Come Hell or High Water

Author: Erika Rowlee

The streets of the mid-day marketplace were clogged up, jam packed with vendors and guild members and those purchasing from them. Inawynn had been surrounded with such crowds for as long as she could remember, and learned early on the ducking and dodging, bobbing and weaving – the dance of such places. The motions of travelers from the valley stuck out from the rest of the crowd’s choreography, like a person with two left feet or even a child who was just learning to walk. Watching those entertainers always gave the younger moon elf a smile, maybe even a small chuckle if she indulged herself, clutching the bag that held her flute tightly to her side.

Stepping her way up the street, her blue eyes lighted upon one such stranger, a small human girl. The child of about ten was standing in the middle of the street, gazing around her in awe as business men bustled around her, completely ignorant of the evil eyes that a few were casting her way.

The elf could not help but appreciate the fascination with the market; it felt as if the initial excitement of the place had worn away for herself as she had “grown up” and time went on, but she could see the sparks it ignited in others.

Inawynn stopped in front of the child and waved her hand in front of the girl’s vision. “Hello? Are you in there?”

The girl started before looking up her with big brown eyes that twinkled like stars. “Oh, hiya!” A beaming smile matched the brightness of her eyes. “I just was lookin’ around. There’s sooo much to see!”

Inawynn smiled slightly, but laid a firm hand on the girl’s arm. “Let’s look at it from a safer angle, shall we? People do not look around as closely as you.”

The girl slowly seemed to be coming back to reality from wherever her mind had wandered. “Oh, yeah! Thanks, lady.”

They weaved through the crowd to the side of a fruit vendor, a small oasis from all the strong tide of the everyday masses rushing back and forth. “What is your name?”

The girl glanced away from the sea of people and smiled again. “I’m Valrora!” After a moment’s pause, she added, “Who’re you?”

The elf leaned down a little and bent her knees so their faces were on a closer level. “I am Inawynn. Are you from nearby?”

Valrora’s eyes widened. “Nah, I was travelin’ with my brother Elor, but I dunno where he went off ta…”

The girl’s expression was growing more overcast, and Inawynn felt the urge to bring back that initial bright-eyed smile. “Let me help you find him. Do you know where he was going?”

Valrora tilted her head, causing some strands of her brown hair to fall into her face. “Um… he wanted ta look at the books.” She nodded to herself thoughtfully before breaking into another grin. “Yup. He really wanted ta read up on magic ta learn how ta do it.” She thrust her hands forward as if she could part the sea of people with just her mind.

A few of the passersby jumped back from her, and Inawynn chuckled nervously as she caught a few more stares from people around her. “Let’s not do that, Valrora. People might believe that you intend to harm them.”

Valrora’s eyebrows rose incredulously. “Are ya serious?” She broke into giggles, almost snorting at the thought.

More people shot glances their way as they surged past, and Inawynn nervously tucked a strand of silvery hair behind her ear. “Yes, I am.”

The sternness in the elf’s voice made the child pause. “Ah, okay then.”

Inawynn stood up and gazed at the sea of people. “If what you told me is correct, then your brother must be at the university library.” She shifted her gaze back to Valrora. “Did he not notice you had been left behind?”

Valrora stared down at the ground and shrugged. “I dunno. Probably not. He gets super focused and forgets about other stuff.” She started to trace a crack in the stone ground with her foot. “It’s my fault I got lost. I get too distracted too easy.”

Inawynn paused for a moment, then put her hand on the girl’s shoulder. “It is all right,” she comforted. “I do as well.”

Those bright eyes beamed back at her. “Really?” The smile was back.

“Really.” Inawynn glanced briefly at the crowd before looking back to Valrora. “I was just on my way to the library. Let me show you the way.”

“Aw, thank you!” Valrora rushed forward and threw her arms around Inawynn in a tight hug. “I promise I’m gonna pay attention this time. Promise.”

Valrora pulled away less than a second later, all smiles, but Inawynn was pleasantly taken back. After a moment, she nodded. “Stay close. Hold onto my hand.”

Inawynn felt Valrora’s hand settle firmly in her own, and a moment later they had rejoined the sea of people. They followed the current until Inawynn pulled them out onto a side road where the flow was not as fast paced.

After a bit of walking, the spires of the University buildings towered them.

Valrora stared at the architecture, taking it all, and Inawynn had to slow her pace as to not drag her. The elf took in Valrora’s enamored expression and smiled softly to herself. “Do you like this place?” she asked, already knowing the answer she would receive.

“It’s amazing!” the girl exploded, sweeping her arms around, tracing the outlines of the structures with her index finger. “It looks like right outta a picture book. It’s like magic!”

“That’s what we learn here – magic,” Inawynn explained, gazing over as a group of classmates walked past laden with books. She smiled at them, but they merely glanced at her and kept walking.

The smile faded, and Inawynn looked down at the path ahead. “Who’re they?”

Inawynn glanced at Valrora. “Who do you mean?”

The girl jerked her head to where the other students had disappeared behind them. “Them. Those guys.”

Inawynn focused on the stone pathway, feet landing effortlessly on each stone, never touching the cracks they formed when they come together. It was childish, as she was constantly told, but it was one of a few rules that made sense to her even though there was no real reason behind it. It was just one of the personal rules she abided by. “They are other people who go to this university. We are in a class together.”

“Ah.” Valrora watched Inawynn for a moment before looking up at the towers. “Well, they should more. They’d be nicer that way.”

Inawynn nodded, smiling as she led the girl around a corner toward a large, decorated building. “That is true,” she agreed. “Very true.”

*   *   *

           As they stepped through the archway into the main floor, Inawynn watched Valrora’s eyes widen as round as dinner plates. She laughed quietly as the girl wandered in, eyes roaming the shelves, surveying the different blue and burgundy and golden spines. Inawynn followed her as she went up and down the shelves, examining the books in wonder. For a moment, the elf was lost in time, vicariously experiencing that same amazement she had when she first seen the library back when her brother first introduced her to the many shelves. She had learned basic reading skills from a personal tutor, but she expanded those skills in her free time using books one of her older brothers brought her when he was first enrolled in the university. It was easier subjects in the beginning, of course – myths and legends and the like – but then she got into more complicated materials. She loved those subjects that were solid facts, like the history of Astine and how to summon a dracolith. Poems and politics were harder to get into, but she could read them if she had to; and because of her family’s status, she found that she was in that position quite a bit. She had dreamed of going to the university for the longest time – to get out in the world – but it was not exactly what she had imagined. The world was much more focused on faces than facts, and that view dulled Inawynn’s own vision.

“Valrora, do you see your brother?” She didn’t want to splash the girl back into the cold water of reality, but Inawynn did have a class that required a bit of research.

Valrora stood up from where was kneeling to examine some storybooks and swiveled her head around. “I don’t… nah.” She shrugged, undeterred. “I’ll find him though. It’s okay. Watch me.”

Valrora marched around the bookshelves, and Inawynn followed her until the girl stopped at the librarian’s desk. The librarian, a younger human with wavy dark brown hair, looked over the counter, blinking her hazel eyes. “Can I help you?” she asked in a soft voice, fingering a silver-tear shaped gem that hung around her neck on a silver chain.

Confidently, Valrora stood on her tiptoes, arms folded on the counter to help her peek over the edge. “Hello, Miss, uh…”

The librarian smiled politely. “Aurora.”

“Miss Aurora! Well, I’m lookin’ for my brother, and I think he’s here. Do ya know where he is?”

“Is he older than you?” Aurora asked patiently.

“Yeah!”

“What does he look like?”

“Oh, um,” Valrora paused, lowering herself back to her normal standing position then raising an arm above her head. “He’s about this tall, and he’s got hair like me.”

Even though the girl couldn’t see, Aurora nodded, the faintest of smiles in the corners of her lips. “There are quite a few people who come here that can be described like that.”

Valrora seemed at a loss for what to say, so Inawynn spoke in her stead. “He is interested in books on beginner magic.”

Valrora gave her a beaming smile. “Yeah, that’s true too.”

Aurora frowned almost imperceptibly. “And who are you?”

She didn’t want to give her full name in front of the girl, even though she wasn’t sure if she’d recognize it. “I am the one that is trying to help Valrora find her brother.”

Something about Inawynn’s tone must’ve sparked some recognition in Aurora. The elf saw the brief expression change in the librarian’s facial features – something unreadable – before the calm air about her returned. “A new patron came by asking to look at books that contained information about healing magic.”

“Yup! That’s him!” Valrora exclaimed, breaking out into another huge smile and bouncing up and down.

Inawynn glanced around, flinching inwardly as patrons looked up from their books and glared in their direction. Their stares didn’t bother her as much as they normally would. Healing magic? That was very difficult to learn, one of the subjects that many attempted to master but few could truly master. Inawynn herself was curious and tried consulting her professors on the subject, but had been unable to learn anything more than magic that calmed the mind through her music.

Aurora put a finger to her lips, and Valrora toned down her energy, resigning to standing against the counter on her tiptoes again. The librarian smiled. “Thank you,” she told the girl before turning her eyes back to Inawynn. “You know where he would be, correct? He should still be there.”

The elf smiled politely. “Thank you for the help.”

Aurora nodded. “You are welcome. Come back to me if you need any more help.”

Valrora bounded back over to Inawynn. “Will do! Thanks!” She grabbed Inawynn’s hand and gave it a tug. “C’mon, let’s go!”

Inawynn sighed, leaning towards her. “We are going, we are going. Just remember, this is a library, so we need to remain calm and quiet. Can you do that?”

Valrora vigorously nodded her head.

“Very well. Follow me.” Inawynn adjusted the girl’s hand in hers before navigating the stacks much like they had weaved in and around the market on their way here. Books were more steadfast and stationary than people, and it was much easier to wind their way to northeastern corner of the library.

Inawynn peered through the aisles of magical commentaries. There weren’t very many people in library on the weekends, and the spaces between bookshelves were almost completely empty save for one man, looking about twenty, around Inawynn’s age, frantically skimming through a pile of books that he pulled off the shelves and scattered on the ground around him. Some pages were bent where they had been haphazardly strewn around the floor, and Inawynn immediately stooped the pick them up and straighten them out.

“Elor!” Valrora ran up to him and gave him a big hug.

Elor immediately flinched away from the sudden physical contact. “What the –“ He dropped his book, and Inawynn cringed as it landed face down. “Valrora! Where have you been?”

Valrora’s grin was a little lopsided. “Well, the streets were so beautiful and I looked around but then when I looked back-“

Elor frowned. “What have we always said you about not focusin’?” His voice was stern, harsh in the quiet air of the library. “What did Mama tell you about this? ‘Specially since we came up here?”

Valrora’s joy seemed like it had been sucked out of her. “I’m really sorry – honest, I am.”

Elor shook his head, like this answer was never going to satisfy him.

That expression stabbed into Inawynn’s heart, and she stood up quickly, books in hand. “You are her older brother, are you not? You should be the one to look out for her instead of leaving her alone on the streets while you mistreat these books!”

Her quiet library voice rose to a normal speaking tone. Elor shifted his gaze to her, while Valrora looked down at her feet. “And who’re you?”

The scathing tone grated on her nerves. “I am Inawynn Nyrid of the noble Nyrid house, well versed enough to know that healing magic cannot be taught.” She typically didn’t throw her number around, but his treatment of books and his sister rubbed her the wrong way, and she wanted to see the look on his face.

He crossed his arms, glaring daggers at her. “So you’re some high up stuff, huh? Think you can come in here and tell common people like us what to do?” Elor grabbed his sister’s hand and began dragging her away from Inawynn. “C’mon, we’re leaving.”

Valrora stumbled after her brother, shooting an apologetic smile over her shoulder as they disappeared around the corner.

Inawynn stood there for a moment, processing the situation before silently putting the books back on the shelves.

After that, she attempted to accomplish her original goal in coming to the library. She found a book on the origins of musical magic, and even though she tried to focus on the words in front of her, Inawynn didn’t remember any of the words when she closed the book.

*   *   *

           The dining room table was laid with fine crystal wares that complimented the crystal chandelier that hung from the high ceiling. The table itself was made from rare wood from the Valley and covered in white linen. Servants bustled around, preparing for the Nyrid family dinner.

Roren watched his little sister sit down across the otherwise empty table from him as he laid his napkin on his lap. “What happened to you today? You seem rather out of sorts.”

Inawynn couldn’t resist rolling her eyes at her oldest brother. “Just an encounter at the library,” she told him. “It was nothing significant, but I cannot help but to think of it.”

He raised his eyebrows as a maid filled his glass with wine. “What happened?”

She avoided his gray eyes as she filled him in on the day’s events – finding Valrora in the marketplace, bringing her to the library, and confronting Elor about his awful behavior. When she finished, she looked up into Roren’s frowning face. “What’s the matter?”

“Remember what we all have told you about causing scenes?” He sighed, rubbing his face with his hands. “What if some important figure was in the library and heard you? So much more could have gone wrong than that man simply leaving with his sister. You must think of the bigger picture. You are the daughter of the Head of the Nyrid house; that is how people see you.”

Inawynn lowered her head. “I am sorry.” She stared at her empty plate for a few moments before speaking up again. “Would it have better if I let it be?”

“Let what be?”

“Elor. The brother. The situation. Would it have been better if I just let him continue to berate her there and went on my merry way?”

He pursed his lips. “You should not have gotten that involved in the first place. It was not your position to help that girl. You know how the political climate is with us aligning with the Dareks – what if it was a scheme by some other party to discover more information on the sudden shift? You could have been in danger.”

“I had my flute with me. I could have fought back!” She was glaring at him across the table at him. “I am not weak.”

He sighed again, shaking his head. “I did not say that you were,” he said carefully, “but right now, our sudden change in political alignment has left a lot of people with questions that we are unable to answer.”

“Will not answer,” Inawynn corrected.

“If we were to answer, we might as well have not aligned with them in the first place!” Roren’s yell stilled the servants as they stopped in stared, fear and concern on their faces.

The Dareks was a touchy subject in the family, Inawynn knew, but she couldn’t help but press all the forbidden buttons.

Roren took a deep breath, signaled to the servant to carry on with their work, and continued in his usual calmer voice. “I understand that this has been hard on you especially.”

She looked down at her reflection in the plate in front of her. “I am a Nyrid,” she said quietly, as she had repeatedly told herself over the past few days, “even if my father… whoever he is, is not.”

Roren nodded, glancing over the servants. “I know. It does not matter to me,” he told her, reaching across the table and placing his hand on hers, “but do not talk about this with others around.”

She looked up at him. “If it really does not matter to you, then why keep this hidden?”

His gaze hardened slightly. “Think of how the public would see Mother and you. The Nyrids would never have another chance in Legislative branch. We held the seat of High Lord from the beginning until Omaren Nyrid lost reelection to the Selannen house. Since then we have been fading into obscurity. We do not want stagnate at this level forever.”

“But the war outside our borders, these underhanded dealings-“

His hand tightened around hers. “-Are none of your concern,” he finished for her. “For now, we must focus on the big picture. Our family could ride the Dareks’ coattails to higher positions, and maybe once this whole mess is out of the way, one of the family can be elected to be the next High Lord – maybe even you.” He let go of her hand. “Think on that before you make any more of your rash decisions.”

Inawynn nodded. “I understand,” she told him. She heard the rest of her family arriving – mother, two other older brothers, Lukas and Varo. Her father missing, as usual, most likely at a meeting with other high-ranking officials. As they sat down, she once again stared at her glassy reflection in the crystal. She looked like a Nyrid with her pale skin and silver hair. She just couldn’t bring herself to think like her family, to see the big picture. Maybe she was just looking to closely, she decided as she sat back and waited for dinner to be brought out. Maybe she had to work on that.

*   *   *

           The library was just as quiet as it had been the day before. Inawynn walked in, the bag containing her flute swinging at her side. Despite all the drama that was going on with her family politics, she still needed to get this research for her professor.

She nodded to Aurora and walked through the history and lore shelves. The book wasn’t where she had placed it the day before, so she started searching around it. It wasn’t the sort of book that was popular, though people like her would of course be interested in it. Inawynn turned to look down the next aisle when she spotted a familiar face sitting in the stacks, reading some easy mythology books.

It only took a split second of ignoring her brother’s words to walk up to the girl. “Valrora! It is a pleasure to see you again.”

The girl glanced up at her. “Ay, Inawynn!” She glanced over her shoulder nervously. “I’m sorry, my brother told me not to talk to ya…”

“So did mine.”

Valrora’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re breakin’ rules too?” She grinned. “Then I guess it’s okay.”

Inawynn laughed quietly as she sat down next to the girl on the floor. “Why do you say that you are breaking rules?”

Valrora shrugged, closing the book in her lap. “Mama told me to do whatever my brother said when we came up here from the Valley.”

Inawynn nodded, letting that sink in, picking her next words carefully. “Tell me, Valrora… how are things between you and your brother?”

The girl shrugged again, looking down at the cover of the book in her hands. “He’s having a rough time,” she admitted, “but everyone is. I just want to make him feel better, ya know?”

Inawynn’s eyebrows knotted in confusion. “What do you mean?”

Valrora glanced over her shoulder before looking back at the elf. “Okay, I really shouldn’t be tellin’ ya, so promise ya won’t tell anyone?” She held out her hand, pinky extended.

Inawynn nodded, smiling and finishing the pinkie lock. “I promise.”

“Okay then.” Valrora leaned back into a more comfortable position before she began to speak. “So, basically, my family’s from the Valley. Mama runs an inn, and Dad travels all over sellin’ things. You get it?”

Inawynn nodded. “It sounds nice.”

“Yeah, it was pretty great.” She started to play with the pages absentmindedly. “Last year, Dad went missin’ on one of his trips up north. We thought he died, but he finally came back.” She stared down at her lap for a moment before she continued. “Apparently, the evil emperor and his men thought that Daddy was some sort of spy so they kept him for a while. Made him do stuff. Did stuff to him. He’s… not the same now.”

Inawynn felt her hands slowly going numb. This girl’s father had been hurt for no reason by horrible people. Her family now had to promote trading with those people, sending traders like Valrora’s father directly to them. Even though she wasn’t directly involved, her family was to help a side that would do terrible things like that to innocent people, and she couldn’t help but feel partly responsible.

“Mama sent us with him and some money to the city to get him help, you know-“ Valrora waved her fingers around.  “Like magic and stuff.”

Inawynn nodded slowly. She knew of healing magic and their different forms in the city – clergy and their godly magic, apothecaries and their potions, and the darker arts no one dared to mention. She had been to the clergy before when she was sick as a child and only learned later the hefty prices they charged in order to upkeep the temples. “It’s rather expensive.”

Valrora nodded solemnly. “Yeah, we didn’t expect that, and we don’t want to go back to Mama empty handed. She’s countin’ on us, ya know? So Elor wants to see if he can learn some spells of his own.” She shrugged again. “I know ya said it was a lost cause, but all we can do is hope, ya know?”

Inawynn’s hands were shaking, so she set them on her lap to hide the tremors. “Are you all right?” It was a simple question, but she didn’t know what else to say in the moment.

Again, the girl shrugged and smiled. “Dad and Elor have it harder. I’m just gonna keep being smiley so they don’t need to worry about me. It’s not much, but it’s the best I can do, ya know? If I can make a bit of difference, it’s worth it.” She begin picking at the spine of the book she was holding. “Little thing like this make ripples, and maybe one day they’ll be big enough to effect more than just my family, ya know?”

Slowly, Inawynn nodded. “I understand,” she told Valrora, and this time, those words weren’t a lie. “If I may, can I ask – what injuries did your father sustained?”

Valrora continued to pick at the leather of the book. Normally, Inawynn would’ve said something, but she barely even noticed it. “His cuts and bruises are all gone, but he’s not there, ya know? He’s either asleep and having nightmares, or awake like a hollow shell.” She shuddered before could hold it back. “I donno what he went through, but seeing him like that – it’s just scary, ya know?”

Unconsiously, Inawynn’s hand slipped into her bag and brushed against her flute. “Your father is in the city, correct? Where is he?”

She stared at me. “Why do ya want to know?”

“I think I may be able to help.” This was her chance to start her own ripples.

*   *   *

           Dear Roren,

           I am sorry for the trouble I have caused you and the rest of our family, especially for what I will do by the time you will have read this letter. I want to explain why I made the choice that I did so that maybe you can understand.

           I met the girl that I told you about – Valrora – in the library again, and she told me a little of why she came to town. Her father was a traveling merchant traveling through the north about Astine, where sometime last year, he was captured by the Emperor’s forces and was accused of being a spy. For months, he was tortured and forced into manual labor until he was finally let go. He wandered back to his family a broken man. I know – I saw him, lying there on his bed, racked with horrible nightmares that sucked out his will to live. Valrora showed me to him, and I played him a song of restoration. I watched his pulse slow, expression soften, sweat evaporate, leaving him in a peaceful sleep. Finally, it felt so satisfying to do something meaningful with my magic. Valrora was almost in tears – the happy kind, of course.

           Our family was supporting the people who put this family through such terrible times and I can’t help but feel it heavy on my conscience. I know that you would tell me that it is only one example and that I must focus on the big picture, but if I try to look at it, I cannot help but imagine how many more examples like them would be there to be seen. You tell me that one person cannot enact enough to change to make a difference, and now, I believe that you are wrong.

           An intelligent individual told me that one does not have to make waves immediately. People are tightly packed like drops of water in this high water I feel myself drowning in, but I am learning to swim. As I finally break the surface, ripples break away – good actions, maybe not so good, affecting the people in my immediate vicinity. Eventually, thoseripples may result in waves. I want to help create those waves, and I cannot here, where I am suffocated by bureaucracy.

           I love you, Mother, Father, Lukas, Varo, I care for you all more than you can know, and I hope you can realize that. This is just something that I need to do. One day I will return to you – I just do not know when.

           Love,

           Your Sister, Inawynn

There was so much more that she wished she could tell him, but the sun would be up soon, along with the staff.

Inawynn gave the letter a final read before sliding it under her brother’s door. There was no going back now.

She felt for her flute hanging at her side, the one bit of familiarity she would be bringing with her. She turned and walked down the stairs, listening to the drafts that moved through the house like river currents, pushing her towards the door.

Inawynn stood there for a moment, staring at the intricate engraving on the wooden doors, before finally pushing them wide open.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Come Hell or High Water

Comments are closed.