believe so.” Eldwin confirmed.
“Then I will go to her. Mama, High Priest Eldwin.” Eirene curtseyed and then gathered her skirts, making haste towards the doorway of the grand hall, eager to set things right.
Blowing out a sigh, Maridi placed herself in front of the statue of the Healer and bowed forward, kissing the floor, murmuring prayers of thanks. Eldwin continued to stare into the space where Eirene had polished the floor. She had done so until the floor was like a mirror. It was fine work, indeed, he thought. Joining Maridi’s side, he also bent forward and kissed the floor, whispering, “Thank you, beloved Healer. Please continue to watch over my sweet one. Help her on her journey.”
The candle light flickered as a light breeze came through the doors of the grand hall and a strange feeling overcame Eldwin, a calm and serene that assured him, somehow, that Eirene was on the right path to achieve great things. But still, the question nagged him since Maridi had asked it of him: was she meant to be a priestess?