In Kristin Janz’s “Brother’s Keeper” we meet Aleine who can’t stand her annoying younger brother Imry. The problem with Imry is that he never gets in trouble for anything. Plus he was born with the ability to do magic, an ability Aleine desperately wishes she had. But now Imry is in danger, and Aleine is the only one who has any chance of rescuing him in time.
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Free Extract from “Brother’s Keeper” by Kristin Janz
Aleine knew better than to be hanging around the ruins outside town when she was supposed to be gathering herbs. But she was desperate to make this magic work, just once.
“I feel the twigs like I feel my own fingers,” she murmured, glancing around to be sure she was alone, that no one was watching her make a fool of herself. “I feel the heat in the twigs, straining to be set free.”
She stared at the handful of snap-dry twigs she had arranged in a rough pyramid on the ground in front of her. Saying something didn’t make it so.
She glanced at the sun, which was getting closer to the tops of the trees west of the meadow. She’d be in trouble if Mama thought she’d wasted the afternoon dawdling instead of picking herbs for the next batch of mead. At least her baskets were full.
Aleine scrambled to her feet, shaking out her rough woolen skirts and brushing dirt off her backside. She reached for the nearest basket, packed with feathery green heather sprigs, keeping an eye on the mound of dry sticks just in case it did decide to catch on fire after all.
Without warning, the whole pile of twigs rose knee high in the air and started spinning.
Aleine’s heart pounded. Had she done that somehow? They weren’t burning as she had intended, but something was happening.
The twigs spun faster and faster, not one falling out of place. Aleine reached a hand out to touch them. But as she reached, she thought she heard a sound in the ruins behind her, a faint scraping sound, like that of a hand or a garment brushing against one of the old half walls.
She spun around so quickly that her foot caught the edge of one of her baskets and she almost fell. But when she saw who it was, fear gave way to anger.
“Stop that right now!” she snapped. “I’ll tell Papa.”
Imry, her younger brother—her younger half-brother—grinned at her. He sidled out from around the corner of the old raised platform at the edge of the ancient ruins, stepping carefully to avoid stones that had crumbled down from the end. “I was just trying to help,” he said.
Although only ten, and four years younger than Aleine, Imry was already as tall as she was. He looked nothing like the rest of their family, with his black hair and sharp features: pointed chin, pointed nose, arched eyebrows and hairline—even the tips of his small ears were pointed.
“You were just trying to show off,” Aleine said. “You’re always showing off.” Imry didn’t even care that he could move things around by willing them from one place to another, that he could start a fire by wishing a pile of twigs to burn. And he was always rubbing Aleine’s nose in the fact that she couldn’t. At least he was whenever Mama and Papa weren’t around; they disapproved of magic and punished him if they caught him playing with it.
“All right,” Imry said, coming to join her. “You don’t have to be so mad. Look, I’ll stop—” and the lump of spinning twigs suddenly flew apart, shooting in every direction like tiny darts.
“Ow!” Aleine yelled, as twigs struck her hand and the side of her neck. “Imry, you brat!” She swung at his head with the back of her hand. But he ducked, and the side of her hand hit the wall behind him.
“Oops,” Imry said, still grinning. He inched away along the wall, keeping an eye on the hand Aleine was nursing. “Are you okay?”
“You don’t care if I’m okay,” Aleine said. “You little freak.”
“I’m not a freak!” Imry said.
“Yes, you are! You’re a freak just like your mother. I wish she’d kept you.”
Imry opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Aleine said, “If I were Mama, I wouldn’t have let Papa bring you home.” Now that she had started she couldn’t seem to hold back the cruel words, even though every new thing she said made her feel worse, not better. “We were better off without you.” Imry didn’t move, just stared at her with his weird gray eyes. “Get away from me!” she shrieked, snatching up one of her baskets and brandishing it as if she intended to swing it at his head.
Imry finally held up his hands. “All right, I’m going!” He backed away, watching to make sure she lowered the basket.
When he got to the footpath that led back to town, he said, just before turning around, “It’s not my fault you can’t do any magic.”
“Shut up!” Aleine screamed. She threw the basket as hard as she could. But Imry was already running down the path, and the basket landed far short of where he’d been standing.
I’m such an idiot, Aleine thought, as she retrieved the basket and stooped to gather all the heather that had fallen out of it. But somehow, knowing that didn’t make her any less angry. She seemed to be angry all the time lately, for some reason, and Imry was only a small part of that.
A small but significant part. Imry was the perfect son, so perfect it was disgusting. Imry never lost his temper over silly things. Imry never talked back to Mama and Papa (only to Aleine, and only when they were alone). Imry didn’t have to be asked to help out with housework, or brewing, or with the bees. He was always looking for ways to make himself useful. And that was without the magic. Besides Imry, only two people in their town could do any kind of magic, two out of three hundred. Both those people lived as well as anyone in town, even though their families were not wealthy; but more importantly, their magic connected them to a time when everything wasn’t in ruins, when elves lived openly among humans, when there were libraries and railroads and universities. Magic wasn’t something you could learn if you weren’t born with it, but even so, not a day went by that Aleine didn’t try to move something with only her thoughts, or start a small fire, or open a locked door, just in case the power was latent inside her and she’d never figured out the spark that would bring it to life. Imry? He could do magic without any effort at all, had been able to since he was a small boy, and he didn’t even seem to care. It didn’t even seem to bother him that he wasn’t allowed to tell people outside their family that he had the ability; apparently he had no magical ambitions beyond teasing Aleine. He was lucky she didn’t tell on him more often.
Feathery sprigs of heather had fallen everywhere. Aleine tried to dust off those that had landed on the path before replacing them in the basket. Mama would probably complain, even so. “What did you do, Aleine, gather herbs with one foot on the road?” What was she supposed to do, walk for miles every day, off where there weren’t any roads, just to find heather and yarrow and sweet briar without the smallest speck of dirt, so Mama didn’t have to trouble her fat, lazy self to wash them? What if she got raped and left for dead by bandits? Would anyone even care?
“Let me help with you that,” a man’s voice said, just behind her.
Aleine screamed. Her basket went flying again.
“Easy,” the man said.
Aleine stared at him. She had never seen him before. But he looked a lot like Imry. Like an elf.
“You don’t need to do that,” Aleine said, as the man bent over and started picking up the heather sprigs that had spilled for the second time. “My father’s around here somewhere. He’ll help when he gets back.”
The man raised his head and gave her a knowing smile. “I don’t think you need to be afraid of me in that way.” His eyes were like Imry’s, gray without any hint of blue or green, gray like newly hammered steel.
“I’m not afraid of you at all,” Aleine said. But that wasn’t true. The ruins here were just out of sight of the wooden stake fence that surrounded the town, and just out of earshot, too.
The man righted the basket and arranged the sprigs he’d picked up on top of the others. His fingers were long and delicate, like a woman’s. In fact, his face had a softness about it that made Aleine wonder if she was correct about him being male. Even his voice was high, for a man’s.
“There’s an inn in town,” Aleine said. “If you’re looking for a place to stay.”
“I’m not,” the man—if he was a man—said. He straightened to his full height again. He was taller than Papa, but not as tall as the innkeeper and a couple of the other men in town. “I believe you have a younger brother.”
“Yeah?” Aleine said, louder than she’d intended. “So what?” The man looked like Imry, and Aleine knew that her family had come here nine years ago, leaving their first home, so that Imry’s mother’s people wouldn’t find him and steal him away.
“He’s different from you, isn’t he?” the man said. “I’m sure you’ve noticed.”
“Everyone’s noticed.” The words slipped out of Aleine’s mouth. They sounded more bitter than she’d meant them to.
“I know what it’s like to be different,” the man said. “Maybe your brother would like to talk with me.”
“Maybe he wouldn’t,” Aleine said.
The man grinned. His teeth were as white as snow, with no gaps between them. “Maybe you could convince him.”
“Maybe,” Aleine said. “If I wanted to.”
In the silence that followed, a distant dog barked. It reminded Aleine that they were in human territory now, and that if anyone from town came by, the man would be the one in danger. He wasn’t a small boy with a human family to vouch for him.
“I can’t stay here much longer,” the man said. “Why don’t you tell me what might convince you to bring your brother out to meet with me?”
Aleine knew she shouldn’t be talking to this man at all, and that she certainly shouldn’t be talking to him about Imry and how he was different. She didn’t believe for one moment that the only thing the man wanted was to talk with Imry. But she’d never seen an adult with elf blood. What if he was old enough to remember the old days, before the war?
“There’s silver,” the man said. “Here…” And he started to untie a cloth pouch that hung from a strap across his chest.
“I don’t want silver,” Aleine said. “I want to see where the elves live.”
The man’s fingers paused. He tilted his head to look at her.
“You’re not very loyal to your own kind, are you?” he said.
“The war’s been over for a hundred years,” Aleine said. “No one cares about that anymore.”
“The fighting ended eighty-nine years ago,” the man said. “As far as the elves are concerned, the war never ended.” He gave a flick of his head towards the ruins. “From the look of things here, you people think Arcadia never ended and the dwarves are going to come back any day now and rebuild the railroad.”
“We don’t think that,” Aleine said, unwilling to ask what the ruins had to do with railroads, or dwarves. It was true that no one was supposed to take stones away from the ruins, but no one tried to maintain the old buildings either, so every year they subsided a little deeper into the meadow.
“It’s two weeks or more to the nearest elvish city,” the man said, “and you’d be killed on sight if you got within three days of the border. But I can give you something from there. Bracelets, earrings, combs for your hair—”
“Those aren’t what I want,” Aleine said.
The man regarded her for a moment. Then he said, “If your brother’s anything like I was at that age, he’ll want to know about his elvish half. I know I did. You probably won’t have to do any convincing. All you have to do is tell him I’m here looking for him.”
“I’ll think about it,” Aleine said.
The man grinned. When he smiled, he looked even more like Imry. “Think hard.” He dropped something on the path between them, and Aleine heard a metallic clink as it bounced off a stone. “A token for you, either way.”
Aleine didn’t dare move to pick it up until the man was almost out of sight, on the path that led towards the forest. It was a round silver coin, as big around as the tip of her thumb, with such tiny writing around the edges that she had to squint to establish that the unfamiliar symbols were supposed to be words and not just decoration. But the face in profile on one side of the coin had ears as pointed as Imry’s.
END OF FREE EXTRACT